Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning to Lead for Racial Equity: To Help K-12 Educators Confront Racial Inequities, School and District Leaders Need to Provide Sustained, Intensive, and Carefully Designed Opportunities for Professional Learning

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning to Lead for Racial Equity: To Help K-12 Educators Confront Racial Inequities, School and District Leaders Need to Provide Sustained, Intensive, and Carefully Designed Opportunities for Professional Learning

Article excerpt

If education leaders aspire to confront and undo severe racial inequities in schools and school systems, they must create opportunities for teachers and staff to engage in productive discussions about questions that many of them will be reluctant to consider. Those could include questions about how race affects their decisions about which students to place into basic and advanced courses, which teachers to assign to which children, which parents they see as "engaged," discipline practices, and on and on.

Given how complex and how deeply felt Americans' beliefs about race and equity are, these topics cannot be addressed effectively through the onetime workshops that too often pass for professional development in K-12 education. Nor is it effective to lecture educators about racial bias, bury them in data and research findings, or treat social justice as just another initiative for the school to adopt. Rather, conversations about these issues have to be frequent, ongoing, and handled with great care and skill.

Later in this article, we offer guidance on research-based practices that can help school- and district-level educators engage in meaningful professional learning about race and equity. But we begin with a vignette that illustrates just how easy it is for educational leaders--even those who are deeply committed to the pursuit of racial justice--to underestimate the complexity of this work.

How easily it can go wrong

Bryar Middle School (not the school's real name) serves students from various neighborhoods, who were brought together when several schools were shut down due to school consolidations and closures. Like many schools, it struggles on a number of fronts at the same time: Over the past two years, it has experienced a significant decline in student achievement; faculty morale is low; unplanned teacher absences are frequent, creating a daily scramble to find multiple substitute teachers, and student disciplinary problems are common--though it's important to note that while a little over 40% of the student body is made up of students who identify as white, students of color make up 99% of all documented disciplinary referrals.

Bryar's assistant principal, Ms. Miles (also a pseudonym), wishes that she could devote herself to providing instructional leadership but instead spends most of her time fielding complaints. Every day she hears from teachers who are at their wits' ends dealing with students they refer to as "unmotivated" and "disrespectful." She hears from Hispanic students that their teachers misunderstand and disrespect them; why, they want to know, is the Spanish teacher the only Hispanic teacher in the school? And she hears from parents who worry that the teachers and staff don't know how to relate to their children.

Earlier in the month, she had a difficult conversation with an African-American father who had come to the school to share his concerns about his son, a 6th grader, who had been sent to the office multiple times for "not paying attention." In her last note home, the boy's teacher had warned that the behavior needed to be corrected to avoid further disciplinary action. "But Ms. Miles," the man asked bluntly, "how am I supposed to build a relationship with my son's teacher when the look in her eyes is one of fear, and when she physically backs away every time I approach her?" Without waiting for an answer, he added, "I know that these teachers mean well. But it is hard to communicate with them if they are afraid of me and my child."

The next day, Miles went to her immediate supervisor, principal Nelson, to have a heart-to-heart talk about the increasingly tense environment in and around the school. It was time to do something, she argued, to change Bryar's culture and offer better support to teachers, staff, students, and families. She asked Nelson for permission to attend a regional equity training, which she hoped would equip her with ideas for improving the school community. …

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