Spring 2018

Leading for Systemic Equity

Context: Desire vs. Reality

Our desire as principals and vice-principals is that our schools and school systems are places where students’ learning, well-being and achievement are valued, nurtured and protected. However, we are faced with the sobering reality that despite the strengths of Canadian school systems, inequities for many groups of our students persist. These groups of students can be identified in terms of socioeconomics, race, gender, sexual identity and as well as a number of additional social identities. This is wherein our work lies as school leaders—how do we reconcile and work towards aligning our desires for our schools with the reality of systemic inequities?

In our work and experience in equity, inclusion and social justice in schools, we have come to recognise that making a system more equitable requires a meaningful change of thinking and heart in the adults who lead and staff our schools and systems. When these shifts occur, staff begin to look differently at the influence they have over the factors that perpetuate inequities and change them.

Phases of Systemic Deep Equity Work          

Deep Equity is a 5-phase process that enables school and system leaders to initiate and facilitate a learning journey about equity with staff. Along this journey leaders and staff position themselves within the work by exploring the ‘why’ of inequities so that they can develop the collective, yet also deeply personal commitment to changing our schools—in turn, transforming our systems.  

These phases have been developed out of years of experience working alongside school leaders, teachers and districts who have taken the bold step to make equity a priority.

As you read about these phases you will notice that Phases One through Three are designed to build the passion and will for change, while Phases Four and Five provide the conceptual framework and the strategies for that change. This is intentional. As the designer of Deep Equity and as a consultant in the work of Deep Equity, we know that the heart must be engaged before the head and hands can do something differently.

Phase One: Tone and Trust

The work of equity has been a part of Canadian and US education landscapes for decades. As a result, many education leaders and staff have had varied experiences with this work—ranging from deep personal and professional transformation to shallow and one-day talks about “diversity in education.” This variance has worked against equity gaining meaningful traction in the hearts of staff and leaders. Phase One activities and strategies are designed to assuage the defensiveness and resistance people often bring to equity work, as well as to prevent the kind of “here we go again” responses that are sometimes encountered from educators who have grown weary of other professional development initiatives.

The outcome of this phase is that staff feel that the work is real, that it is not coming from a place of shame and blame, and that they can bring their truth to the conversations, rather than their cynicism or political correctness. The work of equity should feel fresh, interesting, and both personally and professionally challenging. Staff begin to collectively create an environment that is safe enough for folks to risk moving past their familiar edges. Ultimately, staff should be intrigued without being overly threatened.

Phase Two: Personal Culture and Personal Journey

This phase is closely related to the Tone and Trust work. Phase Two strategies are intended to recognise and honour the personal racial and cultural narratives of each member of staff. Staff each have multiple and complex stories and experiences related to the many dimensions of identity. It is not only students who bring diversity to our schools; every adult in the building also has a unique journey that deserves to be recognised and valued.

The outcome of this phase is that the adults in a school grow in their capacity to share and hear each other’s stories. As a result, they are better able to attune their personal and professional attention to the many narratives that students bring with them into the school experience. The more leaders and staff are attuned in this way, the greater the capacity to respond effectively to students’ needs. This is the power of Cultural Competence and Culturally Responsive Teaching; it is all about our capacity as adults to be real in the presence of students.

Phase Three: From Social Dominance to Social Justice

The goal of equity work is to create schools where more students, across identities, are achieving at a higher level, and engaging at a deeper level, without giving up who they are. In other words, our purpose is to eliminate educational inequities based on race, culture, economics, and other dimensions of identity, without requiring that our students assimilate to a dominant cultural identity. In Phase Three of the work, staff go deeply into those historical and contemporary dynamics that have created and sustained systems of oppression, marginalisation, and inequity for far too many of our students and their families. Staff examine the roots of the so-called “achievement gap,” which would be more accurately described as an opportunity gap, a social justice gap, or a privilege gap.

