School & District Management

What Educators of Color Say It Will Take to Boost Their Numbers in School Leadership

By Denisa R. Superville — January 17, 2023 6 min read
Elementary student walking with Black leader in school hallway
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Daniela Anello wasn’t thinking about a career in school leadership until her then-principal at the DC Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., told her that she had what it takes.

Anello, who had wanted to be a teacher since she was in high school, was working as a literacy coach, helping Principal Wanda Perez turn around the school.

Perez’s endorsement made all the difference. She suggested that Anello apply for an emerging leaders’ program at the New York City-based New Leaders, an organization that provides preparation for principals.

Perez and others supported Anello through her leadership journey, with Perez naming Anello as interim principal when she retired.

“It was incredible,” Anello said. “That was basically my encouragement. She was Latina herself … I saw her as a role model and mentor, and I wanted to be just like her.”

In a series of focus groups summarized in a report released this month, school leaders and other educators of color pointed to mentoring as “the most salient practice” that kept them going.

But they often have to find those communities themselves, with colleagues who share their racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds and who work in similar settings.

The report, “The Shoulder Tap: Educators of Color on Leadership Representation Gap—and What We Can Do About It,” syntheses research on how school leaders of color improve outcomes for students of color and highlights examples of districts and state education departments that are doing some of the right things to attract and retain a diverse group of employees.

Here’s what educators of color said, through focus groups and interviews, about barriers and opportunities that, if addressed, could create a more diverse K-12 workforce.

Give people of color a reason to enter the field

What attracted people to education decades ago—reliable pensions and retirement benefits—may not be as appealing in 2023.

Schools and districts have to refine their sales pitches, especially to first-generation students whose parents may want them to become lawyers and doctors.

Ventura Rodriguez, a former Massachusetts department of education official, suggested shifting the narrative when pitching education as a career to people of color: Emphasize the influence that educators of color can have on students and the community in general.

Changing compensation structures could also make the profession more palatable to a younger generation, who may be thinking of changing careers down the line.

Exposing students to the profession early on through volunteer opportunities, for example—can also draw people into the field who’re not considering it.

Personal relationships are essential

Many educators of color go into school leadership because someone they trusted—a colleague, a supervisor, a principal—saw their talent and suggested that path.

For many, it wasn’t school district or state policies or practices that got them in the door: It was people who looked like them or shared their cultural or linguistic backgrounds, according to the report.

As one of the educators put it, they’re pretty much “volun-told” down a path toward that career.

“When you aren’t considering it for yourself and someone you trust—someone who knows you and has been through it themselves—says this is a path you should go down, that you’ve got what it takes, it starts the ball rolling. It is a form of recruitment,” one educator, Baba Olumij, told New Leaders.

But even when they get into the door, that initial entry has to be followed up with meaningful district support.

Make race, identity, and change management central in prep programs

Preparation programs are heavily focused on instructional leadership. But principals will also have to deal with societal issues, including race, racism, and other political fights that are happening outside of the school in local communities and broader society.

Many school leaders, and educators of color in particular, are generally not prepared to deal with managing change.

Adjusting prep programs to explicitly deal with change management and to tackle those topics could go a long way in helping leaders of color be ready to navigate thorny issues when they crop up. And they will crop up, educators of color said in the focus groups.

Some educators specifically said that preparation programs should include content on how to predict challenges a school community might face and how to prepare for them—including how to communicate with the public during those critical times and hire and deploy staff. Programs should also address how leaders’ identities (racial, gender, and cultural) can be leveraged in those situations.

Participants also noted that racism should be explicitly addressed. For example, how does a female leader of color navigate a situation where some of the qualities that gained her plaudits in the classroom are now seen as liabilities—for example, assertiveness being branded as aggressiveness among Black women once they become school leaders?

Some even offered pointed questions that prep programs could take on, such as how to handle situations when a Black school leader enters a school that had been traditionally led by a white school leader.

Fix the hiring and onboarding process

Educators in the focus groups said bias often shows up in the hiring process. One gave an example of a candidate being excluded because of an accent.

There are also unwritten rules for getting support during the first years of the jobs that principals—not only principals of color—may not know about. So, they don’t know where to go to get professional development, additional training, or new growth opportunities.

Make the “implicit explicit” Josh Pacos, the former director of Rocketship Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C., said in the report.

It should also be clear that asking for help would not be seen as a weakness or something for which educators would be punished. Some educators of color said they did not seek assistance in their first years on the job out of fear.

Some educators of color said they didn’t get the opportunity to “fail forward” with additional chances after they’ve made a mistake, something they thought their white colleagues got.

The report said that districts should provide opportunities for leaders to make mistakes without being afraid they’ll lose their jobs. When they make mistakes they should get professional support—through coaches, for example—to help them improve.

Another suggestion was to allow new leaders—including leaders of color—to stay in a school for at least two years before moving them. That’s because transferring them often interrupts their on-the-job learning, according to the report. Leaders in low-performing schools also feared that they’re often under a microscope—especially when placed in turnaround school environments—when compared to colleagues at higher-performing schools.

Create networks of support

Anello praised Perez for pushing her into school leadership and naming her as the interim principal when she was about to leave.

But the school changed course and decided that it wanted a head of school instead of a principal. A head of school is sort of like a CEO, who handles both the business and instructional aspects of school leadership.

Anello thought she wasn’t prepared for the head of school job, but the steady support from Perez and peers motivated her to push forward.

She’s been head of school for eight years, and finds opportunities to pay it forward for her staff, constantly asking them about learning and leadership opportunities they’d like to pursue or areas in which they’d like to grow.

Networks and mentors help educators of color deal with the isolation of the job, find solutions to challenges, and learn about resources.

Anello, for example, was able to rely on her network of peers leading bilingual schools in California to learn more about language acquisition.

Educators of color often must independently weave together those networks.

The message to school districts and charter networks: Be more intentional about creating local networks, support systems, and mentoring opportunities for educators of color.

The 11 focus groups—with nearly two dozen educators and five interviews with former state and district leaders—were conducted between summer 2021 and last spring.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Educators of Color Say It Will Take To Boost Their Numbers In School Leadership

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