A Mother for Everybody

How Katani Sumner, One of Newton South’s Few Teachers of Color, Manages Her Many Roles

Photo by Sam Lee

By Brian Yoffe
Editor-in-Chief Vol. 55

When Katani Sumner returned to school after winter break, she was greeted eagerly by four students. It was 7:40 on a Monday morning, but the students were smiling.

“Hi, Ms. Sumner!” they yelled as she approached her office. Sumner, smiling herself, asked them to keep it down a little.

Sumner, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) Program Counselor and a teacher at Newton South High School, unlocked the door to Goodwin Commons, known among Newton South students as the METCO room, and the four students followed her in.

Sumner’s office is certainly not typical of those at South. There are two computers at the back of the room and, by the door, a refrigerator, water bubbler, and microwave. A couch against one wall sits opposite a flat-screen TV, Netflix-enabled, hanging from the other wall. All of these home comforts are available to students throughout the school day and after. Posters of Barack Obama, Deval Patrick, and Setti Warren hang in a row above the windows. Beneath them, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Malcom X, Bob Marley, and Nelson Mandela share space on a framed picture.

Sumner put down her bag and asked a student to help her carry in some things from her car.

“It’s Monday morning, Ms. Sumner!” the student complained as he followed her outside. They returned a few minutes later with snacks, which Sumner arranged on the table, and drinks, which she put in the fridge. She then reached into her bag and pulled out a large navy blue sheet.

“Can y’all help me out with this?” Sumner asked.

The students didn’t budge for a few seconds, perhaps waiting for the others to move first. Then, simultaneously, they slid out of their seats and, each taking a corner, helped Sumner drape the sheet over the couch.

As the students excitedly caught up about break, Sumner organized her desk, occasionally chiming in.

“Sam*, you have to be nice to her,” Sumner told one student who was explaining how much his younger sister annoyed him. “You just swore,” she disapprovingly told another, who had yelled, “Damnnn.” When a student asked what Sumner would give him for his birthday, she replied: “I’ll give you a hug and a smile.”

“If you take the time to hear their story, there’s a reason.”

As South’s METCO Counselor, Sumner provides emotional, cultural, and academic support for students of color, particularly black and Latino students. A former METCO student herself at Lexington Public Schools, as well as a METCO parent at Weston High School and Newton North High School, Sumner has been a part of this Massachusetts program—established in 1966 “to expand educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation”—nearly her entire life.

A member of the first group of METCO students to be bused to Lexington, Sumner explains that her teachers were unaccustomed to instructing students of color. She felt her teachers portrayed her in a certain light as a student of color that prompted her to frequently act out in class and challenge her teachers’ authority.

However, Sumner’s attitude changed in fifth grade when she received encouragement from her teacher that still influences her mindset as an educator today.

“My fifth grade teacher was not intimidated by me and he basically said ‘You need to sit down and do your work and you’re really smart, and I need you to demonstrate that’,” Sumner said. “I was like ‘He thinks I’m smart. Really? Wow.’”

Sumner’s experience as a self-described “problem child” drives her passion for working with children, especially those who act up in school as she did.

“I love the problem child because usually if you take the time to hear their story, there’s a reason. They didn’t just land here,” Sumner said. “I have to stay calm and think about what the backstory is…It’s often that just nobody sees them and once you say to them ‘I know you’re smart, I know you’re talented, I know you have this gift,’ You see a light go off in their head.”

With her own considerable experience as a student and parent in the METCO program, Sumner has forged close connections with many students of color at South. Students describe it as a bond unlike any other between students and teachers at the school.

“She’s like a mother for everybody,” senior and METCO student Akira Taylor said. “With Ms. Sumner, we can literally talk about anything.”

Sumner plays a very personal role for many METCO students at South, as well as for many students of color not in the METCO program. She checks her students’ report cards, communicates with their teachers, provides them with celebratory lunches when they make Honor Roll, and serves, in general, as their advocate.

Photo by Sam Lee
Photo by Sam Lee

Students of color will often approach Sumner with issues, particularly those regarding race, which they would not feel comfortable sharing with another adult in the building. Whether they are uncomfortable as the only students of color in their classes or feel that issues of slavery and the use of the “N-word” in Huckleberry Finn are not being handled delicately in class, students can express their discomfort with Sumner.

