Why does the Upper School only have one black teacher?

The Editorial Board explores the context surrounding the Upper School’s lack of black faculty and the steps our Administration is taking to resolve this critical issue


It’s 2020, but only one black teacher sits on the Upper School faculty. For an institution that prides itself on diversity, this discrepancy is significant.

But Hackley’s administration is quite conscious of this problem and is working diligently to resolve it. Mr. Steven Bileca, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, said that “we are not where we want to be — we need a faculty that reflects our diverse student body.” 

All the administrators The Dial spoke to expressed a similar rationale behind this conviction — that there is hard research indicating that “learning environments are better for individual learners when more diversities are represented,” according to Mr. Bileca. Indeed, Middle School Director Cyndy Jean said, “you can’t be what you can’t see…students need to see themselves reflected and modeled.” 

Some classroom teachers share this rationale as well: history teacher Steele Sternberg added that “in a world with inherent microaggressions and insensitivities…everyone needs someone in their corner to process those [microaggressions and insensitivities].”

In explaining one possible reason for the lack of black teachers on Hackley’s faculty, Mr. Bileca shed light on how Hackley’s geographic location makes it more difficult to attract more diverse teaching candidates, as urban cities such as New York are inherently more racially diverse. But the Upper School’s low number of black teachers only tell part of the story, according to Ms. Jean, who is black. “If the numbers are behind, the numbers are behind…but exploring why that is is at the heart of [the discrepancy].”

It might be that a lack of black representation amongst current faculty makes it more difficult to attract black candidates — a lacking “critical infrastructure” in the status quo, as Mr. Sternberg put it. This infrastructure is currently being established within the leadership team, if not amongst the faculty, as Ms. Sheila Hicks-Rotella (recently hired as the new Director of Enrollment Management beginning with the 2020-2021 school year) will join Ms. Jean as the second black woman on the school’s leadership team. 

With that said, although the Upper School has employed some black teachers in the past, this teaching infrastructure no longer exists today. Ms. Jean, who explained that Hackley is not the exception to subpar racial diversity amongst faculty members, said also that there have been instances in which “we have made an offer and for a variety of reasons a faculty of color says, you know, ‘not quite what I was hoping for…during my time I only saw one person [of color] and I just don’t know if I see myself in that environment.’” 

Alarmingly, the underlying insight here is that the issue of attracting black candidates in the first place and the original issue relating to our overwhelmingly white faculty share the same solution: hire black faculty. Mr. Sternberg adequately metaphorized this attraction conundrum: “it’s like trying to get the car started when your battery is dead. The battery provides that first bit of electricity and then the engine can take over, but without the battery, the engine can’t get started.”

However, Head of School Michael Wirtz explained that in terms of retention, “there has not been an instance [in which a faculty member has left due to racial disparities] that [he] can think of,” noting that he can only speak to 2016 and forward, given that he joined Hackley in 2016.

Our administration is and has been, taking crucial, necessary steps to make our faculty less overwhelmingly white. 

For starters, this has been a top personal priority for Mr. Wirtz, who has written extensively about his position in Hackley’s official publications. Additionally, as part of the Strategic Plan, the Board of Trustees recently endorsed a “statement of purpose” on diversity, equity, and inclusion that requires the school to pay specific attention to diversity in hiring practices. 

Mr. Bileca explained that although this statement “might not make a material difference” in the short term, it will help a great deal in the medium- to long-term “because it will give us a way to hold ourselves accountable to our best intentions and practices.” And of course, Mr. Bileca and Mr. Wirtz repeatedly emphasized the importance of the diversity, equity, and inclusion work Dr. Derrick Gay is engaging in with faculty, administrators, and trustees, from diversity retreats to professional development to lectures. Mr. Wirtz said that “we need to work on the environment now and that is more important.”

In terms of diversity-conscious hiring practices, Mr. Bileca emphasized that Hackley has been “pulling out all the stops.” 

A consultant has been hired to advise on anti-bias hiring practices, with a special focus on how to appropriately pose interview questions. Hackley has a special professional development provision whereby teachers of historically underrepresented backgrounds can attend conferences geared towards finding support in the independent school world that do not count towards each teacher’s three allotted professional development days.

And diversity-conscious recruiting takes shape in a number of different forms, including traditional channels, hiring fairs, and changes in outlook.

Traditional channels — which Mr. Bileca explained cater to candidates that are disproportionately white  — usually consist of high-profile agencies sending a hundred or so resumés to Hackley. With that said, Hackley also uses other agencies such as Nemnet, which exclusively recruits minority candidates.

Hiring fairs are more effective ways to recruit more racially diverse candidates. Hackley usually attends three or four diversity-focused hiring fairs a year, one of which Mr. Teacher and Ms. Jean attended in early February. Mr. Bileca and his team can do their own research and set up interviews with candidates beforehand; similarly, candidates can set up appointments with Hackley should they wish to do so.

Changes in outlook consist of alternate perspectives and alternate hiring routes. In terms of alternate perspectives, the Administration is engaging in work to help read resumés differently for candidates from non-independent schools, and to eliminate the preference for candidates that seem like a “good fit.” Mr. Bileca explained that this perspective of ‘perfect fit’ “may cause us to unwittingly self-replicate and perpetuate this cycle [of a homogeneous faculty].” Alternate hiring routes include participation in the Fairchester Alliance, whereby schools in Westchester and Fairfield can share out resumés and open positions to hire and help retain faculty of color, and ReachPrep, which recruits potential teaching candidates of color while they are still in college. ReachPrep, too, is an effort to explore hiring routes outside of those traditionally used, and is both unique to Hackley and designed specifically to change the status quo.

Amidst this care and attention, one issue remains — very few positions open up for faculty in the Upper School. The above steps have worked well for Middle and Lower School positions — Mr. Wirtz explained that two of three new Middle School hires last year were faculty of color and one of five Lower School hires last year was black. But for the Upper School, there were no openings for candidates who would begin work in the 2018-2019 or 2019-2020 school years, so Mr. Wirtz did not have an opportunity to address the issue. One position in the history department, however, has recently become available and will be filled by a candidate who will begin this upcoming school year. For this and others down the road, it seems highly likely that even more attention will be paid to representing our black students with black faculty.

Administrators are glad that students share their concerns regarding the lack of representation within the Upper School faculty. Mr. Wirtz said, “I’m glad this is a front of mind issue for kids.” Indeed, the question of when Hackley will see its next black academic teacher in the Upper School is truly at the front of kids’ minds — especially for black students.