Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

My District Reversed Course on the Implicit Bias Training We Need. What Now?

And other important advice for principals
By Tamara McWilliams — November 19, 2020 5 min read
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The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki—take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to AskAPrincipal@educationweek.org and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

My elementary school is staying remote for now, and we’re looking into implementing virtual lunch bunches to give students a little more time to connect with their peers and teachers in a smaller setting. Any advice for making these successful for our smallest students? It can be hard enough keeping our 1st graders engaged during regular class time, without the distraction of food involved!

Tamara McWilliams: What a great idea! First graders are often distracted whether they are virtual or in person, and, yes, the addition of food just adds to the fun. The idea to have them in smaller groups and an additional opportunity to connect with friends is the main advantage of the initiative, so let that happen first and then take your cues from them for the level of organization that this time needs.

Do they miss show and tell? My high school students love it when my cat takes a saunter across my keyboard during a virtual learning session, and they often want me to hold him and tell them something about him.

Our virtual learning sessions are usually very strategic and on point because we have a large amount of information to give in a small amount of time, so allowing them to take turns sharing about pets or a favorite toy or a family holiday decoration or tradition might help them to feel more connected to the teacher and the group.

And their food is a great place to share as well, as our food reflects our culture and family traditions. They might enjoy sharing who they are sharing their meal with on their end, what they are eating, and why. I am excited for you to start this wonderful initiative, and the cable food shows and morning talk shows may one day benefit from your budding newscasters as they share about food, family, and favorite pets.

For the first time this year, I have a teacher who mainly teaches in another building, with just one class in my building, and I need advice on sharing the supervisory responsibility over that teacher. Our district has a required number of long observations and walk-throughs that principals must perform for each teacher, but we don’t have explicit guidelines on shared staff. This teacher has argued that I shouldn’t observe her at all, as the other building’s administrator will meet that district-mandated threshold, but I feel I should regularly be in all of my classrooms. How should I handle sharing responsibility for teacher observations?

This is such a relevant question for 2020, as schools have many new and different staff during the pandemic. I work in a small district, and we often share staff between campuses. For instance, the middle school and the high school trade off every year, usually with a staff member teaching on one campus before lunch and the other campus after or the opposite situation. At the beginning of the year, campus principals divide up duties for the formal observation process (perhaps your long observation); however, each campus principal does walk-throughs regularly on every teacher on their campus.

As a campus administrator, it is critical to know how instruction and classroom management looks in all classrooms.

As a campus administrator, it is critical to know how instruction and classroom management look in all classrooms for consistency of district policy, campus instructional practices, and to be accountable to parents. Even if a teacher is only on my campus for one period of the day, that teacher will touch the lives of my students, my students’ families, and affect the dynamics of the cohesiveness of the campus instructional team.

My advice to you is to discuss who will do the long observation with your fellow admin. Let your full staff know that everyone who teaches at your campus will have walk-throughs and feedback so that we can all continue to hone our craft of instruction even during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, my district announced they would require implicit-bias training but has since pulled back that requirement. My question is twofold: As a school leader flying solo, do you have suggestions on how to ensure safe schools without district support? And more broadly, I’m struggling to find the right professional balance of communicating district decisions to my staff when I don’t always agree.

As administrators, our first obligation is to keep our students emotionally and physically safe so that they can be academically engaged. You are certainly right in wanting to provide the best of environments for your students. Implicit-bias training is needed in our schools, and I do not pretend to know why your school pulled back from that requirement.

However, I can speak to my own district and how we have had to carefully select the initiatives that we are pursuing this year because of the tremendous pressure that our staff is under due to the requirements of teaching during a pandemic.

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As a leader flying solo to implement safe schools practices on your campus, I would suggest that you remember changes in implicit bias and culturally responsive teaching take not only time and attention, which are critical, but also a large amount of groundwork with staff to begin the work. And the work is more of a marathon than a sprint, slow steady progress over a long period of time. Any small steps that you take with your staff this year will reap benefits and move your campus toward your goal.

In communicating district decisions, you are obligated to carry out legal requirements and district policy. As the instructional leader, you should be able to make professional-development decisions at the campus level that you feel are needed to give your students the environment they need to thrive. The district has to make decisions from a wider scope and vantage point than the campus leader. Unless the district instructed campuses to halt the initiative, any steps you take with your staff to begin this important work will just have your campus ready for a more rigorous implementation in the post-pandemic future.

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