“As teachers of culturally diverse students, we need to eduacate ourselves about the realities in society and recognizing how colorblindness is just another form of implicit bias” ~ Zaretta Hammond in Education Week Teacher
I remember THE day, my first day as principal, leader, captain of the ship at a beautiful school. When I entered through the doors, I instantly felt at home, my heart felt the warmth in the atmosphere. The school was vibrant and brightly colored throughout the building. The bulletin boards were clean and neat with earth tone themes and colors displaying the season of fall with a back to school twist. The office staff were welcoming with their bubbly personalities. They strived to be accommodating to parents. The school in its entirety was inviting and just downright perfect. I was pleased with the climate of the building and I was content. It had a very heighten positive family feel. The school population was culturally diverse, with 52% of the students White, 29% African American, 18% Hispanic and 1% Asian American.
A school with this type of diversity should have adopted a vision that meet the needs of all students. The school’s vision was focused on high expectations for all students. But as time went on, I observed that the student population were all treated the same, they moved the same, they even responded the same and much to my surprise they all started looking the same…believe it or not! It was weird, it reminded me of the movie, “Stepford Wives”. I know I know, Google it! The identity of what I thought was the perfect school changed. I thought, “How can we be a family, if we don’t really know one another, meaning culturally?”
“Even their pedagogy was the same for all.”
The teachers were proud to say that they didn’t see color, they treated all students the same and had the same expectations of teaching them. Even their pedagogy was the same for all. They were proud to convey that to me, as if that was the fix it pill to the educational gaps. It was good to hear that their beliefs were “all students can learn” but did they really? I found that so many students were struggling academically, and who’s to blame?
I don’t see color, was something I often heard. But, if you don’t see color, you don’t see the student you are educating. It’s okay to see color. I felt that the teachers were afraid to verbalize race and to see “color” within their culturally diverse student. Afraid to say what they really see in our black and brown students, but they know the right words to say to me. This provided a disservice to our babies. But I knew that I had to make this right!
“However, a great and highly effective culturally aware and responsive leader is more important to a school’s climate and culture.”
Having a great and highly effective school leader is vital to a school’s success. However, a great and highly effective culturally aware and responsive leader is more important to a school’s climate and culture. The Glossary of Education Reform describes Culture as the term that generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school function. However, the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students. Also including the orderliness of the classroom and public spaces. The degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity. In many schools, we often forget about the part that states “embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity”.
Muhammad Khalifa, Professor at University of Minnesota has written several books that explores three basic premises with the focus on how school leaders can effectively serve minoritized students. The goal as a culturally responsive leader is to lead the path of engagement for the staff, students, parents and the community in ways that positively impact learning by honoring indigenous heritages and local cultural practices.
Society has now been aware of the importance of “Black Lives Matter” and it seems to be a new thing for them, but it has been a concern for “black lives” as well as our brown children for many years. We have to stop “tip toeing” around the issues because society has been “dancing” around these issues as if a problem doesn’t exist…evasiveness is powerful!
As leaders, we must become intentional with our practices, beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and the written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of our school. The change doesn’t only start with us, THE CHANGE IS WITHIN US! We have work to do.
Wendy Fitzpatrick is an experienced and passionate instructional, culturally responsive leader. Most of her 30 years of experiences has been in a Title 1, urban setting. As a leader, her vision has always been focused on the equity for all students. Her mantra is that her work is never done!
“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein
So, 4 weeks into our new normal where our worlds were turned upside down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It began with district meetings being held to discuss the possibility of being released after Friday for at least a week. As the world frantically watched the news praying that we were not embarking on what many of us were used to seeing in movies or television shows, reality began to sink in that we may be out for longer than a few days. I remember having a faculty meeting with my staff that week. During this time, we did not know much about the virus other than the fact that it allegedly started in a different country and could possibly hit the United States. I even recalled a comment being made that African Americans could not get the virus, which I quickly rejected. As we sat with a lot of questions and uncertainty, the one thing we knew for certain was that we needed to make sure our students were safe. We trained all of the staff one last time to ensure they knew what to expect and how to set up classes online. It was my job to lead the staff in a plan of action that would involve making sure our students remained safe in the midst of these uncertain times and ensure that we had lessons to send home for our students to access. We rushed to make sure all students K-5th could claim their Google accounts and access Google Meets. For some of my teachers, this was uncharted waters for them as well. I remember, thinking to myself, “How will we pull this off?” “Will my students be okay?” “Will my staff be okay?” “Heck! Will I be okay?” Friday, March 13th came and we did everything in our power to ensure that this was a normal day for our students. Little did we know that this virus would impact everything we previously knew as schooling for our students.