“The teachers are not [creating discomfort] with malicious intent, but it’s the impact it’s having. I can advocate for any student, whether it’s a METCO student or not, because now they know they have another person they can talk to,” Sumner said. “You need an adult that can say ‘Did you know that when you pulled this kid aside and handed him a paper for an IEP [Individualized Education Program] and they’re not on an IEP…they feel that you assume that they’re on an IEP, you assume that they’re not capable of doing this work?’”

Sumner’s role as a representative for students of color also often includes informing teachers how best to interact with these students in the classroom. She explains that there are certain ways teachers interact with white students that may not be effective with students of color.

“Black students have a real issue with ‘Don’t put me on blast. Don’t embarrass me. Don’t assume that I’m stupid.’ You make the student shut down. Most students don’t have the same attitude like I did. Often students now will be like, ‘Forget it. It’s too much energy for me to have to prove to you I’m smart. So let me just let you think I’m stupid’,” Sumner said.

An “Implied” Responsibility

Sumner’s role at South has expanded considerably over the years. Many white students now seek out her support, as well, and she often helps new students who have transferred to South. The scope of students Sumner cares for is apparent in her office, especially at lunch time, when a remarkably diverse array of students share space on her couch, eating, chatting, and laughing uncontrollably while watching White Chicks on Netflix.

Sumner also serves as a liaison for teachers who are uncomfortable having difficult conversations about race in their classrooms, and even for parents who feel insecure at South. On top of all that, she co-teaches African-American Literature, directs the Harambee Gospel Choir, and advises the Black Student Union.

Sumner attributes the expansion of her role to a lack of teachers of color at South. Though she embraces these responsibilities, she worries that as her time is divided among more and more tasks, certain groups might suffer from not receiving enough of her attention.

“It’s kind of unfortunate. There aren’t enough of us,” she said, referring to teachers of color. “Now it’s kind of a tax because I keep adding jobs on, but I’m not giving up any.”

According to a 2014-2015 report from the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education, 89% of Newton Public School staff are white and 11% are staff of color (3% of which are African American). At the state level, 10% of experienced teachers and only 7% of new teachers are teachers of color.

Graphic by Brian Yoffe
Graphic by Brian Yoffe

While slightly ahead of the rest of the state, Newton Public Schools lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to hiring teachers of color, as about 18% of all public school teachers in the country are teachers of color. Nevertheless, the school district is now making a concerted effort to employ a diverse faculty.

Teachers and administrators agree that diversity is a necessary component of any educational institution.

“The U.S. is founded on diversity,” Banks said. “If you’re speaking about liberal political leanings versus conservative, I think we have to have that conservative voice. If you’re speaking about a majority white school…we need to have students of color. Diversity allows you to see that the world is more than one thing.”

Sumner explains that with Newton’s low percentage of teachers of color comes an “implied” responsibility for her to represent the black community.

“Certainly they’re [teachers of color] the most thoughtful about these issues, and if a crisis comes up I often will ask Ms. Sumner,” history teacher Robert Parlin said.

But it is not only implied: There have been some more explicit efforts by the school to encourage Sumner to play this role. One day, for instance, Sumner was told that books for her gospel choir had arrived. This was news to her—no one had asked her to direct any gospel choir. But Sumner was apparently the obvious choice for the position. Granted, it was not only her race at play: she had sung gospel with the Boston Pops and directed her college gospel choir. Still, it was a surprise.

“Someone said, ‘You’re teaching the gospel choir,’ and I was like, ‘I am?’,” Sumner said. “They created the course because the music department at South is very white…They saw that students of color were not taking any of the music classes.”

Principal Joel Stembridge does ask teachers of color to share their opinions with the school, he said, but he hopes that this is a welcoming expectation. Sumner, for one, does not mind being a resource for her colleagues.

Music teacher Jason Wang, who co-directs Harambee with Sumner, has also experienced moments when faculty at South have asked him to represent Asian culture. But Wang, a South graduate who was raised in Newton, explains that he can’t really speak to the specifically “Asian experience” at South; he feels that his experience was like that of any suburban “Newton-kid.”

“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, can you speak on a program for South so that people from different backgrounds can hear a little bit about your journey?’” Wang said. “And I told them, ‘Well, my journey is very similar to that of the students here, so if you’re looking for a slightly different angle, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to offer you too much of what’s different.”

