The Importance of Honest Discussions: An Interview with Khadija Fredericks

Just one percent of heads of independent schools in the United States are women of color. In July 2018, Khadija Fredericks joined this elite group when she became head of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School in Saratoga, Calif.

Fredericks has worked as a teacher and administrator in independent schools for nearly 24 years, 17 of which were spent at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, Calif. She has participated in the National Association of Independent School (NAIS) Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads program and holds a master’s degree in elementary education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

Fredericks recently spoke with DiversityIS about her experiences as a woman of color in independent schools, how these institutions can support underrepresented faculty, and the importance of diverse leadership for students and faculty of color.

You began your career as a Pre-K teacher in independent schools. What drew you to this unique sector? I found out that independent schools in the New York City area were hiring assistant teachers and interns so I thought I would just do that while working towards my degree at Columbia. I couldn’t think of a better opportunity that would have allowed me to get teaching experience, pay, and benefits while in graduate school, so I just kind of fell into it.

What’s interesting, though, is that I thought I would graduate and save the world by teaching in underserved public schools. But when I became part of the independent school network, I saw the level of support teachers received, saw parents who cared about their children’s education, and children who were happy to come to school and do the work. I don’t knock public education because I was a public education kid myself, but I just felt so supported in independent schools that I stayed the course.

In independent schools, as in America’s teaching workforce more broadly, teachers of color tend to be extremely underrepresented. Do you think hiring faculty of color is something more independent schools have begun striving for? 

Yes and no. It depends on the institution, the leadership, and the school’s history and mission. There are some schools who are satisfied with just having a few teachers of color so they can just check that box, but there are others pushing as hard as they can to improve faculty diversity. There are some schools where a teacher of color may feel very isolated in their work and like they don’t have an outlet or cohort. At others you’ll find people [of color] who are really happy with their work and feel very supported.

However, as a whole, I can’t say independent schools are moving that direction because there are so many different factors at play.

What can schools do to help a faculty member of color feel supported and included? The board chair at Saint Andrew’s asked me this question when I was hired, in light of the fact that I’m the first person of color and the first woman to serve as head in the school’s 61-year history. … I said, “What I need from you is to believe me.” Being heard and believed are different, and it can be a big thing if you’re the only or one of very few people of color in a school. If I experience something negative like a microaggression and want to share that with you, please don’t make excuses for that behavior or try to explain to me what you think the person actually meant.

Oftentimes that happens when people [of color] tell others about microaggressions or something negative they’ve experienced. For example, people have told me I remind them of Michelle Obama, which is kind of a compliment, but then you have to wonder why I don’t remind them of Hillary Clinton or Laura or Barbara Bush. Or, people have asked me if I have a nickname because they say my actual name is too hard for them to remember. If I tell [my school] about those experiences, I don’t want them to make excuses for that behavior. I want them to show empathy and ask how they can help me when these things happen. How are you going to support me? How are we as a community going to collaborate on addressing these different types of microaggressions — whether it’s directed at a person’s gender, race, religion, or sexual identity?

How can a school help an employee of color feel supported when they experience something like a microaggression? What are the next steps? I think it requires staying in the conversation, not just saying, “We’re sorry that happened.” It’s a process that requires listening, gaining understanding, and working together to figure out the next steps. I’m a big fan of asking people directly what they need to feel safe, appreciated, and included. You can come to them with some ideas for how to address the situation but be sure that you hear from them what they need to feel successful and not marginalized in the [school] community. There are a lot of different routes this could take. It may require facilitating a conversation with a parent or providing some faculty professional development to help the other person gain a better understanding of the impact of the words they used. It’s important that it’s a two-way conversation, though, so real understanding can happen.

How do you think having a woman of color in a leadership position like head of school affects students, faculty, and the independent school community in general? I think what this does for this community is exposes them to someone I don’t think they would otherwise have regular contact with. I’m a black woman, and they’re interacting with me on a daily basis. My daughter is black, and she was here on [college] break walking around and visiting classrooms. My husband is an African American man and he coaches football and one of the basketball teams now. So, I think the exposure to my family in general has been something that has been really well-received, and I expected nothing less than that. The community has enjoyed having the chance to get to know us.

As far as the national platform, I had so many people come up to me at the [NAIS] People of Color Conference just to get my card and ask if we could talk or if they could email me sometime. I always say, “Absolutely, let’s talk,” about whatever is on their mind. I want to get to know them and be a mentor to whoever wants to share and collaborate with me. I’m very open to that because I realize I’m in a unique position and I don’t take that lightly. It’s heavy armor to wear, and I’m humbled to have the opportunity.

What impact does it have for a student of color, particularly one who is female, to see someone like themselves be in the top leadership position of their school? It has a huge impact. Some parents have shared with me that they love that I’m here and that their children get to interact with me because in seeing me, they see themselves. It’s so important that students have that influence and that opportunity to see themselves in their teachers and the adults in every area of their lives.

It also has an impact because I get to share part of my culture with the students and with the whole school. Growing up, I could count the number of teachers of color I had on one hand throughout my entire K-12 education. Now, I read books to students that feature a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I love being able to do that. It’s very important to me.

Is there a similar positive effect for faculty of color who see someone who looks like them in a top leadership position? Yes, I think it means a lot for them just to have that connection point on campus. I speak very candidly and with intention and I think that indicates to our employees and faculty of color that I truly want to come together to have honest discussions. I was afforded the opportunity to have a lot of people support me, take the time just to listen and talk with me, and show me the way to success. I certainly did not get here by myself, so that is why I want to be that same source of support for others.

Mariah Bohanan is the associate editor of DiversityIS. Khadija Fredericks is a member of the DiversityIS Editorial Board. This article ran in our Spring 2019 issue.