In The Beginning
“It was an epic FAIL”
Fast forward to the first week of virtual teaching and learning. The meetings, the meetings, the MEETINGS! I quickly realized that this would be more challenging than I had anticipated. Not only am I attempting to lead 75 plus staff members and 640 students (with their parents) from home, I have 4 children (high school, middle school, PK and Daycare) of my own that are going to require my attention. I quickly found myself assisting my staff via meetings, checking on students and families, running to the school to make packets and holding parent meetings on how to support their students at home. All of the things I am sure other schools and districts were doing. As for my own house, it was an epic FAIL! With the exception of the older 2 who are pretty self sufficient, my younger 2 did not care that mommy and daddy had meetings online from the time we got up, to the evening before and sometimes through dinner. The best I could do was squeeze in time between meetings to get a quick puzzle, sight words, lunch, then naps. I guiltily found myself looking forward to nap times. Why? Not so I could get a quick nap in to restart MYSELF and change the scenery from sitting at a dining room table for 9 hours straight. Nap times were the only time, I had uninterrupted time to squeeze in my meetings, check emails and make phone calls. I thought I had it all figured out. Except, I didn’t! What I quickly realized is that not only was I pouring more into my work as a school principal than ever before, I was doing it and sacrificing the ease, feeling of security and consistency of having mommy all in one fail swoop.
“My Motherhood was being tested more than ever.”
As I attended district meetings and my own staff meetings, I wanted to be clear that I understood the challenges of being at home and wanted to make sure everyone else knew my position. “Compassion” and “Grace” became my mantra any time I had the opportunity to say it. Whether it was to advocate for my teachers to those outside of the school building or to advocate for my parents when speaking to staff. But what about me? Was I being hypocritical because I did not extend the same for myself? Who was advocating for the principals who have children at home while working virtually? Why did I feel guilty for wanting to say no or needing a day off to get my own household in order? Here I was preaching to my staff about taking full advantage of the time you have with your family while the true testament to how I was doing was being reflected in my 2 year old walking around the house with a cell phone between her cheek and shoulder as she modeled what she had been seeing from mommy for the past few weeks. My motherhood was being tested more than ever.
Taking Advantage of Opportunity
“Needless to say, I now had an opportunity to think outside of the box and create opportunities for my staff and students that I might not have otherwise taken under normal circumstances.”
At last the end of school arrived, planning was under way for staff to check out and the next phase of planning kicked into high gear. This was my time to exhale, this was my time to re-calibrate. I believe the end of the school year is much like child birth, you forget how hard it is until you face it again. I think that is divine intervention. (smile). My mothers out there understand (smile). Needless to say, I now had an opportunity to think outside of the box and create opportunities for my staff and students that I might not have otherwise taken under normal circumstances. Most importantly, I now had time to reflect on my own leadership practices. Evaluating your own leadership style, and its attendant strengths and weaknesses, is crucial to getting the most out of your leadership.
I also had the opportunity to work on me. I could think about taking additional courses, graduate school or even starting a new business aligned with my personal passions. Most importantly, I could get my own house in order. My children needed mommy back and hubby needed wifey back.
Here we are in July facing similar, but new challenges. Too many to name on this post, but worth sharing on a later post. The point is, I now face the task of minimizing the fears and anxiety of staff, parents and students as we gear up to return to our “new normal.” So much planning, so little time all while feeling like we are running in place. I have met with various district leaders, teacher groups, parents, school leadership team and even my own family. Yet, I still feel uncertain, and worried that I am not doing enough or have enough to make the necessary adjustments that will anticipate every possible scenario. Is it fair to place such pressure on something that we are all trying to figure out? Is it even possible to address every possible scenario? Important decisions have to be made to ensure everyone is entering into a safe learning environment. Leadership 101! The plan is beautiful on paper, however, the self-doubt begins to creep in as you receive more questions and uncertainty of the COVID-19 numbers. Not to mention the important decision I have to make as a parent for my own children.
Leading with Balance
“I am taking responsibility for my own work-life balance.”
So here we are at the start of the new year. I have learned from the spring and from my personal reflections. I recently came across an article from the Chicago Tribune on “5 Things High-Powered Women Need to Know About Work Life.” In the article, they interview, Aimee Cohen, co-founder of Women on Point, who provides 5 tips for having a work-life balance. They are as follows:
Define it for yourself
Think of work-life balance from a calendar-year review
Remember: You are not an emergency room doctor (unless you really are, LOL)
Talk about your family
No one will provide work-life balance. You will need to seek it.
