Hartford teacher Heather Zottolla, left, took a Facebook post by Shelley Best, right, personally, saying it insinuated "that because I'm white, I can't teach children in Hartford."
HARTFORD — Teacher Heather Zottola was at a training session for city educators on the evening of Sept. 2, hearing about ways they can better serve students of color — the bulk of Hartford's students — when she noticed one of the attendees angling a cellphone camera in her direction.
"I remember thinking, at first, 'Oh, she's taking a selfie.' Then I was like, 'Oh, look it, I'm in her picture,'" Zottola recalled this month. The woman, city board of education member Shelley Best, was seated only a few feet away in a downtown banquet room.
"What I should have said to her that night, what I thought to say to her, was, 'How did our selfie come out?' And just kind of get a feel for why she was taking it," said Zottola, 45, who did not know or recognize Best, an A.M.E. Zion minister, a social justice commentator, and one of two African Americans on Hartford's nine-member school board.
Back home that night, Zottola mentioned to her husband that a woman attending the dinner presentation had taken selfies — photos of herself — but that she seemed to intentionally include Zottola in the frame, "and I wonder why."
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Best's social media network had already learned the reason in real time as Best raised a blunt question about who was in the room that evening.
The head of the Hartford teachers' union, Andrea Johnson, would later say that she was "appalled" when she saw the Facebook post that would trigger pained conversations over teacher diversity and online civility.
All Zottola knew was that she felt uneasy when she went to bed that night.
The next morning, she asked one of the consultants at the multi-day training if he knew the woman who was taking photos. The man pulled up Best's Facebook page and showed it to Zottola, a magnet theme coach who has spent her 23-year teaching career at Noah Webster, a prekindergarten-to-grade 8 school in Hartford's West End.
Zottola had to leave the room to collect herself.
Hartford school board member Shelley Best’s “selfie” posted on Facebook ignited conversations on teacher diversity and online civility. This screenshot was included in a letter to Hartford school leaders complaining about the Sept. 2 post.
Best, 53, said she grew up in northwestern Connecticut in the 1960s, in Norfolk, where her father was an activist and Best was the only black child in her school.
"I know what it is to be 'the other,'" said Best, by way of explaining her mindset on that September evening. "I'm not just hyper-sensitive when I go into rooms. It's not like I'm not used to being 'the only.'"
But when she entered the banquet room with fellow board member Craig Stallings, the space felt "uncomfortable," Best recalled. The presentations that school board members usually sit through tend to involve hard chairs in a cafeteria or auditorium. "We didn't expect this to be a ... 'pass the hors d'oeuvres' kind of event," she said.
Best also noticed that among the roughly 50 people in the room — mainly school administrators, teachers and instructional coaches — all but a handful were white. Most were white women, such as Zottola, who conceded that has been the reality for a lot of the professional development sessions she has attended in the 21,000-student Hartford school system.
"As people of color, when we walk in a room and there's not many of us," Best said in an interview this fall, "we kind of look around and go, 'Oh, what did we walk into?' And that's what the feeling was: What is this?"
Best decided to sit up front. Once the presentation got underway, on classroom techniques that the district was piloting in a couple of schools, the lead consultant touched on the achievement gap and showed slides on the academic struggles of underprivileged children, particularly boys of color.
This is what Best remembered: A white female scholar illustrating her point with images of "sad, black males, little boys like this," said Best, mimicking a child's frown. "Like, sad, black boys who can't make it in school."
"The slideshow showed young black males failing," Best continued.
She noted that the only black man in the room was Stallings, a product of Hartford public schools. "If a man of color was presenting a presentation on the struggle of young black males in the classroom, and what we need to do to get young black males engaged — that's a different feeling."
Alternatively, Best said, what if "it was a slideshow of young black women failing, and I'm the only black woman in the room? How would I feel?"
That got Best stewing on this fact: In a Hartford school system where the vast majority of students are "black and brown," Best said, most of the people leading the schools, classrooms and curriculum are white. The district, which has tried recruiting prospects from historically black colleges and minority career fairs, has identified three-quarters of city teachers and half of school principals as white.
Nationally, about 82 percent of public school teachers are white, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Education report.
When uploading her dour "selfie" to several thousand followers on Facebook, Best wrote this as the caption: "In a room full of folks talking about us (and the educational achievement gap) that don't look like us ... hmmmm ..."
Half of the photo showed part of Best's stern, bespectacled face.
