Education Opinion

How to Coach for Equity in Schools, Part 1

By Elena Aguilar — February 20, 2015 6 min read
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Recently, I suggested that all coaches should be coaches for equity (see this blog post)--that it is our moral obligation and that if we aren’t coaching for equity we are complicit in reproducing an inequitable system. I want offer some concrete ways in which we can coach teachers and leaders within our education system to build more equitable classrooms and schools.

What does it mean to be a coach for equity? I’ve landed on five broad domains which encompass coaching for equity: What you see in schools, where you look, who you listen to, your self-awareness, and finally, what you say about what you see and hear. In each of these areas there are specific actions that a coach for equity takes.

This blog will discuss what you see and where you look; next week I’ll post Part 2 describing who you listen to and the kind of self-awareness that a coach for equity develops. And the following week, I’ll post Part 3: what a coach for equity says about what he/she sees and hears.

1. It’s What You See

Where does your gaze settle when you walk in to a classroom? Is it on the teacher and whatever he/she is doing? Is it on the students who are on-task or off-task? What draws your attention?

As a coach for equity, I scan the room for any child who seems left out, cast out, under-served or under-performing; for those who are socially, emotionally or academically not succeeding; for the vulnerable who need us to huddle around and help them get through childhood. Those are the children I look at first. I also see through a lens of power and systemic oppression because my gaze lands first on the children who may come from communities that have been disenfranchised for centuries, the children who may have more hurdles to jump across.

Then I pay attention to how the person with authority (usually the teacher) relates to these children. These highlight the first two indicators of equity in a classroom.

I have been in more classrooms than I can count where when I walk in the door, the first thing I see--right by the door--is a “time out” chair occupied by a black or brown male. The inequity stares me in the face. The symbolism of being by the door calls for a re-labeling of so called “drop outs"--I see those who may one day drop out being pushed out in the first, third, fourth grade. I have seen the same in the front office of many schools--black and brown boys (and a fair number of black girls) also being pushed out, waiting to be picked up because of a behavioral infraction. As a coach for equity, I take note of this.

When I go into classrooms, I also notice the following:

• Who is the teacher calling on? And are those students the “successful” ones? Or are they from the group of disengaged boys in the back of the class? And what is the nature of that interaction between the teacher and the students? If the teacher does call on one of those boys, is the interaction positive, neutral or negative?

• If students are doing group work, is every child meaningfully involved? Do they all have input into the work? Do they each contribute? Are each child’s contributions appreciated and valued? How do students speak to each other? And are any students treated differently because they are perceived as being different?

• English Learners struggle in many ways when their learning needs aren’t met. So I pay attention to how they are given access to the content and curriculum, how their specific language needs are met, and perhaps most importantly, whether they speak at all. We know that ELs need to speak a lot to become proficient in English, but I’ve been in dozens of classrooms in dozens of schools where many ELs can go an entire week without a single opportunity to speak. So I notice--who speaks? What do they say? How does the teacher respond?

In order to “see” inequities, you really need to know something about where to look--this is also part of the seeing. In other words, you need to have some information about what the inequities are in your school, district, state, and in your country. This information can be found in performance data, attendance rates, graduation rates, participation in AP classes, and so on. You’ll usually have to disaggregate data in order to see the equity issues in your school and district. Look at the data by gender, race or ethnicity, English proficiency levels, socio-economic levels, and by students with disabilities of all kinds. You need to hone your ability to see inequities.

2. It’s Where You Look

Inequities can be found in the classroom, in data reports, in participation in school sponsored parent events, and they also lurk within the structures and institutions of our system. You also need to refine your ability to spot and surface structural inequities--because they are the vessels for what our students experience, and as coaches for equity, it’s also our responsibility to do whatever we can to interrupt those as well.

I once worked in a middle school where the majority of our students came from a very low income African American neighborhood. Our school also served a small portion of mostly white upper middle class families. Those families (who made up the PTA and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars each year) allied with a very vocal, influential music teacher to demand that students who had taken music since first grade be provided an Advanced Band class. The African American students had attended an elementary school that, without a well-funded PTA, had been unable to offer music--so they couldn’t take Advanced Band.

The music teacher and the PTA won this battle and this single decision dictated the entire master schedule, because only one Advanced Band class was offered each day. Because of this one decision, the school was tracked, students traveled in their segregated groups all day, and the level of instruction in other subject matters was also altered--and not for the better. There were other systemic issues at this school, many others that also had an equity-component, but this one programing decision caused ripples of inequities to spread throughout the school.

In order to be a coach for equity, you’ll need to learn about and understand decisions in your district and school around funding, hiring, school assignments, programing and scheduling, course offerings, discipline, and much more. Start by naming the systems and institutions which impact your students. There’s a system (sometimes formalized and sometimes not) by which a school district places teachers, administrators, and other staff. In some districts, an ineffective principal might not be fired, but might be moved to another school--perhaps a school with a parent population that is less likely to cause an uproar if the principal continues to be ineffective, perhaps because that population is primarily immigrant and reluctant to bring attention to themselves. I’ve seen this happen, time after time--the system perpetuates inequities and children don’t get what they need and deserve. And we can say it’s the “system,” but there’s also someone in that system making decisions and others in that system who aren’t questioning or challenging those decisions. That’s where we come in--that’s the role of a coach for equity.

Next week: Coaching for equity is about who you listen to and the kind of self-awareness you develop.

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.