MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The newly established Berkeley County Schools’ Multicultural Educators Association was started by district staff members who had a strong desire to reach others.
And that’s what they have been doing to expand the fledgling organization.
Nikki Landerkin, an English language arts teacher at Martinsburg North Middle School, said the group has worked in a number of ways aimed at bringing people together since it was formed last summer.
It was an outgrowth of four meetings held over the summer that attracted many teachers, as well as Superintendent of Schools Patrick K. Murphy.
“We’ve been taking this seriously since we had our first meeting in June or July,” Landerkin said.
The goal remains to ensure equity and inclusion for all teachers and students, thereby improving the district’s quality of education.
“At first our meetings were about trying to get our feelings out — and that included being shocked, hurt and angry — because there were a myriad of emotions we were feeling. What we discovered is that we needed a place to share,” she said. “We’ve expanded and purposely chose multicultural because this is not unique to Black people, so we wanted to open it up to other people who felt the same way. There is comfort in numbers.”
Landerkin said the group recently hosted a “meet and greet” with a tentative plan to hold another similar session.
“It was very positive,” she said. “We had people of all ethnicities, including Asian, Hispanic, biracial, Black and white there. We shared our experiences and as a result, I think we all felt a need to make sure none of our students or children know that comfortably uncomfortable feeling we’ve all experienced as adults.
“Teachers need to check themselves to be sure they are including all kids in the classroom, and making a conscious effort to do that,” she said.
A brochure introducing the group was sent to all employees, and the group also has a Facebook page where a video about the organization has been posted. A contest is also underway seeking submissions for a logo for the group, Landerkin said.
Shayla Brown, Musselman Middle School choir teacher and show choir director, agreed the group had a clear vision early on and its message is increasingly resonating with others.
“We wanted to give minorities, or people of different backgrounds, a place where they could feel comfortable and feel supported as well as be recognized for their accomplishments,” she said.
It’s also important to be heard, she said.
“It’s also a place for them to ask questions if they are facing an uncomfortable situation in school or even their home life. We are like minded and can understand what’s going on because a lot of us in the group have had our own personal experiences.”
Opequon Elementary School counselor Jodi Williams said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has meant the group continued to meet online, but that’s also been successful.
“It is a place for people to air their feelings in a safe environment, and we keep it multicultural because it’s not just a Black/white issue. We are all affected by what’s been going on, and everyone has an opinion about it,” Williams said.
“We’ve learned so much about each other since we went virtual. The more we’re able to talk it through and have some positive change, the better off we’ll all be.”
Denise Smith, who teaches English language arts at Martinsburg North Middle School, said the district is increasingly diverse and that it offers important opportunities.
“Our focus is definitely our educators and our students,” she said. “We all have a story, and we want the best remedy and outcome for all involved. We need to be able to teach all students and that’s why this is multicultural because an Asian student’s experience is different from an African-American student or a Caucasian student,” Smith said.
“As an educator, we want to be able to relate to what that child is going through, and if we can teach them through our experience to have a positive outcome, that’s what this group is for.”
Martinsburg South Middle School Assistant Principal Paul Baker said he’d moved to the area because of its diversity. His own experiences have taught him what young Black males may face and also help reach out to them.
“Sometimes they are confused because they don’t know what is happening, but when they have someone like me sitting in front of them, I can break it down for them,” Baker said. “Parents tell me they are glad for them to have me as a role model, because most often they don’t have anyone who looks like them and when they go to school they have to be someone else.
“We want them to have more faces, people of color and otherwise, who understand them,” he said. “If we have all of this diversity here and we can’t express it, what good is diversity? But if we express it and find a way to come together, then we’re going to be strong.”
Veronique Walker, associate superintendent of equity and inclusion, praised the initiative and organizers for making it a reality.
“I credit these five people because something as important as this doesn’t just happen,” Walker said. “It takes courage to approach something like this because it has the potential to be so impactful, and I think we’re already seeing that.
“And it also takes courage to step out of a comfort zone not knowing what the outcome will be, but this group is determined to make a difference.”