Conversations with the Head: Mónica Schilder Spanish Teacher and Co-director of Dive In Commonwealth

Like our students, teachers bring their whole selves—their passions and pasts—to their work at Commonwealth. Mónica Schilder’s childhood in Peru deeply informs her role as a Spanish teacher and Co-director of Dive In Commonwealth, our academic enrichment program for middle-school students from historically marginalized, under-resourced backgrounds. She has worked to grow Dive In into an ever-more robust pathway for students and families interested in independent schools, while bringing her long-standing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion to bear. Keep reading as Mónica and Head of School Jennifer Borman ’81 discuss how Dive In is woven into Commonwealth’s mission, the joys of returning
to international travel, and not taking our foot off the gas when it comes to DEI.

Before we dive into your work, Mónica, let’s start at the beginning: what led you to Commonwealth?

Mónica Schilder: So I arrived in the U.S. in 2003 to finish my master’s degree. I was also a teaching fellow, and as anyone who’s done that job knows, they make very little money! So I worked part-time jobs at Simmons [University], I worked at [Boston University], I gave some private classes. And then, somehow, I got an email from Commonwealth—the Spanish department was looking for a sabbatical replacement. The sabbatical replacement turned into seventeen years.

My upbringing connects a lot to my work. DEI wasn’t something I really thought about before I came to Commonwealth. I went to a private school for girls, a British school considered one of the top in Lima. I had a scholarship there—my family is middle working class—and most of the kids who went to this school were very wealthy. It was a shock to face that difference every day, but you never really thought about it in those terms. You just went to school, feeling very grateful for the opportunity. Growing up, they always told me, “You are so lucky; you have to give it your all.” So, as a student, I was proving that I deserved it every day, year after year. And, you know, it’s like you’re wearing this invisible backpack all the time. I didn’t see then what I see now: how lucky we [educators] are to be able to bring people from all these different backgrounds to the table and how much richer we are because of them.

What are some of the other lessons you’ve learned about DEI?

MS: One important lesson for me was to think in terms of the individual. Even students coming from a similar background have very different experiences. And you can’t bring students from underrepresented backgrounds here without getting everyone else in the community involved. I’m grateful to see that, little by little, the school has become a place where DEI is mainstream. It is really important for everyone to be thinking about this work and making sure everyone has a voice—not only on our Diversity Day but through the curriculum, through hiring, through student life, through admissions, through every aspect of what we’re doing here.

JB: Lots of us here share your perspective: we want every student to feel like this is their school, whatever their background, and they should not have that burden of feeling like they have to demonstrate gratitude or work extra hard to show they deserve the opportunity. Each of our students makes our school a more interesting, educational, connected space. But with DEI work, we’re always learning and reflecting: What do I not know? Where do I need to grow?

Where do you see our priorities in terms of DEI work?

JB: We are still absolutely committed to providing full scholarships to students who need them and keeping DEI a budgeting and a fundraising priority. And two things we have planned for next year are new Algebra I and introductory computer science classes. They’re intentionally designed to give kids more onramps to our curriculum. So that’s exciting, but not the end of the journey.

We have started some really promising work on recruiting both for Dive In and for Commonwealth, breaking out of our bubble, so to speak, to build stronger relationships with community organizations. But we have a long way to go, and we have tons of work to do in terms of recruiting talented, diverse faculty and staff. The wonderful part about working here is people are so committed—and don’t leave very often. But as we all know, when you’re applying to a school, whether you’re a student or a parent, and you see adults who maybe don’t look like you or you’re not sure will understand you, it’s harder to see yourself thriving there, too. And I feel like we would benefit not just on the admissions side but in terms of our collective expertise by having more diverse faculty and staff. We’re diverse in some ways, but there’s lots of room for growth.

Like you, I want to make sure that we continue to ask ourselves the hard questions. We definitely want to keep building on the momentum, and we’re not taking our foot off the gas.

