After facing racism at a Middlebury middle school, a departing dean calls for stronger protections
Hired last year as the first dean of climate and culture at Middlebury Union Middle School, Esther Charlestin recently quit her job because of the racism she faced at work. Courtesy photo
Less than a year after taking a job as Middlebury Union Middle School’s first dean of climate and culture, Esther Charlestin has left the position.
Hired last fall, Charlestin, 33, said she enjoyed the work, which included overseeing discipline, communicating with teachers and parents, and connecting with the community. But throughout her tenure, she said, “there was a cloud over me and I didn’t know the name of the cloud.”
Charlestin, who is Black, said it took her months to realize that the heaviness she was feeling was the cumulative effect of racism she says she faced at work.
Deeming the situation unsustainable, she submitted her resignation over the summer. Sept. 1 was her last day.
Charlestin wrote about her experience in an op-ed published the day before her departure in the Addison County Independent, drawing attention to what she characterized as shortcomings in the school district’s ability to support her as she encountered racism.
She wrote that she was going public with her experience “for those who feel invisible, who can’t speak because it could jeopardize their jobs, for those whose BIPOC children are struggling and they have no choice but to keep them in our public schools, and for those who have been silenced.”
“My issue wasn’t that these things happened but that leaders did not have protocols to follow to help guide them,” she told VTDigger in an interview Monday.
Some of the racism she recounted was blatant.
She recalled seeing “I Hate (N-word) Dean” scribbled on the girls’ bathroom wall at the middle school, a message she only later realized had been addressed to her.
Another time, she told VTDigger, a student directly called her a “fucking (N-word).”
Charlestin also described an accumulation of microaggressions — questioning of her authority by school staff and administration members; the disparate treatment of a student of color versus a white student when it came to discipline; and the cluelessness that followed when she would point out such issues to other staff, she said.
“I showed up every day ready and willing to do the work,” Charlestin said. “But the toll that it took on me, I recognize now, was not sustainable. And the system wasn’t there to make sure that I was OK.”
She said the situation jeopardized her mental and physical health. “After I would get home from work, my body would just shut down. I have two children and there were days I couldn’t put them to bed,” she said.
The burden was so taxing, she said, she had to increase the frequency of her therapy sessions in April.
Asked about Charlestin’s departure, Barb Wilson, chair of the Addison Central School District School Board, said, “It was unfortunate that she resigned and she went through what she went through. I think we’re very saddened by that.”
The district is focused on equity and is hiring a consultant to help that effort, Wilson added. “I’m very pleased that we are focused on equity. We are taking it very seriously.”
Timothy Williams, interim superintendent of the Addison Central School District, told VTDigger by email that he and other district leaders had shared messages with the community after Charlestin’s departure “recognizing and denouncing the racist harm that Esther or any of our BIPOC students and staff experience.”
While the district has some policies in place to address racism, bullying and harassment, Williams said, it is working to advance its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, in part by hiring experts for professional development.
“We are also currently finalizing a draft Strategic Plan for Equity to support our prevention of and responses to incidents of racism moving forward,” Williams wrote.
In one of the messages he wrote to community members, the interim superintendent said that “school leaders will engage in a monthly focus on anti-bias leadership while a second expert consultant will examine student and staff belonging, centered entirely on (the district’s) BIPOC student and staff community.”
Charlestin said she plans to address the school board at its meeting on Sept. 25 and talk about the importance of policies, not apologies, that need to be in place to support BIPOC staff and students.