Education Opinion

Why We Must All Be Coaches for Equity

By Elena Aguilar — December 15, 2014 6 min read
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The events of this last month have weighed heavily on my heart and mind--the decisions by the Grand Juries in Ferguson, MI, and in Stanton Island, NY, not to indict the police officers who killed unarmed African American men. I’ve been mostly sad, angry, and scared although there have been moments of hope and optimism as the protests grow.

These “events” hit home in ways that many others don’t as they bisect my professional and personal life. On the personal front, you may not know, my husband is African American, born and raised in Memphis, TN; our son turns eleven this week. Over the years we have had many discussions about identity, gender, racism and so on, but the conversations we’ve had this last month have been particularly difficult.

My work, as you know, has to do with transforming schools so that every child gets whatever he or she needs in school every day; that a child’s experience in school or his or her outcomes are not predictable based on that child’s race, ethnicity, class, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. This is my definition of equity. I work in public, private and charter schools across the country, as well as with early childhood learning organizations and educational non-profits. I work with teachers, coaches, principals, and other administrators positioned throughout the system. I coach and facilitate in response to wherever they are and in response to whatever they present as their needs, but I am always coaching for equity. Even when it’s not overt and obvious, I’m always coaching for equity.

This is not optional to me--to be a coach for equity. It is embedded within every question I ask, every suggestion I make, every moment of listening. Perhaps this has to do with my particular background--I come from a long line of activists for whom the pursuit of justice was central to their lives. But it also comes from what I see in schools and in our education system, which is reason enough, I believe, for us all to be mandated to be coaching for equity every single day. This is a moral mandate for me.

Last Spring I visited an elementary school which had a pod configuration--there were six classrooms coming off of a central circular space, like petals on a flower. The back of each class was open so that teachers could see whomever was in the central space while still teaching their class. This central space was where kids were sent for time out (although that wasn’t what it was intended for when it was constructed). On the various occasions when I visited this school, it was always full of black boys. They’d roll around the floor, nap, talk to each other and stare at the ceiling. Out of the classroom. In a holding place. Isolated. This pod space felt like a literal and symbolic piece of the pipe in the “school to prison pipeline.”

It’s not just black boys who are not served in our schools. While there are some particulars which are worth knowing about in relation to the experience of African American males in schools and in our society, there are other groups of children whose school experience is not equitable. Coaching with a equity lens means that we pay attention to the social and historic forces which create and maintain systems in which children are treated differently based on who they are; in which certain groups of children are not given equal access to curriculum, content, instruction, friends, adult attention and affection, leadership, a sense of belonging, or dignity as other groups of children. And yes, I am specifically talking about paying close attention to the experience of children from low income backgrounds, immigrants, and black and brown children.

So what do you need?

What do you need in order to coach for equity? Heart-wrenching stories? Statistics? Sentence stems? I can provide you with those. Let me know what you need. I know we all need courage to do this work--and a community within which to build that courage and the skills. It’s going to be uncomfortable--the stories I want to tell you might make you feel sick with grief and despair; the questions you’ll ask yourself in private may make you feel ashamed, complicit; and you’ll get questions, push back, resistance.

But you’ll also know that you’re doing what’s right, because silence is violence and by not interrupting inequities, by not speaking out for those black boys in the timeout corner that I know that you see regularly in almost every school that has African American students, you are being complicit with reproducing an inequitable system.

You can acquire the skills and knowledge to be a coach for equity--I can help you with that. Maybe you’re not sure what it means to coach for equity--I can help you figure that out too. You can build your capacity to coach for equity, in community with others and through your own reflections. You can experience the emotions and release them and survive them. I want to believe that you have the will to be a coach for equity or that you can build it--because building your will may be farthest from my sphere of control and influence.

What do you need to be a coach for equity? To use your skills and position in order to help the most vulnerable members of our society? Please let me know. Coaches are in a unique position to influence teachers and administrators, to interrupt inequitable practices, to engage them in safe, reflective, transformational conversations that shift beliefs and ways of being. We work hard to build relationships and trust and we need to use that--having conversations about equity can strengthen our relationships when we have them skillfully; and we need to do this for children.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a coach is that I have to be fully invested in helping the adult learner in front of me--my client, the teacher or leader I’m coaching. I have to care about them deeply, meet them where they’re at, and coach them where they want to go. And at the same time, at the same time, I have to keep the faces of all the children who they are responsible for, whose lives they affect, in my symbolic peripheral vision, equally in focus and present and part of the conversation. I am also accountable to those children. Because those children don’t have the same access to the adults as I do. I know I can deeply influence their teachers and administrators; those kids need me to keep them in mind. The adults have chosen to work in positions of service to those children. I am also in service to those children, especially to the most vulnerable who need more, more than many others, to advocate for them, to notice where they’re sitting in the classroom and how well (or not) they’re reading, and to notice how often they’re sent to the office and how often they’re called upon for roles of leadership and to shine in front of the class and to showcase their skills and being. Paying attention is hard work. It is tiring. But it’s a moral mandate. Coaching for equity is not optional.

Here are some of the resources I’ve been appreciating on this topic right now:

I’m really enjoying Charles Blow’s articles in the NY Times. They’re so powerful and well-said.

This high school art teacher’s passionate blog argues that teachers should not be neutral on the topic of Brown and Garner. (And to be fully transparent: the author is my husband.)

Here are resources for teachers: Rethinking Schools. Also Zinn Education Project. And Teaching for Change.

A compelling argument that what needs to happen in the U.S. is a Truth and Reconciliation process on violence against African Americans.

And finally, an image that speaks louder than words for all of this.

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