No matter where someone comes from, where they live now, political affiliation, income, or anything else that could divide a community, there’s something that all families can agree on: wanting the best for their kids.
Despite a growing divisiveness over subject matter, current events, and the role classrooms play in it all, UNM College of Education & Human Sciences (COEHS) Assistant Professor William T. Holmes is searching for this unity.
In newly published research in the Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, Holmes dives into the concept of Cowboy epistemology: Rural school and district leadership for diversity and social justice.
“I began to do an annual survey of all of the principals and superintendents in the state of Wyoming, and one of the questions that I asked was, ‘talk to me about diversity.’ I got these really off the wall kind of responses, like, for example, ‘I don't have time for diversity’ or ‘we're in an elementary school and we don't do that.’ I was just totally shocked by that. That's what caused me to start to dig into this,” Holmes said.
Holmes analyzes the responses of school districts in Wyoming to prevalent social justice issues. While diversity in this state has nearly doubled in a decade, Holmes showcases the enduring struggles to match this within school walls.
“At that time, Wyoming was a massive coal and energy producer. On one hand, we have this fear of the outside world, yet we're so dependent upon the outside world to buy our goods and commodities. So how do you juxtapose that? It's that kind of duality,” he said. “Some kids would just be in absolute culture shock because they come from these small, ranching communities, and we would find sometimes some difficulty in making a transition.”
“It’s the idea of how do you find the right exposure for kids to help them to make the transition into the larger world?” – COEHS Assistant Professor William T. Holmes
It’s an incredibly multifaceted issue that Holmes tackles. First and foremost, he highlights growing diversity in a classroom– that has to be matched at a teacher and leadership level.
“Certainly one of the things that we know is that in education, across the board, there is a lack of representation for students of color. The vast majority of superintendents are white males, with a significant lack of women in the superintendency and people of color in the superintendency,” Holmes said. “We know the vast majority of principals are white men, and so there is a significant lack of people, of color and women in the role of the principal.”
Despite a 93.5% increase in non-White Wyoming residents over eight years, and a combined 174.8% increase in non-White students in that same time period, an estimated 95% of Wyoming educational administrators are White.
“I think we need to always be thinking about what we need to be doing in terms of professional development and continually always be reflecting and thinking about where we are, what we're doing and how we're doing it in working with students of color and working to ensure that we are working and engaging appropriately,” Holmes said.
Holmes also points to previous studies, which indicate that 90% of White rural Wyoming teachers who lacked exposure to diversity, were less self aware, uninformed and protruded a ‘White-superior view coupled with a savior mindset.’
“What really drives cowboy epistemology are those spaces that are ultra-conservative, very white, homogeneous, where there is a large demographic divide. There is a tendency for cultural homophily, where there is this issue of Whiteness in the sense of white preference, White privilege, a number of those things,” he said.
Although in New Mexico, a record-breaking 36% of teachers are Hispanic, there is still an equity issue. In New Mexico’s own Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, it was discovered the state itself was not delegating enough resources to districts with primarily Native American students.
”The New Mexico Public Education Department has asked for schools and districts to undertake an equity audit and an equity lens as a result of this. We know that even today it’s been a number of years since the ruling, but there are still schools and districts that are struggling with that equity lens. We need to take steps to do better at educating the students that fall under the Yazzie/Martinez umbrella,” Holmes said.
UNM has long since been part of the effort to recruit a diverse range of teachers, and make degree earning programs accessible for all future educators. Between the POLLEN program for Native American-based district leader training and the District Residency Teacher Partnership (DRTP), the COEHS makes creating well-rounded teachers a top priority.
“We have boys and girls who live their lives, for example, in tribal communities, and then they come to the university. It's a big culture shock coming from the reservation or coming from small communities into Albuquerque,” Holmes said. “That's a big change, so it's that sensitivity, it's that awareness. It is that ability to be thoughtful and intentional on how we work with those students.”
In addition to matching student to teacher, or taking steps towards that in the scope of diversity, it’s about matching subject matter to the students.