The assumption underlying this part of the work is that schools and systems cannot eliminate inequities without first understanding the causes of those inequities. And we cannot understand the causes without talking about issues of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, language diversity, and special needs, as well as racism, colonialism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. It is not sufficient to provide teachers and leaders with a solid foundation of instructional strategies, powerful curriculum, and a focus on outcomes. Even with these interventions in place, systemic inequities will persist unless they are addressed consciously and directly.

The outcome of this phase is not simply the exploration of history and theory but moving directly to the ways systemic inequities are functioning on a daily basis within the culture of a school, within classroom practices, and within individual belief systems.

Phase Four: Classroom Implications and Applications

In this phase, staff delve into professional practice—how cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching can be brought into the classroom and the culture of the school. School leaders and teachers are understandably tempted to begin with this phase, going directly into classroom practice and staying there, not taking the time to engage Phases One through Three as described above. Our experience working in hundreds of schools, with thousands of educators, has taught us not to give in to this temptation. In fact, to do so, seriously limits the sustainability of any of these practices as they are not rooted in the personal commitment and conviction of teachers.

 The centerpiece for Phase Four is built on the Seven Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching, a set of professional guidelines and behaviors that your teachers can connect to the many research-based instructional practices you may already be implementing. Briefly stated, the Seven Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching[1] are as follows:

  1. Teachers honor students in their cultural connections
  2. Teachers are personally inviting
  3. Educational spaces are physically and culturally inviting
  4. Students are reinforced for academic development
  5. Instructional changes are made to accommodate differences in learners
  6. Classrooms are managed with firm, consistent, caring control
  7. Interactions value both individualist and collectivist cultures

The outcome of this phase is for staff to understand how the 7 principles serve as the connective tissue that allows teachers to make sense of their work and bring together all other school and classroom initiatives—as opposed to equity and inclusion being ‘one more thing’. In schools and systems where staff may already be subjected to an overwhelming set of mandated expectations, this orientation towards the underpinning and pervasiveness of equitable practices is critical.

Phase 5: Team Building and Systemic Transformation

One of the corollary benefits of the discussions and activities related to Phases One through Four will be the team-building aspect of the work. Staff will talk with each other in new and deeper ways as they reflect on their practices as individuals and as a school.

The key outcome of this phase is that all members of a school’s staff become critical of the instructional practices, school culture and system processes that perpetuate inequities. The power of this critical perspective is that your equity focus will not need to be maintained merely by policies or mandates, but will be sustained by the dedication and personal convictions of leaders and staff.

Conclusion: Where to Begin?

Deep equity seeks to change systems—in districts, in schools, in classrooms and in the hearts of leaders and staff. However, since the work of equity asks us to confront how our thinking and processes can perpetuate inequities, the work requires long-term commitments from leaders to stay the course.

This brief description of the 5 phases of Deep Equity can be misleading. Even though the phases can be described simply, they must in actual practice be deeply experienced by staff. Schools and districts that have engaged in this work have talked about the challenge of embracing the complexity of this work and needing to adopt a years-long perspective when anticipating impact. Transforming our schools and systems is difficult, uncomfortable, and at times painful work, often with more missteps than successes in the early stages. As you begin or expand equity work with your staff, it is important to remember your passion and vision are the keys that will inspire your staff to stay the course. Without frameworks like Deep Equity to support ourselves and our staff to confront and then address inequities we won’t be able to realise our schools as spaces and places where identities are no longer barriers, but integral to success.

[1] Adapted by permission from Shade, Oberg, and Kelly (1997): Creating Culturally Responsive Classrooms. Washington DC. American Psychological Association.

Gary R. Howard is the designer of the Deep Equity Process and author of We Can’t Lead Where We Won’t Go: An Educator’s Guide to Equity (2015). Corwin Press. He has over 40 years experience supporting school systems in their equity and social justice work.

Moses Velasco is a Canadian consultant in the Deep Equity Process. For over 15 years he was a classroom educator and district-wide consultant in professional learning and leadership development in a large urban school district in Ontario.

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