Many teachers of color also feel a responsibility to represent minority cultures and communities in the classroom. Goldrick Housemaster and English teacher Marc Banks tries to engage his students in meaningful discussions about race, particularly in the context of American literature.

“There’s some responsibility to both the students of color and white students…to have a person you can speak to very openly and honestly,” Banks said. “In books like Huck Finn or even The Great Gatsby, we take a look at the racial divide and what it means to be white in those books and what it means to be black in those books.”

Education without Racial Representation

It is not only South that so far fails to put forward a racially-representative faculty.

“If you look in the Boston public schools, where the majority of students are black and brown and the majority of the teachers are white, you see a really awful representation of…the educators reflecting them [students of color],” Sumner said. “The students [of color] say it’s just harder. They don’t have as many people that look like them.”

Graphic by Brian Yoffe
Graphic by Brian Yoffe

According to a 2014 analysis of teacher diversity by the Center for American Progress, students of color nationwide make up almost 50% of the public school population, while teachers of color compose only 18% of the teaching profession. This situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the significant increase in the country’s Hispanic population. The diversity efforts of the nation’s public schools have not done enough to keep up, the study concludes.

Stembridge notes that it can be extremely difficult to attract diverse candidates to South. The limited applicant pool of teachers of color, paired with the fact that many of them prefer to work at urban schools, makes it hard for a suburban school like South to hire as diverse a faculty as it would like.

“One of the big issues that we have when we’re hiring teachers is only 10% of the applicants are teachers of color,” Stembridge said. “How do we get that 10%…interested in applying to us? Many teachers of color want to work with students of color, and so many of those teachers get concentrated in urban areas. So our percentage is even less.”

Sumner adds that Boston has a reputation, particularly among Southern teachers, as a racist city with a small black population.

“When I travel to other places, people are surprised to see black people from Boston. They’re like, ‘You guys have black people?’,” she said. “They still remember the image of that flag being shoved in that guy’s chest in the 1970s around Boston busing.”

Stembridge explains that the goal, however idealistic, is for faculty demographics to reflect those of the student body. At South, this would mean that roughly 5% of teachers would be black, 20% Asian, and 6% Hispanic.

But a challenge is the fact that the goal of faculty diversity may not always align with the goal of faculty quality. Stembridge insists that South will not sacrifice the quality of its teachers solely to improve the diversity of the faculty.

“If I’m hiring an English teacher, I want to hire the best English teacher I can,” he said. “I’m not going to hire someone of color just because they’re of color.”

Sumner believes that the most effective way to increase the diversity of South’s faculty is through word of mouth: enabling teachers of color to recruit other teachers of color. Recently, she did exactly that. Sumner learned that the parent of a current METCO student at South was a math teacher in Boston, but was not enjoying her work there. Sumner immediately encouraged the woman to transfer to the Newton Public Schools.

“That’s how that kind of stuff happens. Hand-delivering resumes, like, ‘This person is awesome. Make sure they get an interview’,” Sumner said. “If [instead] you casually post jobs in places where the people of color are not necessarily looking, and you don’t actively talk about things, that’s how we end up where we are.”

Stembridge agrees that non-traditional hiring methods offer a promising route to a more diverse staff. But he also emphasizes the importance of programs like the Newton Teacher Residency program, which offers an alternative to conventional teacher preparation by providing a one-year residency, and the recently-created Diversity Hiring Committee. This committee, composed of teachers and administrators from across the district, examines how Newton Public Schools can improve their practices to better recruit candidates of color.

One key aspect the committee is looking at is the ability of schools to ensure that teachers of color, once hired, have successful experiences.

“When we’re hiring diversity, we can’t just expect people to be like us,” he said. “We have to create a safe place as we diversify our teaching staff. We have to provide opportunities for people to connect, which means we have to broaden our understanding of who we are. It’s about looking out, but it’s also about looking in.”

“I have to represent”

In addition to advising and educating faculty and students on minority cultures and racial issues, teachers of color at South often feel a responsibility to defy the stereotypes about their race that are perpetuated by the media.

Banks, for example, feels an expectation to correct the stereotype that young black men are often engaged in violence and crime. He thinks that simply having administrators and teachers of color at South helps address the stereotype.

