Manya Whitaker isn’t interested in hearing what her students think.
“The statement that most reflects how I approach teaching and learning is, ‘I don’t care what you think. I care why you think it,’” said Whitaker, an associate professor of education at Colorado College. “I’m not here to tell you what to believe. What I care about is how you came to construct this understanding … and how open are you to reconstructing that understanding continuously?”
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Whitaker didn’t expect to stay long when she joined Colorado College’s faculty nine years ago. In December, she was recognized as a winner of the annual Mayor’s Young Leader awards — a culmination of her work with educators and families to promote educational equity and inclusivity in the Pikes Peak region.
“Whatever kind of education initiatives exist in the city, I probably have either worked in it, am currently working in it or I’m about to work in it,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker earned a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire before attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she obtained a master’s degree in developmental psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology with an emphasis on education.
She is the founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting business, and has published numerous journal articles and book chapters about family engagement in children’s schooling, urban charter school quality and preparing teachers to work more effectively with diverse students.
Whitaker talked with the Business Journal about her educational work at Colorado College and beyond, how her own cultural background has shaped her teaching philosophy and what educational equity looks like in the classroom.
What drew you to teaching?
I like to talk. I like to read. I like to talk about things I’m thinking about. I like to hear how other people think about things. And honestly, teaching was one of my very few natural talents. I just always enjoyed it, and so it felt like something that wouldn’t have been a struggle and would have been incredibly rewarding as well.
What are your responsibilities?
I teach in our undergraduate curriculum. I teach classes on social and political issues in education, so those are things like diversity and equity in education, urban education, education assessment, education reform, education psychology.
For my graduate students, I teach their research methods class and their final course is called “Teacher and Teaching Identities,” which is basically about how one’s own cultural orientation emerges in the classroom and intersects with their students. That’s one of my favorite classes, actually.
How does your own cultural orientation emerge in the classroom?
I think when I started teaching … I realized just how Southern I am in a Western state with respect to politeness and the expectations that I have for students as well. Also, thinking about my own educational experiences, I was in the International Baccalaureate program for most of K-12, and it taught me to be really independent [and] to take initiative. It taught me a strong work ethic, and so I imposed those expectations upon my students.
I spent the first two years at Colorado College trying to figure out how to meet students where they are and bring them forward, as opposed to just expecting them to do what I would have done in that situation. So the class that I mentioned is my favorite class because it does help my future teachers really pause and say, ‘How am I kind of overpowering or overshadowing my students without taking time to say, ‘Who are they as people?’’
Why is it that important?
When we say culture, people often think race and religion and things like that. I think, because I’m a black woman and I’ve always been in educational environments that were predominantly white, and a lot of my predominantly white friend group came from higher income groups than I did, I’m a little more well versed in how diversity emerges in the classroom with respect to those metrics. But in my classes for my pre-service teachers, I make that very explicit.
We talk a lot about religion and how does that affect curriculum? … And we talk about language. What’s your heritage language [or] adopted language? How does that influence thinking processes, and therefore what expectations do I have of English language learners or multilingual students? How does language shape the way you think about things, as well?
What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
It’s watching the students, over time, develop a very nuanced world view. Because I’m at such a small institution, and I teach a freshmen seminar and senior seminars, I see students for four years and often at the beginning and end. So I say to them, ‘You know, three years ago, you would never have said that. As a matter of fact, let’s pull out some of your work from three years ago and help you see the growth that you had.’ Watching the students grow intellectually definitely keeps me motivated and wanting to come to work every day.
… The students love the classes because they leave thinking about education not as a vocation; they leave thinking about it as a system, because that’s what it is. … Education is a civic institution and because of that, like the economy, it deserves critical examination constantly so that it can operate effectively. … Most of my students don’t want to be teachers. They want to go into policy or reform or curriculum design, because they understand all the pieces of the system that are broken right now and they want to fix that.
How else are you involved in the community?
When I first came to Colorado Springs, I was volunteering as the step team coach at James Irwin Charter School out east. I joined the school board for Pikes Peak Prep Charter School, and I am currently still on the advisory board for the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion at UCCS. As of late October, I am on the board for the African-American Youth Leadership Conference.
How does that work tie into the belief that education is a system rather than a vocation?
It’s not enough for me to teach these classes. That’s lovely; it’s fine, but that doesn’t have an immediate impact. It’s my work with teachers in rural areas of Colorado, doing in service with them. It’s the conversations with the D-11 superintendent. It’s working with parents and families about how to get their kid into a better school, to a better classroom. That’s really what I call soul work, that makes me feel like, ‘OK, I’m actually effecting positive change in my community.’
Your work is largely centered around educational equity. What do you think that looks like?
Educational equity is when all children have the opportunity and access to take advantage of educational experiences that would benefit them as individuals. Often that’s confused with equality, where everybody gets a choice and we can get the same thing. That’s not going to work if English is my third language. Equitable education looks like instruction not in English, because then you’re not giving me the opportunity to learn the same way [as] my best friend whose dominant language is English. It’s just such a nuanced and complex construct that it takes unpacking at so many levels, to say, ‘What does each individual kid need to succeed in school?’ And within that larger pie, my little slice is working with teachers and families on answering that question.
How have you seen Colorado College evolve in addressing diversity and inclusion?
Our president, Jill Tiefenthaler, came to CC the same month that I came. We’ve been here together, and I think she in particular has done an excellent job changing the cultural norms of the institution and not being forceful about it. This has been a really slow [process], in my opinion, [but] from her position I understand why it had to be this slow. People don’t like change.
… But I do think that, particularly in Colorado, we are probably the leading institution with respect to taking on issues like social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. I think we are good about the steps that we’ve taken, and the mechanisms that other administrators have put into place to ensure that we hold ourselves accountable for being an anti-racist institution.