Interestingly enough, all of these resonate with me and I have found to be true. Work-life balance looks differently for everyone. As I sit hear and after learning about the “Miracle Morning” strategies, I am following through with one of the strategies of reflection via scribing. I am not on social media, however, I am in my quiet, cozy living room with access to the sun making sure to not awake the masses in my household. I am learning to give myself grace and not feeling guilty when I cannot get to something right away. Not only am I talking about my family, I am checking on them more in the middle of the day. I even updated the photos of my family in my school office. Besides, my 5 year old kept wondering why his brothers had more pictures up than him. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I was much better at capturing moments before I became a school leader (That is another mommy story for another day). Finally, Cohen, made a statement that I found to be one-hundred percent true, “You teach people how to treat you.” If you are responding to email 24 hours a day, for example, “That’s going to be the expectation.” So take responsibility for creating a work life that works for you.” If she knocked this one out of the ball park! Just the like any other school leader, you want to be responsive to your staff and parents when they email or call with concerns or questions, however, that quickly turns into, if Principal Hud-Kirk is up sending emails at 10 pm, surely she is by her phone. I have decided today, that Google is my friend, so emails will be scheduled and unless their is an emergency or a call from my boss, 7 pm is the cut off for phone and email responses. I am taking responsibility for my own work-life balance.
“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list.” ~Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States
This article is dedicated to my great-grandmother Ivery Blanton Cook. Affectionately known as grandma Ivery by family and friends, passed away in July of 2009, two weeks weeks shy of her 100th birthday. Eleven years later, she is still an important part of my journey and an important part of my why. I am truly blessed to have known and learned from an incredible individual who exmplified what it meant to be courageous, unapologetic and nurturing to her family and community. I just pray that I become half the person she left this earth being and still is in spirit. Love you grandma!!
Great leaders lead from the inside out. – Lee Colan
Written By Guest Blogger: Dr. Dira D. Harris
In other words, “Leading with Faith” is not about who we say that we are, it is about who we SHOW that we are. Leading with faith is an outward display of leadership determined by an inward development of character. We have all heard character identified as those things we do when no one is watching. Character is rooted in our integrity or moral compass. Webster’s dictionary defines integrity as a state of “wholeness.” The question then becomes: how can we lead, if we ourselves are not whole? The answer, though rhetorical, is we cannot! Well, at least not effectively.
Effectively, leading with faith requires that we are first, whole. Wholeness doesn’t mean that we are perfect; it simply means that we have clear understanding of who we are in our hearts. This identification is guided by a clear set of standards, values, and beliefs that form the principles of our leadership and even more importantly, our humanity. When leading with faith, our principles become the central compass of determining our whole selves. These are the doctrines we live by. Thus, we can with integrity, hold those we lead accountable to as well.
“For we wrestle notagainstfleshandblood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
When we have guiding principles, it makes it much easier for us to be consistent and impactful when making leadership decisions. This idea of guiding principles that determine our consistent actions as leaders, is echoed in the Biblical scripture Ephesians 6:12 “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Simply put, our fight is not against the school board, administrators, parents, teachers, stakeholders or students. Instead our focus should be on principles. These principles include ideals such as right versus wrong, advocacy versus opposition, activism versus politicisms, and inclusion versus relegation.
“Nonetheless, without a compass directing us on where to go, there would be nowhere to lead them.”
It is not always easy to focus on the ideals because they are abstract. It is much easier to pinpoint the people who present the antithesis of the principles that you support. However, this is what I believe Colan meant when he said great leaders lead from the inside out. The focus is not on the who (people-on the outside) but instead the what and why (principles-on the inside). Why are we fighting? What do we want our outcomes to be? Years will pass and the who (students, parents, teachers, stakeholders, and administrators) may change, but the reason why we continue to lead with integrity remains the same. The why and the what are the driving forces behind the decisions that we make as we are leading with faith. Don’t be mistaken; without people, there would of course be no one to lead. Nonetheless, without a compass directing us on where to go, there would be nowhere to lead them.
So as I encourage myself, I also encourage each one of you in your perspective realms of leadership, to lead with faith. Remember that leading by faith means standing on your principles!
Dr. Dira D. Harris is an educator, public speaker, and author who has had practice ministering to individuals from the Baby Boomer Generation to Generation Y! Her unique background and life experiences make her literature both mature and yet still relatable. She is a wife and mother, sister, friend and a forever hopeful romantic who believes in the idea of leading in love in all areas of her love.