MS: For me, the top priority is the curriculum, especially as we build Dive In as a pipeline to Commonwealth and other independent schools. The learning gaps are so big now. Students need a lot more help and support to get where [pre-pandemic] classes have been. That doesn’t mean that we are going to be less rigorous. We need to continue the dialogue: how do we balance how rigorous we are with keeping kids excited about learning? How do we make sure they’re not exhausted? How do we explain the why of what they’re learning? How do we bring in more voices of color?

That’s why I love Dive In being such a presence in the school. My incredible colleagues feel like they have some ownership of it, like their voices and ideas are welcome. I think the program will become so much stronger and better because of them.

Mónica, you stepped into the role of Dive In’s Director, first, and now Co-director with Rui Shu, our Mandarin teacher. What are some of your goals for the program? How do you see us continuing to learn from and to strengthen Dive In?

MS: In one case [a Dive In grad, now Commonwealth student] came back to teach math to the youngest cohort—to give back in a generous, absolutely altruistic, and just happy way. It would be awesome if we could create that kind of continuity, where all Dive In kids, hopefully, come to Commonwealth and then go back and help the next group.

We’re thinking and talking about how to make this program fun and help students reach their goals of going to an independent school. So we’re trying to be creative. We actually expanded the program to a cohort of sixth graders this year, so we’ll see the impact of the longer runway.

JB: One of the many things that’s been so energizing about working together on this is just the idea that everyone’s incredibly committed. Dive In is still a relatively new program [founded in 2019]. So there are all kinds of opportunities to try something new and then ask, did it work as well as we hoped? What would we do differently? What did kids respond to? What did they most need?

MS: I love that, too. With these small cohorts, it is much easier to adapt as we go along and to learn from our mistakes and to see what works and what doesn’t. So that’s exciting. Change happens more slowly at Commonwealth and other older institutions because we don’t want to mess with what works!

What has stayed the same and what notable changes have you seen over the arc of your seventeen years here?

MS: I think the same values stand. We still want all students to grow in a holistic way. I continue to admire my colleagues and be astonished by how many talents they have. And we truly care about our kids. The whole advising system is about being the advocates for the students, considering their unique stories, where they’re coming from. The most rewarding part is really getting to know my advisees—the kind of people they are becoming, their interests outside and inside the classroom, and their curious, curious minds! [Faculty and staff] all have different styles, because we’re all different people, but we put our students first. I think that’s what makes this place special. And that has not changed at all.

Things that have changed, I think, for the good, are being more open about our limitations and being more frank about things that need to continue to change and not being afraid of having those talks. Now we’re a little bit more humble about the places where we can grow. And that’s what makes the institution a stronger one.

JB: One of the things that hasn’t changed is the strength of the language program here and the options for international travel. I love the shape of our programs, and you have played a monumental role in making them a success—coordinating the trips to Peru and Spain, the exchanges when Spanish kids come here, the logistics for Italy and France. Not only do I see kids click in terms of their language learning, but I feel like that experience of being in a new environment opens their eyes, as they gain a different perspective on what it’s like to be a little bit of an outsider.

Can you talk a bit about the impact of our international travel programs? What’s the most exciting part of broadening our kids’ understanding of the world in this way?

MS: The thing that motivates me the most about these trips is giving our students the opportunity to see each other from a different perspective. They take these trips, and then they start to realize they have a lot more in common than they once thought. They form these relationships and friendships. And when they come back, they have grown so much. I love how in my Spanish class, since the exchange program, they look at each other whenever there’s a new vocabulary word: “Oh, the Spanish kids were saying that all the time; what does it mean?” “It means this!” Their memories of these tiny little incidents are so precious to them. And, like you were saying, Jennifer, when you’re in a different country, you make comparisons with your life, and we talk about those differences. For example, in Peru, we talk about the different social classes, and students see them firsthand when we travel from the cities to the mountains. They see how much poverty there is. I think the students deeply appreciate doing these kinds of trips, and I know they understand that not everyone has these kinds of opportunities.

JB: I could see the sadness from the canceled trips during the pandemic—and I can see the sparkle in kids’ eyes returning, now that we can venture forth again. It’s amazing.

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