To the right of Best was Zottola, fair-skinned with near-platinum blond hair in a black and periwinkle outfit, looking at the camera without a smile. The lighting is so bright in the image that one of her forearms blends in with the table linen.
Seated next to Zottola in the photo were two white colleagues from Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School: a literacy coach and Principal Jay Mihalko, both looking askance in Best's direction. The literacy coach, who declined to speak with The Courant, appeared concerned. All three saw that Best was including them in the frame when she snapped her selfie, Zottola said.
Although Best said her intent was to take a "crowd shot," the photo was clear enough that the educators' faces were recognizable.
"Look at the chick in the black and blue. Yikes," one commenter wrote, in reference to Zottola, on Best's public post that had attracted at least 165 "likes" and 50 comments from a racially diverse group of followers, most of them expressing support for Best.
"No one looks like they want to be there ... yall look pissed," someone else chimed in.
"I wonder what those 3 in the background are thinking?!?!?" another woman wrote.
After the initial distress of seeing herself in the photo, Zottola said, it was scrolling through the comments that made her "really upset." One of the first replies that a commenter posted was an old-timey photo of a little blond girl, her face scrunched up in disgust. It drew "likes" from eight people.
"I had to leave the room," Zottola recalled. "And I left not for a long time. I talked to myself: 'Just get over it, it doesn't matter.' I was, like, fighting with myself. 'Should I be upset about this? Should I not be?' I found, over time, I got more upset and more angry about it. And it was really more about the comments. ... I felt it was snowballing."
Zottola, a 2008 Hartford Teacher of the Year finalist and mother of two children who attend Hartford magnet schools, said she became more exasperated when someone created a crude meme out of Best's photo, cropping the image to focus on Zottola and her two colleagues. Best later said that she deleted comments on her post "that I thought were really rude."
Zottola wanted Best's photo to be wiped off the Internet, "to disappear." But her request to Best via Facebook went unanswered, she said, and after a plea to Hartford schools' central office — Zottola remembered getting a call from human resources "to let me know that they would be taking care of it" — the post remained on the social media site.
When Zottola first talked to The Courant, it was a few weeks after the controversy began. The Hartford Federation of Teachers had already complained on her behalf to the superintendent and the school board chairman, and so did her husband, who wrote a scathing letter to school leaders proposing that Best, a mayoral appointee whose term expires early next year, be removed from the board.
Dentist Paul-Henry Zottola of New Britain wrote that his wife was cyberbullied, and argued, in part, that Best "insulted an entire district of dedicated teachers as being unfit for that role because, as she puts it, they 'don't look like us.'"
"I think it would be the wrong message for the teachers of Hartford to think they're failing at their mission because they happen to be white," he told The Courant.
By the district's count, there are about 1,400 white teachers in city schools. An additional 226 Hartford teachers are black, 184 are Latino, and 34 are classified as "other."
Teacher diversity varies from school to school. At University High School of Science and Engineering, where about a third of students are black, district data show that 32 out of 36 teachers are identified as Caucasian, with no black teachers reported at the magnet school created under the longstanding Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation agreement.
A few blocks away at Rawson School in north Hartford, 12 of 40 teachers are identified as black.
Nearly two weeks after her original post, Best offered a Facebook mea culpa of sorts, saying she "inadvertently hurt people ... who happen to be some of the city's finest educators."
"I am sorry for the pain I caused the educators in the picture," Best wrote in a Sept. 15 posting. "That was not my purpose. The pain I felt is because there are not MORE people of color in rooms like this — teaching our children so our children can personally identify with people that look like them.
"More of US need to be in the room," Best continued. "Diversity makes a difference. If the cultural context were reversed and a room full of well meaning black folks were talking about the educational failure of white children — what would white advocates think or do? Yup. Race matters in America. Racial conversations often inflame us. I am sorry other people were hurt. This work is often painful."
Shelley Best’s follow-up Facebook apology on Sept. 15 included the original image that had upset Hartford teacher Heather Zottola. Zottola’s husband included this screenshot in his letter to city school officials.
Rather than appease her, Heather Zottola said the apology — she uses air quotes when discussing it — made matters worse, because Best shared the original photo again to accompany her words. Best also added the tagline, "thinking about institutional racism in education."
The new post triggered another flood of comments, some criticizing the educators for being offended, and many assuring Best that there was no need to apologize.
Another Hartford school board member, Robert Cotto Jr., wrote, "I was ok with your comments and protest when it happened." Zottola replied to his comment, "Are you saying ... it's ok for a board member to post an unauthorized picture of board employees and then allow awful comments and memes?"