Sumner, similarly, wants to be a source of encouragement to students, a reminder that “you can be and become all that you want to become.”

“I have to represent,” she said. “There’s a stereotype of angry black women, so I know if I come out…in certain ways, other adults would be like ‘Whoa.’ I’ve had some weird situations. I was in a meeting and this woman was like, ‘I just feel like you’re all over me.’ She must have had a bad experience with a black woman in the past and, therefore, since I’m the only one here, whatever I do fits that perception.”

Sumner and Banks do not find the many responsibilities imposed upon them as teachers of color to be a burden.

Rather than becoming frustrated with the racial offenses she encounters, Sumner chooses to embrace the role of teaching the South community about cultural sensitivity. She hopes to instill this same tolerance in her students of color.

“When dumb stuff happens you can go, ‘Oh,’ or you can go, ‘You know what, this is a teachable moment. I don’t think you were intending to be offensive, intending to be racist’,” Sumner said.

“‘I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but if it keeps happening, then there’s a problem.’ Here, it’s usually non-violent offenses. Microaggressions, they call them.”

While Sumner and Banks may not consider this task a burden, other teachers admire them for taking it on and sympathize with them.

Photo by Sam Lee
Photo by Sam Lee

“I’ve heard from a number of teachers of color that they feel they have to do extra…to represent for kids of color, especially, but also for white kids,” Parlin said. “Unfortunately, they [teachers of color] can’t be just judged on their own merits, they also have an added component that sadly is somewhat of a burden.”

Stembridge considers the responsibilities placed on teachers of color to be onerous. His job as principal, he said, is to provide them with a safe space to share their beliefs, and an atmosphere in which their beliefs are welcomed and appreciated.

Sumner feels Stembridge’s approach has been successful, while acknowledging that many of these items are outside of his control. “I think he’s really doing a great job. He and I meet on a regular basis, which is great just to have a voice.”

“There are certain things he [Stembridge] can’t control,” Sumner said. “I try to make my way to see Mr. Banks or Mr. Turner just to try to have a connection with an adult that looks like me. There’s nothing he can do about that.”

Fostering Cultural Competency

South is making strides toward improved cultural competency. Teachers and administrators hope these efforts will relieve teachers of color like Sumner, Banks, and Wang of the responsibility of representing their cultures and communities.

Sumner and Parlin are leading a cultural competency workshop to educate Newton public school teachers about achievement gaps. The goal, of course, is eventually to eliminate these gaps altogether.

“We want every teacher in the Newton Public Schools to be able to understand how race can affect students’ achievement levels, how they can create a safe environment for all students, regardless of difference, and what they can be thinking about when they structure their classes, in terms of all the different backgrounds—ethnicity, race, sexual orientation,” Parlin said. “All these different issues play into whether kids feel safe and confident and then do well.”

Sumner notes that there are many white teachers at South who already share responsibility with teachers of color in addressing cultural and racial issues. But more could be done to allocate this task evenly among all of the school’s educators, she believes, and the workshop is a step in that direction.

“This is why I’m always late!”

The bell rang. It was the end of lunch block. Sumner stood up from her desk, weaved through the ten students scattered around her office, and shut off the TV.

“Get to class,” she said. The students shoveled in last bites of their lunches and picked up their backpacks. Sumner stood by the door as the students filed out of her room. The bell rang again: the next block. The room finally cleared out and Sumner locked the door behind her.

As she walked down the hall on her way to a meeting, Sumner was stopped by a colleague, who excitedly began speaking to her. Sumner listened attentively as students hurried around her to their next classes. Sumner laughed, said a few words in return, and the two teachers headed off in opposite directions.

“See, this is why I’m always late!” Sumner said, picking up the pace.

But even these brief exchanges are another part of Sumner’s very long job description.

“My role is just to be who I am, to have courageous conversations, to let people know you can talk about race, you can laugh about it,” she said.

*This name has been changed to protect the student’s anonymity.

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Brian Yoffe is one of the co-editors-in-chief of Denebola. He has been on the Denebola staff since freshman year, beginning his time on the publication with the School News section. Brian loves spending time with the Denebola staff, whether it’s at the usual Monday meetings or at the Chipotle parties after school. Outside of Denebola, Brian enjoys watching Netflix, spending time with friends and family in Cape Cod, and playing soccer.