3 ways school leaders can help professional learning on equitable practices stick

For the last few months as director of curriculum and innovation at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York, I have worked closely with our director of equity and community engagement, Angelica Davis-Bernard, on supporting culturally responsive practices for our faculty and staff. Our work has centered around developing a culture and capacity to embrace and implement restorative justice, culturally responsive, and anti-racist practices in our school. This work is challenging and uncomfortable sometimes, and professional learning sessions have elicited mixed feelings, confusion, and fear.       

We have been partnering with a local agency that has supported us in implementing some professional learning. Angelica and I noticed very little preparation or front-loading before the sessions. This left staff feeling vulnerable and unsure of what to expect. We also needed more support for implementing learning in the classroom and school after the sessions. Because we didn’t get these things, it felt like we were checking a box instead of working to change our culture. Our school and leadership team especially were committed to doing the work and saw it as a moral imperative. Still, the urgency and importance of the work did not transfer to faculty and staff because these important pieces were missing.

With the support and trust of our leadership team, Angelica and I began to examine how we might change our model to best support our faculty and staff. We identified three actions for change that may help you, too, if you find yourself in a similar place.

1. Engage in dialogue, discourse, and collaborative problem-solving as a leadership team

When we noticed the professional learning had fallen a little flat, Angelica and I talked, just the two of us, in one of our offices. We started by noticing and naming the issues and challenges we saw in our culture—the biases, stereotypes, and inequities. We dug into what we witnessed, who it impacted, and how we might address it. We brought these observations and concerns to our academic leadership team for discussion.

When talking to the larger leadership team at our school, we leaned into the discomfort, worked to keep our emotions in check, focused on the issues, and created short- and long-term plans for change. We were realistic and intentional about what and how we wanted to address the issues brought forward to acknowledge the harm that may have come to individuals or groups and repair relationships.

2. Restructure the delivery of professional learning

Restorative work is challenging. It begins with an open mind, support, honesty with yourself and your colleagues, and acknowledging how the work impacts individuals and groups. It shines a light on inequities, biases, stereotypes, discriminatory practices, and behaviors. It can trigger past traumas and leave individuals feeling vulnerable and unsafe.

With this in mind, we decided to do more to prepare staff and faculty before engaging in professional learning sessions with outside providers. We wanted to ensure that they knew the nature of the topics we were going to delve into ahead of time to prepare them for the work, so we provided agendas well ahead of the sessions. We acknowledged challenges and benefits and provided frameworks and tools to support our teachers and staff.

We also worked to build trust within the group so that we could engage with each other in a deep and meaningful way. As leaders new to the organization, Angelica and I spent a great deal of time observing, listening, asking questions, suspending our assumptions, and making ourselves visible in classrooms, halls, and schoolwide activities to build that trust needed to do the work.

After professional learning sessions, we returned to the learning, reframed it with our context in mind, and offered supportive coaching for implementation. For example, we integrated the practices presented in professional learning sessions into coaching conversations, staff meetings, and leadership team discussions. We identified a need to differentiate the professional learning and build our knowledge as a leadership team, and we partnered with community organizations to build our capacity. We aligned data from school climate surveys and student, parent, and faculty feedback with the development of our strategic priorities.

3. Model vulnerability

Vulnerability requires trust. To be vulnerable, you need to establish a relationship with boundaries and respect.

Angelica and I had been working closely together for months and had established an open and trusting relationship based on respect, allowing us to have difficult conversations when our concerns about the professional learning arose.

In our preparation for a session on calling in and calling out, based on the guide from Harvard University, Angelica brought forth something that was bothering her. She shared that she had sat with it, had researched its origins, and wanted to tell me how uncomfortable and triggering it was for her. I listened and worked hard at not being defensive or justifying my actions. I then provided the context for the saying I had used, hoping that would help her understand my perspective and experience. After our conversation, we had a deeper connection and better understanding of each other. I apologized and agreed not to use that particular saying knowing how it made her feel.

After our conversation, I felt embarrassed, upset, and ashamed that I had hurt her. I had to sit with those feelings for a bit and process them. I understood and realized that my brief moment of discomfort and shame was nothing compared to what she had experienced. It was not about me but about how my actions impacted her. I had caused harm and had to repair it.

We discussed this interaction a little while later and agreed to share it in our professional learning session with our staff and faculty. She shared her perspective when she called me in, and I shared mine. We modeled our experience openly and vulnerably for staff and faculty in hopes that they would feel safer and more open to engaging in critical conversations with each other. We also acknowledged our feelings and how difficult it was to start the conversation. We offered our team support and coaching.

Our goal in sharing our conversation was to help staff and faculty see that even when you make a mistake or misstep, if you act with vulnerability and integrity, you can maintain and even strengthen your relationship with a colleague, parent, or student.

You can do this

Change is complex, especially when it’s focused on creating a safer, more equitable school environment. It requires intentionality, commitment, vulnerability, and honesty with yourself and others. Helping effect change school-wide is the work of leaders. The tips shared here are how we can all create a culture that goes beyond just valuing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice and actually embeds it into a school culture.

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