Equity & Diversity Opinion

Leading and Teaching in an Equitable System

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — January 30, 2018 4 min read

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. Martin Luther King Jr.

Does it seem to you that more people are function with a short fuse? We watched a 30 something year old man crossing a street in a crosswalk. He had the right of way but there was a funeral procession of cars escorted by the police passing along the street. When he kept walking and the car in the lane kept going, he pulled out his ear buds and started swearing at the driver. The driver never responded but proceeded along. The man put his buds back in and kept walking, He never realized that a line of cars was together as they passed him and that his path had been disrupted was an inconvenient irritant. Later that day, a man in a truck swore at someone who had parked poorly. And, a woman expressed her annoyance at someone who came a few minutes late to a movie by yelling in a way that drew the attention of all in the theater. Is everyone a bit more angry or expressing it a bit more readily or is this only our experience?

Educators, Pay Attention

Whatever is going on in the country needs serious attention by educators. To assume that children aren’t hearing the news, even with one ear, is misguided. They need help making sense of news about violence, lying, sexual harassment, racism, bias, and xenophobia. Before entering into conversations, or inviting speakers, or teaching these topics, leaders and teachers have to check in with themselves. Many of our Facebook friends have agreed to not speak about politics or the news and have turned to more personal things like family and food. That may be a way to protect relationships but we fear it also limits opportunities to practice the art of civility on issues disagree.

Our humanity grows by looking inward and asking oneself hard questions. Daring to have real conversations with others holding different points of view is important. Practicing what we expect children to understand and do cannot happen with integrity unless we are practicing this ourselves. In schools, individual openness and kindness and openheartedness is important but it is not enough. An African American young woman, a graduate from a local high school, recently expressed a belief that her experience in school was tainted by a mentality led by white privilege. When asked if her principal, who was white, contributed to that feeling, she responded, “Not at all. It was the system. She was part of a system that made me feel that way.” If we enjoy a personal relationship we often exempt that one person but can speak of the anonymous system.

Courageous Leadership

Courage, the heart of leadership, is demonstrated in action. Before that action, a person must know the ‘right thing’. In public schools, we purport that all students have rights. All students can be successful. All students are welcome. So what is the ‘right thing’ when it comes to deciding where a transgender student goes to the bathroom or how many African Americans flourish in academics or how students living in poverty carry a stigma within the student body and in the faculty room? What happens when a family name is associated with a student? Do expectations rise or fall? Or does it relate to a student’s address in our system? We have a responsibility to question our own deeply held beliefs and confront those with whom we work when we hear or see the limiting effects seep into conversations. From there the courageous conversations will begin to open and uncover what is driving the words and actions of the system.

The Process Begins With Questions

If someone calls you a racist, the best response is not to deny it. The best response is to say it isn’t your intention and to ask why that is being said. “What about my behavior and words makes you feel that way?” If someone accuses you of favoring white children over children of color, or straight children over gay children, or successful students over struggling ones, the best answer is “Can you show me how my actions or words have made you feel that way?” Of course, the most evolved interaction would not begin with an accusation, but a question as well; something like, “Do you realize none of our black students are in the National Honor Society?” When a school culture has shifted into a safe place where courageous conversations have safely taken place, it is more likely that questions will replace accusations. Until then, accusations come as assaults and cause us to respond defensively. But if the observer begins the exchange as an accusation, the leader can, and perhaps has a responsibility to, respond with an open and honest question.

The actions and the words of the POTUS that has provoked the accusation that he is a racist. Yet, he claims to be the least racist person. We doubt a meaningful conversation will ever occur around that accusation. In the public eye, there is little opportunity for a conversation to take place like the ones that we can have among ourselves and in our schools. Before teaching and encouraging children to not be racists, for example, we must examine ourselves and listen to those who see us differently from how we see ourselves. They may have something to offer us, an insight that will let us open doors and make a great positive difference.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - Martin Luther King Jr.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by johnhain courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.