Johnson, president of the teachers' union, said the whole episode had "devastated" Zottola, whom she described as a "very, very dedicated person and teacher," someone who has given school uniforms to students who could not afford them.
Johnson said she is fully aware that there are few minorities in the city's teaching ranks. Hartford school officials have outlined a diversity recruitment plan that includes an ongoing teacher preparation program for city students at Bulkeley High School, and partnering with local colleges on a recent state planning grant to help bring in and retain more black and Latino teachers.
But, Johnson said, "I'm of the belief that if you're going to take somebody's picture, you should have the courtesy to at least let them know."
During that rough first month when the image was online, Zottola's grade-school son would rub her back to console her. The emotions were raw — all her life, Zottola said, she has been teased for her pale complexion, so the social media outing, even if for "a great cause," felt like public humiliation.
Best "chose me, probably the whitest person in the room, to make her point, and I was just really hurt because she doesn't even know who I am and what I do for Hartford schoolchildren," Zottola said in late September.
"I feel like she made me her poster child for white teachers in Hartford. The insinuation, and what hurt me the most," she said, her voice cracking, "is she's saying that because I'm white, I can't teach children in Hartford."
Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, when informed a few days later of Zottola's comments, spoke delicately about the situation. She leads city educators, but her boss, essentially, is the board.
"If I can do anything to help smooth over any hard feelings or misunderstandings," Narvaez said, "I'm happy to do what I can."
Within several days, Best's selfie could no longer be found on Facebook. The original post and follow-up apology were gone.
"I have to say, 50 percent of me feels so much better," Zottola said in early October. The other half was still consumed with a gnawing sense that she had been wronged.
"It just bothers me, it just bothers me to the core ... I hate to take it so personally, because maybe deep down she didn't mean to target me, but I know she targeted me on purpose," Zottola said. "That's the whole thing that's getting to me — you picked me. I know you picked me on purpose, and I know why you picked me."
'It's About The Cause'
Best was adamant that she did not single out Zottola for her skin color. She denies choosing her at all.
"'Room full of people' was the term. It wasn't, 'look at this woman behind me ...' — that would have been cyberbullying," Best said in her office at The Conference of Churches in Hartford, a faith-based nonprofit for whom she is president and CEO. "My intention was not angled at her. I wasn't targeting her because she's fair-skinned ... . She happened to be behind me. It wasn't about her."
"To me, social media is everywhere and I engage people using the tool of social media all the time," said Best, taken aback that one post had morphed into such "conflict" when she often muses on race, social justice and education, with inspirational quotes also sprinkled into her feed.
"If she's an ally, it wasn't about you," she said of Zottola. "It's about the cause. And what's tragic is that, what — this is now supposed to be an issue about this particular teacher and not the issue?"
Later that day, Mihalko, the school principal also in the photo, indicated he was trying to move on.
"Racism, hiring practices and the achievement gap are all very real issues that can be hard to talk about, and it's important that we all work together to come to a resolution and next steps on these areas," Mihalko said. "That's really my stance. I'm not sure it's worth my time recapping what happened in this instance."
Board Chairman Richard Wareing said he received "many letters and calls" on the controversy, and believes that while Best did not intend to offend, "her remarks were destructive and hurtful and not reflective of how the board feels about its educators and the work they do."
Stallings, the board member who attended the Sept. 2 training with Best, said he understood why she was frustrated, but found that "what she was trying to do was lost in the fact that the image was of three unsuspecting teachers."
"What we're trying to do is unite ... so it was counterproductive," Stallings said.
Zottola sat in her school office on a rainy night this month, wavering between moments of admitted bitterness and wondering whether she has a right to be upset. She saw ugliness in the social media comments, and many white coworkers, "fired up" after the post went online, had validated her anger, she said.
But Zottola said she realized the situation was more complicated when she asked her assistant principal, one of the few black educators at the training, what she thought of Best's Facebook post. The response Zottola heard was along the lines of, well, Best has a point.
"I'm here on purpose," said Zottola, whose email signature includes the famed Nelson Mandela quote, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
"I get that I don't look like a lot of the kids that I teach," Zottola said, "but to me, it doesn't matter, and to them —" She sighed.
"I get both sides of it. I get we always need role models ... but I don't think I'm a bad role model, not looking like some of my kids. You know what I mean? I struggle with that a lot."