Following the death of George Floyd in my neighboring city of Minneapolis, a sense of urgency and momentum for social justice is palpable throughout the community. The city has started to address this by first reimagining how to deliver public safety services, but reviewing the inequities in the school system will not be far behind. To be clear, there has always been a sense of urgency in the daily lives of the city’s Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), who have not yet had the same opportunities for academic success that many white students in Minnesota schools achieve. As I begin to reimagine my role as an instructional coach, I need to start by reflecting on each school’s current reality. What progress has been made in identifying and dismantling systemic racism in our schools? What next steps do I need to prioritize as the instructional coach?
Making Progress: Initial Steps
The student population at our schools has become more economically and culturally diverse over a short period of time. Although we still have a lot of work to do, we continue to examine our systems through the lens of equity, and we have made some positive changes:
- All staff are trained in the Responsive Classroom approach. This provides staff with a consistent set of proactive and reactive practices that have resulted in positive outcomes, including a reduction of office referrals from 630 to 150 annually.
- A safe space was created and staffed to support students both proactively and reactively with strategies for self-control, problem-solving, and skill development.
- Staff have been trained in designing culturally inclusive instruction that focuses on different cultural ranges, including individualistic/collectivist, emotionally restrained/emotionally expressive, and little movement/lots of movement in learning.
- A literacy adoption was completed that aligned the curriculum and then supported it with embedded and sustained professional development.
- Our schools have implemented the administration of relationship surveys three times a year. This provides teachers with another way to hear the individual needs of their students so they can better respond personally to meet those needs and strengthen their relationships with students.
- Staff underwent training to learn about our own implicit bias with a focus on how our brain responds to differences and how we can work to consciously overcome bias.
- Learning walks were started in order to observe one another’s culturally inclusive practices and to gather data about its impact on students.
- Using observational data from our schools, I designed brief, targeted professional development to strengthen implementation of successful practices, such as using more movement to learn.
- Worked to build strong and trusting relationships with each school’s staff as individuals, which has laid the foundation for transformational coaching work.
Next Steps: Coaching With the Lens of Systemic Oppression
Part of my role as a coach is to help groups and individuals see situations from different perspectives in order to open up new ideas and solutions. By focusing my work next year on the lens of systemic oppression, I see many possibilities for success. Using this lens, I can support the transformation of my school by identifying where systemic racism is woven into our procedures, instructional strategies, curriculum, beliefs about students and families, and other areas (National Equity Project, n.d.). This lens also requires one to examine their own individual unconscious and conscious biases and the impact they have on work with students. With an assist from Elena Aguilar’s practical questions to help unearth oppression (Aguilar, 2013), I’ve prepared a list of steps to reimagining my instructional coaching role:
- Incorporate the lens of systemic oppression in each of my individual coaching cycles by asking key questions. For example: “How will your practice as an educator incorporate antiracist and antibias teaching and learning strategies?” “What resources do you need to make sure that absent narratives are heard?”
- Continue to support and promote the strategy of problem-solving conferences to foster greater understanding of each individual child and their unique needs while strengthening a trusting relationship between teacher and child.
- Ask for help from my principal and fellow coaches to uncover and eliminate bias while including the lens of systemic oppression in any professional development that I design and/or deliver.
- Work with my principal to plan and support opportunities for our staff to build a community that is empowered to have conversations about race, systemic oppression, and bias, and their impact on our role as educators.
- Create a team to evaluate the current content of the curriculum. What are the absent narratives? How will we include all stories? All contributions? What resources do we need to make that happen?
- Use our office referral data to ask deeper questions at leadership team meetings about why we are still seeing a disproportionate number of office referrals for younger male students of color. Follow up with next action steps.
- Listen deeply to our BIPOC communities. What is their experience with our school? With our staff? How do the children experience the learning? Is it meaningful to them? Do students see themselves in their classroom and in their learning?
- Continue to focus on my own personal work. Recognize my privilege. Sit with the discomfort of the conversations. Listen. Educate myself.
It is a historic time now in our country. It is time to ask hard questions. More importantly, it is time to listen, especially when the answers are hard to hear. We can do this and we must do this.
- Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. Jossey-Bass.
- National Equity Project. (n.d.). Lens of systemic oppression. https://nationalequityproject.org/resources/featured-resources/lens-of-systemic-oppression