Our nation has had an emotional summer full of political campaigns and racial tension. As I look toward this school year, I feel an urgency to address the emotions our students will have concerning the treatment of black lives and police officers, and more largely the treatment of people and equity in education. There is an epidemic of feelings that should be addressed in a safe environment where adults are in a position to lead by example. Our nation’s educators have a heavy responsibility on their shoulders daily, but in the area of social justice, we are the ones who need to have those conversations with our kids. Everything that happens “out there” will always enter into the social norms of the school building. We cannot ignore how our students feel. We cannot ignore what they have seen on the news all summer. We cannot ignore what their families and neighborhoods may be saying.
As a school administrator in a majority minority school, I believe this conversation needs to start with our faculty. Our faculty is majority white. Our perceptions matter because they will eventually be projected to our students, whether we realize it or not. How does one start a conversation about equity in education?
- Establish norms for the dialogue.
- Understand that each staff member has a personal story.
- Create opportunities for the staff to share their stories, backgrounds, histories, as all of this centers around culture, equity and race.
- Create an environment that fosters relationships between staff members that celebrates their differences in their stories and opens up minds and hearts with one another. Roland Barth has said in various publications that the relationships among the adults in the school are a strong predictor of student success.
- Ask big questions of your staff that allow moments for them to respectfully share their opinions and respectfully disagree and learn from one another.
- Relate the societal issues to school issues and how we can foster healthy relationships with our students and our police force.
- Bring your school resource officer (or police liaison) into the conversation and discuss how we can promote respect between our students and our police force in our community.
- Talk about stereotypes and assumptions we often make about our students, and how we can foster more positive relationships with our own students so these stereotypes and assumptions do not occur.
- Spend time in the homes and neighborhoods of students “different” from you. Respect where students are coming from by investing your own awareness and time. You cannot truly understand a student until you see where he lives.
- Role play possible classroom situations in which this topic arises, and how to facilitate a positive and mature discussion about the questions students will have.
- Read a book together that discusses these issues in education. One of my favorites is Baruti Kafele’s “Closing the Attitude Gap.”
I believe the most important thing to keep in mind is not to shy away from conversation about equity and race and our students. Equity issues confront our children every day; they’re thrown in their faces, and students are not sure how to handle these situations. We need to foster healthy, nonjudgmental conversations so our students can learn their roles within these issues. Call out the elephant in the room and eat the elephant piece by piece. This is why we are called into this role. These conversations are what make the real difference. Be ready for them.
Carrie Tulbert is the 2014 North Carolina Principal of the Year. She has served as a classroom teacher, district administrator and school administrator in her 15 years as an educator. A North Carolina Teaching Fellow, she currently serves as the principal of Concord Middle School in Cabarrus County, North Carolina and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality collaboratory.
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