Principals don’t always get deep training on how to address inequities in schools before they start the job. And districts are still working out how to fill that gap.
Jennifer Clayton, an associate professor of educational leadership and administration at George Washington University, examined a professional development program to help principals become better equity leaders in five Virginia districts. The program was a partnership with the districts and a local university, none of which were named in the study.
The observations and responses from the principal-participants, published in the Journal of Educational Administration, give some insights into what can help principals become more skilled at identifying inequities in their schools and devising strategies to address them.
Focus on program design
The six-month PD program—the first cohort entered in 2019, before the pandemic—was designed by a team that included principals, district administrators, and university faculty, a cross section of stakeholders who brought important and diverse perspectives to the table in the development phase.
The design team’s makeup allowed people from different roles “to say, ‘This is what I think principals need to know,’ or ‘This is a way that we might design a particular activity for school leaders for this experience,’ or ... ‘This might be too much for principals to have on their plates right now,’ ” Clayton said.
The program itself included opportunities for personal reflection and practical strategies that principals could implement immediately—helping to address a common shortcoming in PD, which is that it can be heavily theoretical and far removed from the practical realities of educators’ daily lives.
The program also required that principals tackle an equity-related concern in their schools, and provided chances for them to get feedback from colleagues.
It also continually operated on feedback from participants which the administrators collected and used to make tweaks. The small scale—15 participants—also made it easier to respond to participants and make changes to improve the experience, Clayton said.
Personal reflection is a key component
Principals had to be vulnerable in the program, sharing personal stories of their first encounters with race.
That vulnerability helped school leaders to examine their personal experiences and how those experiences influence their leadership.
“You really need to help people begin with their own personal story,” Clayton said. “We found power in principals being able to share their stories, being able to share with each other the moments they begun to understand race in their own lives.”
Vulnerability is also important, not just for the participants, but also the district leaders higher up in the hierarchy, said Clayton. If a superintendent, for example, is also open about their own personal stories that signals tremendous support for principals and those at the school-level who are working on equity initiatives.
“I think if we approach this with a toolkit mentality, we are missing the major ingredient, which is the humans who will do the work,” Clayton said.
Networks build support
Research on effective school leadership has touted the important role that peer networks play in helping school leaders deal with the isolation of the job.
That’s also the case with equity. Principals in the program highlighted how they relied on fellow participants for support and learning. Those relationships became even more vital during the pandemic, Clayton said.
While some principals said they had initial misgivings , the common themes, and, as one principal put it, “the authenticity” of the participants, helped their growth.
Surrounded by a group of like-minded colleagues, participants said they gained courage to approach issues they may have been hesitant to address even as they acknowledged those issues needed attention, Clayton said.
“I think the part that was perhaps unexpected was the way that the network actually helped bolster their confidence in speaking out and taking action toward equity,” Clayton said.
“The network, including principals from multiple school districts, began to give people this boost of confidence to go do the things they knew needed to be done, to actually be able to take that risk and be vulnerable in taking some of the steps that they did. That was a little bit surprising. ”
Their circle of support also expanded beyond their individual schools to school and district leaders in other systems.
Real-time practice strengthens learning
The program included chances for principals to try out in their schools, in real time, what they were absorbing in their sessions. Participants didn’t just learn about testing for implicit bias in theory, for example. They were able to take that learning to their schools and conduct the tests with staff.
They were also asked to highlight an equity-focused undertaking, record it, and share the impact with their colleagues. Examples included an equity-focused book study, student-shadowing, and creating “equity-focused groups” on their campuses.
The practice-focused nature of the program is important, Clayton said.
“It has to really come from their own school’s data stories,” she said. “Principals— and teachers—are so short on time that to have them engage in these sort of hypothetical scenarios is less immediately useful to them than if you have them work with data, or work with students or issues that their particular schools face.”
How to maintain the success of an equity-focused professional learning program is still a question, said Clayton.
But a lot of things have changed in districts since the program started in 2019, she said. Many more districts have created positions or offices designed to address inequities, which has created greater opportunities for equity-related initiatives to take root.
The pandemic and the national reckoning on race have created additional challenges for school leaders.
Creating opportunities for “graduates” to continue to meet and share ideas can help principals in the long run.
The principals themselves offered suggestions, including creating teams of participants that would comprise teachers, assistant principals, and teacher-leaders—key players, in addition to principals, in developing and leading equitable practices on campus.
Clayton also stressed cross-departmental collaboration, which allows for “cross-pollination” of ideas and for new and different perspectives to emerge.