Bellwether analyst and Chicago native Andrew Rayner always wanted to be a teacher. From a very young age, he says, he loved school, learning, and teaching people things. Teaching in the Marshall Islands and Bosnia after college reinforced his love for the world of education, so when he came back to the U.S., he worked as a behavioral specialist for kids with mental health and behavioral challenges. The following year, he was one of the founding teachers at a charter school in Boston, where he taught math and special education. “To see changes in my students, even over the course of a year, was so amazing,” Andrew explains about his love of teaching.
After five years in the classroom, Andrew joined Bellwether’s Talent Services team in August 2016. Below, we talk to him about his path from a classroom educator to an education graduate student to a member of our own nonprofit firm.
Why did you transition out of the classroom and into other branches of the education field?
My behavioral work with kids made me see the importance of organizational culture as a whole in terms of lifting up kids. The culture and environment you create for students, both in the classroom and in the school building, matter. I also saw how things outside the school building were affecting and enticing kids. When I was a charter school teacher, I taught the same group of kids for two years. Getting to know them reiterated the need to influence the culture inside the classroom, inside the school as a whole, and in the community outside of the school.
I love teaching. It is rewarding but also incredibly challenging. I wanted to find another way to impact the field. I’m a big believer that if you want to become an expert in a field, you should see it from as many angles as you possibly can. So, while five years is not an extensive period of time teaching in comparison to many people, I felt ready to see the field from a different perspective.
I went on to get my master’s degree with an interest in how to create safe and brave spaces in organizations to discuss issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I went to graduate school thinking I was going to do that work with kids, but I realized that adults actually need a lot of support to deeply and authentically engage in discussions about how to accelerate progress toward building and running DEI organizations.
Can you speak to your identities and how they inform your passion for DEI work?
As a person of color, I loved teaching in the Marshall Islands. You wouldn’t think that anything while living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would remind me of home (and the place itself didn’t, really), but the kids looked somewhat like me. They shared my complexion. Then, I did work in Bosnia, where my students didn’t look like me at all. It seemed like every conversation happening in sidewalk cafes would stop as I walked by. People would literally stare at me and point. It wasn’t malicious at all. They just had never seen a black person in the flesh. I felt like such a unicorn.
Working outside the country reminded me of the work that was needed in our country, especially in communities where the people looked like me. I was driven to go back to the United States and work in urban environments with historically marginalized and underserved youth, which is why I started work as a behavioral specialist.
My other salient identity is my queer sexuality. I came out to my parents during my second year of teaching in Boston. I never came out to my students — I was still figuring out what it meant to be a queer teacher.
However, during my third year of teaching, sexuality started to be talked about between the students themselves. The administrators wanted someone to talk to the seventh graders about it, particularly because bisexuality was “trending” in the seventh grade. I was asked by an administrator to consider talking to the students, and one of the reasons that was given for my involvement was because I was gay myself. At first, I thought it was an opportunity to leverage my identity for the betterment of the students. But then I realized I didn’t know how to do it! It also felt really uncomfortable that I would be asked to do it because I was gay.
It ended up being addressed by someone in that grade-level team, but it was the first time I really thought about how to talk about sexuality in a way that was beneficial and productive to the students and not just about me coming out as a gay teacher. I began to ask school administrators if there were any internal school policies or structures in place to support me as a queer-identified teacher if I were to have come out to the students and something went wrong (e.g., a student felt uncomfortable or a parent complained). The administrators said that there were no policies or structures in place and that they had never thought about it before. That was mortifying to me.
There are still challenges for queer educators. Where I am positioned now will hopefully allow me the opportunity to create safe spaces through talent planning in organizations. Through Bellwether, I hope to have opportunities to lead the field in this work.
What attracted you to working at Bellwether?
By the end of grad school, I was looking for work in diversity consulting and found it a really hard thing to break into. I stumbled upon Bellwether, and what started out as an informational interview turned into the first of multiple interviews. I knew education consulting would give me that different-altitude look at the field and the opportunity to see what it is like to enact systems-level change.
I was drawn to Bellwether because it is mission-driven, and I had not seen that in a lot of other firms. I also thought it was incredibly impressive that the organization spanned across talent, strategy, and policy. This organization embodied the mantra I shared earlier by getting its feet wet in three different views of the same field.
My eyes have been opened in ways I didn’t think they would be, particularly about the impact that talent services work has on perceptions of DEI on the ground. For example, I never realized that how you are compensated, how you move along a compensation schedule, and perceptions of the two are all very much issues of equity. It has been great to learn that by implementing certain strategies along the talent life cycle, you can affect the experience of DEI that individuals have at an organization.
Is there anything that stands out for you about the work environment at Bellwether?
I have been lucky in that I’ve always worked at organizations that are extremely passionate about the work they are doing. That’s no different at Bellwether: People care very much about what they are working on and about impacting education. And they do it with a smile and love to laugh with one another. They bring that joy both to the seriousness with which they do the work and also to the clients to whom they’re delivering the work.
I am fortunate to be at Bellwether as we are fleshing out our DEI offerings and services for clients. I’m excited to see how we are going to codify the practices we are establishing and how the solutions we are coming up with evolve.