In 2008, I started my education career as an English teacher at a Christian school in Texas. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I coached cross country and track. At that time, I spent a lot of time running myself. Three kids and 12 years later, that personal pursuit doesn’t get as much attention. At a glance, though, I still look fit. But if you checked with my doctor, the picture on the inside may not look as healthy as the outside. I may look fit but not really be fit.
As I’ve assumed a new leadership role in recent months, I’ve thought a lot about this disconnect in terms of diversity. Our K3-12 campus is incredibly diverse and fairly representative of our greater metropolitan area. Seventy-six percent of our student body are students of color, made up largely of Black, Hispanic, and Asian American students, as well as international students from Southeast Asia. On the outside, we look diverse.
Lately, though, I’ve been asking myself if we have become diverse without truly being diverse. Diversity in demographics isn’t enough if all the students in the school don’t have the same opportunities. Do we possess the superficial markers of diversity without actually embracing and honoring that diversity? Have we built authentic community with all our students and families? Do all the people in the building have the same opportunities to share their voice, perspective, and experiences?
Though far from achieving our vision, we at Westbury have begun asking these challenging questions. We strive to collaboratively uncover answers and build solutions within our community. As one person involved with this process, I am definitely growing. Here are a few of my learnings so far:
- As leaders—not to mention brothers and sisters in Christ—it’s important to ask questions without making assumptions. One of my most startling revelations this past summer was the response of some of my Black colleagues when I asked them about their experiences at our school. Some had never been asked that question before. Their responses gave me the opportunity to learn firsthand about microaggressions and painful experiences. Reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries are all helpful, but nothing replaces listening to real people share their experiences in your organization.
Embracing diversity is hard and complex. This process requires a collaborative group to first acknowledge challenges then develop solutions that tap into the collective power of various experiences and perspectives. As leaders, it’s too tempting to come to conclusions and decisions on our own, but that’s not healthy for an organization. Are we listening to the right people? Are we seeking insight from families, alumni, students, and faculty, especially those coming from diverse backgrounds?
- We have to be okay with discomfort and humility. Most of the questions and initial conversations I’ve had this summer were not comfortable; they required a hard look at myself, my actions, my own thoughts, and a school that I love. Taking a critical look at our organizational intents, decisions, rules, and reasons is disconcerting, but it’s the starting point for genuine growth and progress. Our faith should compel us to dig into these issues, and our kindness can’t excuse us from honesty and action.
- Ultimately, we have to move beyond the cultural overlays. As a school, we have definitely underperformed in this area, largely due to our own lack of intentionality. Black History, Hispanic Heritage, Asian American History and Women’s History Month are great opportunities to share facts and information that often go unnoted in standard curriculums. These observances serve an important purpose in education, but they also risk embedding the in-out dichotomy of our history and appearing to project these experiences as somehow outside the “normal” American experience. At Westbury, we want to do better at honoring and recognizing the contributions of all backgrounds, but we also want to adjust and enrich our day-to-day curriculum to reflect the full tapestry of American experience and give an authentic voice to all groups throughout the year.
- Leadership development of the next generation is a matter of organizational survival. Organizations develop their own culture, behaviors, and methods of progress. Many times, biased systems have developed unintentionally. Not only do Christian schools need to work on recruiting a diverse faculty and staff that represents the student body they serve, but we must also work to develop the leadership potential already there. People of color are often underrepresented in leadership roles in our schools, and we have to intentionally address that problem. As our student body becomes increasingly diverse, a mosaic of leadership will help us build the best organization to deliver an essential mission.
As we at Westbury have prepared to launch our school year virtually and phase in a return to campus, it’s been easy to spend most of my time focused on educating in a pandemic. It’s the most immediate, pressing situation, but it’s ultimately a terminal problem. Addressing the challenges and benefits of diversity are far more long-lasting and significant. My campus is far from perfect in this endeavor and has a long way to go, but this priority is one of the most exciting and promising aspects to school leadership. We are creating a glimpse of the throne room of God—what could be better than that?
This article is part of a series on diversity in the Christian school.
Nathan Wagner has served 13 years in Christian education, currently as the Interim Head of School at Westbury Christian School in Houston, Texas. Prior to this role, he has been an English teacher, high school principal, and associate head of school. He enjoys helping others discover and honor God with their talents, as well as equipping students with the ability to navigate and lead in the world around them. The product of a Midwestern upbringing, Wagner doesn’t quite consider himself a Texan (no cowboy hat or boots yet), but he has enjoyed living in one of the most diverse cities in America. He likes asking questions, working on solutions, and processing the discomfort that comes with challenges. Wagner has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Houston Baptist University as well as an instructional leadership certification from Lamar University. Wagner lives in Houston with his wife and three children.