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Four Key Lessons on Addressing Equity in Schools

 |   |  School Leadership, School Culture, District Leadership, Equity

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It’s almost impossible these days to read an education article, watch the news, look at social media, or even have a conversation with a friend or colleague that doesn’t somehow touch on racial equity. We’ve seen our country grapple with a worldwide pandemic while simultaneously trying to reckon with the gross racial inequities that are ever-present in our society and in our schools. And whether you’ve been thinking about racial equity for a week, a year, or a lifetime, there’s one common denominator – the work of addressing racism is never easy. In fact, if it’s easy, it’s probably not the right work.

Racism and the highly aspirational goal of true racial equity are two sides of the same coin. And because simply evoking the word “equity” somehow signals one is paying attention, I worry that we (educators) are not doing enough. I worry that we are actually just hiding behind the word without addressing individual and systemic racism at all. It is easy to attend webinars or virtual education conferences that have the word “equity” in the title, or to read one of the many education publications that have dedicated entire issues to the topic of equity. But in my opinion, the great miscalculation being made by many in our field is that watching and learning are enough to impact students’ lives.

The true work of addressing racial equity will never have an impact if we continue down the road of it being a process in which we expect individuals, and entire systems, to simply watch and learn. And this is particularly true for white educators. For far too long, we’ve placed the burden of addressing racial equity on those who are most directly impacted – people of color. Too often conversations on race require people of color to share their personal experiences and histories as a means of educating white people, thereby further “othering” and fatiguing educators of color while continuing to allow white educators to engage more passively as an observer. Addressing racism must engage all involved in the true work of unpacking how their personal beliefs and actions are likely contributing to the gross racial inequity that is ever-present in our communities and our schools. So while reading and learning are important to becoming racially literate and more critically racially conscious, this is only the first (and easiest) step in the process. It’s actually quite easy to immerse oneself in reading about the topic or watch others talk about it. It’s a completely different experience to engage – really engage.

As we’ve worked to address racial equity in public education over the last several years, we’ve identified a few key lessons that have helped us engage more deeply, and more effectively, in the work. And unlike less personal topics such as student assessment or content standards, engaging in learning on racial equity should feel quite personal from the minute one begins. But are schools and districts structured and equipped to actually engage? In many cases, the answer is unfortunately, albeit likely, “Not yet.”

Given the importance of the conversation, and the fact that we and our students are living in communities that are demanding that we finally and deliberately address race and racism in our schools, we must find ways to learn from each other. If we’re going to have the impact we desire, we’ve got to commit and dig in. And this is much easier said than done.

Although I’d never pretend that a blog post will unlock the keys to overcoming racism, we have learned some valuable lessons that may be helpful as you examine how to move beyond the “equity window dressing” we’re currently witnessing to a place of deeper (and hopefully impactful) engagement.

  • Examining whiteness must be a central aspect of the work. As a white educator, naming and understanding my whiteness was the most critical part of my journey. It was also the aspect of the work that took me the longest to understand and acknowledge. For many years, my focus as a teacher, coach, and administrator when it came to racial equity was about acknowledging the race of my students (and colleagues) as a way to ensure they felt seen in my classroom or school. I placed great value on culturally relevant pedagogy, worked to build classroom and school environments that celebrated the “diversity” of students and staff, and openly championed the importance of knowing our students and creating spaces in which they could all achieve. But in all of that work, I had never reflected on how my whiteness impacted my thinking. Once I finally understood that understanding and unpacking my whiteness was the necessary first step, it completely transformed how I engaged in every single conversation moving forward.

I make this point because about 80% of teachers in our public school system are white. Additionally, it is not until we acknowledge the impact of whiteness that we can truly examine how it has served as the measure against which all other races are compared. Whiteness sits central to the conversation on racial equity. If you’re white, the discoveries you’ll make about being white will permanently impact how you engage with race for the rest of your life. And isn’t that the goal?