“This continual awareness of where we sit as communities and what we need to do in terms of our equity work, of our cultural competency work, our diversity work, our stakeholder engagement is important,” Holmes said. “I think we have to realize that there are some children and some communities, who just need a little bit more support, who need a little bit more love, who need a little bit more help.”
In his research, Holmes notices a strong aversion to discussing traditionally touchy subjects. The negative impact of White individuals across history (colonizing, culture erasion, slavery, civil rights and so on) is hard to ignore, yet Wyoming teachers tended to avoid teaching critically about institutional racism and White privilege.
“Teachers are doing a job where they don't get paid enough. They're trying to do it in schools that are falling apart. They're trying to do it where they're constantly attacked and not rewarded. We need to stop and to say thank you, we appreciate you and we'll support you–not constantly creating war zones in classrooms, the principal's office and in school district boardrooms.” – COEHS Assistant Professor William T. Holmes
“Students could be so resistant, they could be so fearful, and resistant to taking that step. It was very much of a challenge at some times to expose them to things because of a disconnect between their lived experiences and the experiences they were trying to work into in the rest of the world,” Holmes said.
Even classrooms already engaging in difficult conversations had to reevaluate educational materials during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, following the death of George Floyd. It’s a debate which continues presently, and also includes the rights of transgender and LGBTQ+ students, LGBTQ+ history and what books are allowed to be on library shelves.
“We need to realize that teachers, principals, superintendents, they're trying to do the right things for kids and they're trying to do right things for our democracy,” Holmes said. “They're not trying to brainwash children. They're not trying to teach kids what to think. They're trying to teach children how to think, how to critically analyze, how to make the best decisions in a 21st global society that we as parents and grandparents didn't have decades ago.”
Still, while many districts consider the sign of the times to be relevant enough to at least reference in classrooms, many school board meetings have become battlegrounds over subject matter.
“My fear is that people are so resistant to change. When they are resistant to something, instead of having just a simple disagreement, they attack. Everything becomes personal and aggressive and not in the form of ‘let's have a dialogue, let's have a discussion, let's have a conversation.’ It immediately becomes hurtful, threatening and intimidating. It's unfortunate that our society is that way,” Holmes said.
New Mexico has experienced this too, circling debates surrounding critical race theory and social-emotional learning, and the ramifications still, of Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico.
“There is the cultural response of teaching and that's what we really push here in New Mexico. We need to be able to continue to work together in order to make that better for all of the kids in the state of New Mexico, regardless of race, color, background,” Homes said. Education in the state of New Mexico needs to get better for everyone, and that the only way that we do that is by talking and communicating and listening to each other.”
That’s a large part of the reason, as Holmes finds, that administrators and district leaders continue to veer more towards cowboy epistemology; in order to avoid conflict, they avoid the broader discussion.
“Community values are significantly influencing that and there's a significant pressure on school and district administrators to sometimes conform or to leave the profession. There are a number of superintendents who are walking away because of what happens at school board meetings, with all of the heavy politicking,” he said. “We have to be aware that we need to be strong advocates as a community to help principals and district administrators do the right thing for kids.”
The broader implications of all of this are immense. Among the so-called ‘culture wars’ alone, research shows that 69% of the schools experiencing this strife have seen a negative impact on overall education. Beyond that, it’s been proven that students are more likely to succeed and graduate when under the helm of a diverse education workforce.
Holmes says there is no clear-cut solution to improving the state of diversity and equity in Wyoming and beyond. It still needs to begin with a discussion.
“Our country is becoming nothing but more and more diverse, and more divisive. I think that we can't continue to go on that path. The first step to any problem is awareness, and I think that what we have to have is to be able to have a conversation,” he said.
Through healthy, community-engaged discussion and steps towards a diverse subject matter and classroom, the next generation can experience needed benefits.
“We have to be able to have a conversation because following that conversation, we need to be able to take some steps towards some sort of implementation,” Holmes said. “Then we have to be able to step back and to say, okay, did what we do work? What do we need to do next?”