Alena Warner-Chisolm, a 14-year veteran of Delaware schools (with stops in Christina, Red Clay, and Lake Forest districts) is an English language arts teacher at Stanton Middle School—and one of the first participants in the district’s affinity group for teachers of color.
The groups—which Rodel helped catalyze in Red Clay and Colonial districts—are not unlike professional support groups. Current classroom teachers, who facilitate conversations with their peers to learn, share, and grow in their practice, lead them. In recognition of their leadership, these teachers receive additional pay from their districts for the extra time spent preparing and leading these groups.
By giving educators of color space to come together and support one another, the aim is to improve school-wide culture and, eventually, boost teacher retention.
Rodel caught up with Warner-Chisolm to learn more about what’s happening at Red Clay’s affinity group.
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Do you remember how you first heard about this affinity group that was forming with your district?
The first time I heard about the Red Clay affinity groups was through a flyer emailed by Dr. Bond, Kim Lopez, and Mark Baxter to interested teachers. My initial interest is due to two factors that I experienced before coming to Red Clay. The first factor is my teaching background. Throughout my entire career, I worked with very dynamic students and I noticed that there was a pattern of high turnover rate, high stress, and low morale climates. So, to combat those feelings I would socially de-stress through sharing stories, affirming my purpose, and providing and receiving practical support from my colleagues. Those social times brought me joy and moral support and kept me invested in my career.
The second factor is my role as an educator. As an educator you have so many roles; which can be mentally and physically time-consuming, which leads to more stress. So, I started being intentional about creating social activities where we can build camaraderie through emotional, mental, and educational support. I noticed was that our social groups really helped with teacher retention, lowering stress, and higher morale.
And so, when I first saw affinity groups here at Red Clay, I immediately recognized the importance of creating an intentional space for educators to bond and support each other, especially with both the pre-Covid and post-Covid challenges that educators face daily.
How can something like this affinity group—where you’re creating a space for teachers of color—make a larger impact?
A lot of times as a teacher, I feel like I’m on my island. I often think I’m the only one that has to juggle the mental health of my students, my mental health, and serious social issues because of the gaps of service in the community. Teaching is a job of service, so I’m constantly trying to figure out, how do I teach the whole child? And if I’m doing that in a silo, it’s extremely draining.
This is why affinity groups are so necessary because educators come together in a specific time, space, and format to be heard and supported to create equitable policies.
What does it mean to be a teacher of color and have this space where you can come together with fellow teachers of color, and what does that do to the culture at a school?
Well for me, teachers of color are on a spectrum of differences even though we may or may not “present” as teachers of color. For example, I have a duality of presenting as an African American but being raised within Trinidadian culture. So, I wasn’t taught both in school or at home about the historical systematic implications of race but I’ve experienced it throughout my life. So, to be a teacher of color, is to be part of a large community that is very diverse and not a monolith of experiences or background but, who share many commonalities.
In terms of having the affinity spaces, one of the first a-ha moments I had when we were brainstorming for affinity groups was when created our mission statement: to create a safe space for educators to feel heard, connected, supported to be their authentic selves to enhance their personal and professional responsibilities. That spoke to what I was trying to do years before I came to Red Clay: create a space where I can be myself and not feel like I have to tiptoe around issues of race and inequity of opportunity for both educators and students. Ultimately, when my students and I show up authentically it creates a culture of bonding, equitable policies, and environments that allow all to thrive.
In converse, I noticed disparities from questioning the status quo like Who has the privilege in my school? Who has the opportunities in my school? Who are in my honors program? My AP programs? Who is being heard and influencing administrators’ decision-making? In inequitable environments, I didn’t stay at those schools long, but in the schools that prioritized equity in practice, I flourished.
Take us inside what the initial affinity group meetings have been like.
Participants seem most excited to speak their truth. At first, we get to know each other through social conversations and an overview of our interests, this is the Welcoming time. Afterward, we create mutually- agreed norms to allow all voices to participate meaningfully. Then, we use a data-based structure from an anonymous survey to discuss the why behind the responses which leads to reflection, discussion, and sharing. Finally, we have a closing that utilizes the Courageous conversations compass to reflect further on each participant.
By our second meeting, it was refreshing to know that the participants could speak their truth and feel heard. As an educator of color, I am either fighting for equity or leaving for somewhere I’m accepted. And now I don’t feel like I’m alone.
In addition, during the meeting, the participants and facilitators shared resources to provide opportunities that were not known before, which was great as well.
How will the affinity group evolve over time?
I definitely know that we want this to be sustainable. We want to create policy changes through an equity lens of our strategic plan that supports the retention and the enticement of educators of color and educators that are allies in supporting our diverse students.
We will continue to partner with leaders of equity to provide training for affinity leaders so that our work is done with fidelity. In addition, we are currently in our recruitment phase for both more affinity participants and leaders.
What is the basic structure of an affinity group meeting?
The structure comes from the Center for Black Educator Development and the Courageous Conversations frameworks. The CBED provided facilitators with multiple days of training to design the structure of our groups and the Courageous Conversations training provided us with the tools to facilitate discussions within our groups.
How can educators get engaged with the affinity group today?
So right now, with the pilot year, the participants are set in stone. However, we are currently in recruitment for facilitators to begin the training and also new participants! We are all excited to see the group expand as many who have participated this year are interested in facilitating their groups for the upcoming school year.
And it sounds like really positive feedback from participants so far?
Absolutely. At the end of each session, we do a check-in with participants using the Courageous Compass in terms of their beliefs and feelings about the session. And a lot of people are sharing, I believe that this is going to really support teachers.