  • This work takes consistent, continuous effort. As educators, I think it’s in our nature to act with urgency and speed, particularly on topics that impact our students in such significant and life-altering ways. But if you think you’re going to “address equity” quickly in the short term, think again. Despite our best attempts to accelerate this work, particularly in environments where there is immense pressure to do something quickly, the reality is that moving from our racist structures to communities that are indeed racially equitable is a long process. In fact, I think we’d all be best served if we just acknowledged that there will be no end point to this work. The urgency requires us to start, but it should also remind us of the long road ahead and the importance of not over-simplifying the learning that needs to happen in order to actually have an impact.
  • Engage the individual and give them the time and space to learn. Building upon the point of urgency, because we want to have an immediate impact we often jump to trying to figure out what “the system” can do right now. We almost intuitively start thinking about what school or district leadership must do to support staff and students. And often, the end result is an equity plan with a list of to-dos and next steps. But in my experience, the most important first step is not springing into action, but instead stopping to reflect. And I’m not talking about a brief reflection that can be captured in a journal entry or reflective conversation, but rather a deep, internal reflection and introspection aimed at laying the foundation for a more comprehensive understanding of racism in America and the action that will be required to overcome it. 

We must first start by implementing structures that allow and encourage personal and individual learning, reflection, and exploration. As individuals committed to racial equity, we must all be ready to reflect on the true history of racial oppression in this country, how our own racial consciousness has impacted our view of race, and how we (particularly if you’re white) are indeed contributing to racial inequity and racism in this country and in our classrooms. We simply cannot skip this step, and educators will only build their capacity to engage in this work if they’ve first had an opportunity for deep personal learning and reflection. Rather than placing expectations on educators that their first order of business is addressing the racial consciousness of the students they serve, we’d likely be better served if the first order of business was engaging the individuals in the work of deep reflection on their own racial consciousness.

  • This work is and will be uncomfortable. Don’t expect to make major shifts by addressing the “easy stuff.” Once the work has begun in earnest, the discomfort will/should show up immediately. Individuals will experience discomfort as they begin to realize that what they’ve known and believed about race for so many years is inaccurate at best and damaging at worst. For example, white individuals will likely struggle with understanding how they’ve indeed benefited from white privilege despite the fact that they’ve never seen or felt it. And this will only be the tip of the iceberg. As both Americans and educators, we start to see very quickly how we’ve held up inaccurate accounts of history, downplayed the role of racism in our treatment of students and their achievement, and failed to realize our gaps in our own understanding for so many years.

Racial equity work is deep and non-linear and cannot be confined to a few days of professional learning with staff. It’s not as simple as hiring more educators of color and expecting students to react in ways that increase their ability to learn and achieve. It cannot simply be about a book study, attending a conference, or providing relevant reading to those we support. This is the easy stuff. True racial equity work, when done well, is actually about all of these things and so much more. And with “so much more” comes a level of understanding that, without fail, leads to a deeper, truer understanding of the realities of racism that will inevitably be accompanied by a discomfort that will be hard to name, impossible to dismiss, and linger for a long time. I’ve learned that we must acknowledge the discomfort and actually embrace it, or we’ll immediately shift to being defensive – at which point the learning will stop. And once the learning has stopped, we’ll never make progress.

We owe it to our students, and quite frankly, ourselves, to deliver on the goal of becoming more critically race conscious human beings and educators. It’s time we acknowledge that much of the equity work to date has been incomplete and failed to ensure schools are places in which all students, regardless of race, can find success. Our schools, and the white educators within them, are rarely equipped for this work. For the most part, we’ve been raised in and benefit from a society that was built on white supremacist beliefs and then spent centuries pretending this wasn’t the case.

But I know educators. I’ve worked alongside them as a teacher and school leader and now spend my days supporting their growth and development. I know that despite the fact that we have a lot to learn, we’re ready to engage because we love our work and we are deeply committed to the students we support each day. It’s time for us to take on the burden of a racist society and embrace the discomfort that comes with it in order to relieve our children from the damaging effects of the racism so deeply embedded in our culture – and in us as well.

 

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About Dr. Michael Moody

Dr. Michael Moody co-founded Insight Education Group and Insight ADVANCE on the premise that high-quality educators are the key to student success and it is this belief that continues to inspire his work today. Contributing regularly to the blog, Michael is always excited to start or join a conversation about helping educators grow.

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