Black educator works to bring more multicultural learning, perspectives to Aspen schools
Tameira Wilson knew in first grade that she would be a teacher one day.
A native of the Vail Valley, the current Aspen High School educator said her elementary guidance counselor said she thought Wilson would make a good teacher, and ever since then Wilson knew that was “the road I was going to ride.”
But while Wilson never felt like she’d specifically face challenges getting into education, she does remember her dad telling her and her siblings they would face challenges different from many of their Vail area peers.
“My dad always told me and my sisters that we had three significant challenges to face: that we were Black, that we were women and that we were poor. And he said all three of those things were going to pose challenges that we just had to overcome,” said Wilson, who is biracial but identifies as African American or Black.
“I never thought specifically about the education field, but I think I always knew I’d face challenges no matter what I chose to do.”
Growing up, the only Black students Wilson went to school with were her family members. She felt like she and her siblings didn’t have many local Black adult role models to look up to and identify with until college, where she realized the importance of representation and why her parents made sure she knew college was a possibility.
Now as she starts her 17th year working as a high school social studies teacher in Aspen and the district’s only Black educator, Wilson is continuing to push for more multicultural learning for all Aspen School District students, and to ensure local students of color feel they have someone they can relate to and connect with.
“I think representation is so important … and there’s just not a lot of representation here,” Wilson said, referring to the small number of teachers of color district-wide. “It’s just so important for kids to identify and connect with somebody. That was something that was missing in my life and I’m just happy that if nothing else they can feel that at the high school level.”
As Wilson reflected on her tenure at Aspen High School on a recent afternoon, she said she’s always tried to provide cultural understanding and a safe place for students of color to come if they ever feel some kind of discrimination taking place.
And with the national spotlight cast on systemic anti-Black racism and police violence against people of color, Wilson said she feels it’s an important time for the Aspen School District to cultivate more multicultural learning and representation for its students.
“We have to take a look at our traditional curriculum and start to look at it from the perspective of minorities,” Wilson said, noting that the way Thanksgiving is taught as a good example. “It’s not about eliminating things necessarily, but providing reality, and if you give multiple perspectives on something I feel like that is a full education. Not just telling one person’s story but multiple people’s stories I think is really important.”
When asked how Wilson works to incorporate diverse, multicultural viewpoints and Black history specifically into her social studies curriculum, she said it’s been a gradual progression over the years. She’s worked to give her students as much context and diverse looks at history and current events in as authentic a way as possible, which is how she plans to address the current Black Lives Matter movement and national conversation around racism in America with her students.
“My particular style is to make sure that it is embedded in curriculum where it would naturally fall. I think that if I show up next week and am like, ‘We’re doing Black Lives Matter,’ it’s going to be so out of context that it’s going to feel inauthentic,” Wilson said.
“When we start to talk about economic inequality, the Civil Rights Movement, expansionism, that is when we start pulling in elements from what’s happening today so that students can connect it to a historical time period, … to put the movement in the context of this long history of struggle I think is the only way that it’s going to really stick with students.”
Wilson went on to say that she also plans to debut a multiculturalism class this spring, an elective focusing on the importance of how different cultures and heritage contribute to American culture, heritage and experience, and helping to create more empathy between students of different backgrounds.
But beyond her classroom, Wilson also is pushing for the district to do more to ensure its teachers have the professional development tools to effectively discuss systemic racism, oppression and multicultural history with their students within various subject areas; to bring more teachers of color to the district; and to get away from the “holiday based” multicultural learning, instead incorporating more diverse cultural history, perspectives and contributions with relevant curriculum year-round.
“For me it’s about thinking long-term how can we make systemic changes to our curriculum here in the district so that there’s sustainable education about minority groups that starts early on and carries through high school,” Wilson said.
As a result of Wilson’s drive and the national conversation surrounding anti-Black racism and discrimination, the Aspen School District recently formed a district-wide “equity team,” which will be comprised of students and faculty (including Wilson) focused on facilitating conversations and spearheading initiatives around equity or fair and impartial treatment for all, according to Tharyn Mulberry, assistant superintendent.
“The hope would be that we would start to handle some of the issues that come up and be a little more proactive about looking at equity within the schools, not wait for an incident to occur,” Mulberry said. “There are so many groups at Aspen High School that have already started doing that, but we really wanted to create a coherent and cohesive effort.”
Mulberry said the equity team or steering committee is just getting off the ground and in the process of establishing its objectives and goals for this school year and how district programming can be more equity-minded.
He said the district is dedicated to ensuring all of its students have multi-tiered support as pupils and people, and that he’s working on developing more active recruitment strategies for faculty in general that he feels will help bring more diverse teachers to the Aspen School District.
In regards to how to address the current conversations around racism in America, Mulberry said the district had a professional development session with faculty at the beginning of the school year, and each school is addressing the issue in different ways. For example, Chris Basten, principal of Aspen Elementary School, said his faculty felt “the events of the summertime very deeply,” and is working to craft age-appropriate diversity lessons for its students to promote more acceptance, multicultural understanding and inclusivity.
The school has started implementing a “community circles” concept, which Basten said allows students to begin their day with conversation and grounding exercises to help them process concerns, fears and other thoughts and emotions related to things like the pandemic and the current Black Lives Matter movement.
“One example or conversation starter might be something like, ‘I like being around people who are like me and different from me and I can be friendly to everyone,’ or ‘I can describe some ways that I am similar to and different from people who share my identity and those who have other identities.’ Those are the ways those lessons are scaffolded age-appropriately,” Basten said.
“We’re growing kids to be kind and caring and the kind of citizens that don’t define a human being based on the color of their skin. … We really value student voice, and I just think that when we can address these things in a developmentally appropriate way it can be empowering for kids.”
Basten and Mulberry said with the current national movement and focus on addressing systemic anti-Black racism, it feels urgent and critical to take a harder look at equity and diversity within the Aspen School District. And for Mulberry, Wilson’s efforts now and over her tenure at Aspen High School have been a major catalyst and benefit to the entire district.
“She just does so much to promote school spirit and cohesion, and to make sure we have a really strong value system in our student governance,” Mulberry said, acknowledging her continued leadership for high school students involved in student government.
For Wilson, it’s important to give her students all of the information, context and viewpoints they need to make their own decisions. And with the help of more multicultural, inclusive education she feels the next generations can feel more represented, be more inclusive and address systemic racism in America.
“I think that it’s important to know that I am a Black teacher, and so I filter information through those eyes. However, because I’m a teacher I don’t push an agenda. I give students information and allow them to come to their own conclusions,” Wilson said. “I just think that reality is kids live in the real world and so as educators we should be helping them navigate that, … and I think that once students recognize race exists we have to start that education so that at no point can they get the wrong education about diversity and they can build empathy early on.”
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High school students in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs will be back to school for in-person learning full time starting Nov. 4.