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Teaching and Leading for Equity

Leadership is taking responsibility for what matters to you.
~Dr. Julien Weissglass

The troubles of our country—indeed, the troubles of our world—can be addressed only if we help ourselves and our children touch the deep humanity of our collective spirit and regain the deep respect for the earth that spawned us.
~Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children

While schools and districts are deeply affected by these times of racial, gender, class, and political division in our communities, it is essential to remember that we can each impact our spheres of influence wherever we are.  We each have the capacity to contribute to the creation of learning environments where all students are served and valued—and where equity and excellence are primary. If, as Dr. Julien Weissglass  (National Coalition for Equity in Education) invites, “Leadership is taking responsibility for what matters to you”~ what does the leader of you feel inspired to do or change in your own immediate environment?

In our professional learning experiences with schools around the country, we invite teachers and staff from diverse backgrounds to come together to share their own cultural stories and to learn more about prejudice, discrimination, bias and systemic oppression.  As faculty and staff of PassageWorks, we are continually touched by the power of story—as story humanizes us all, reveals our commonalities and essential differences, and supports us to meet each other with less interference from our biases and ideologies. When we sit across from another person and hear their experiences, our eyes begin to open to the reality of what it is like to walk through the world in their skin. As we unpack our own stories, we are better able to understand all that has shaped our worldview and perspective. This awareness then influences our interactions and relationships with students and colleagues.

Knowledge of our own personal cultural histories is essential to creating safe and hospitable schools where difference is welcomed.  And this self-awareness directly relates to our work students and families.  Students’ history with systemic oppression and cycles of poverty, wealth and privilege matter. The “achievement gap” arises from a complex set of intersecting conditions— and our work as educators is to interrupt the “predictable outcomes” for students that are historically built into inequitable systems.

We recognize that it takes courage to have difficult conversations about oppression and inequality—and to come together around issues of racism, classism, sexism and other isms. When we have these discussions—we will inevitably hear different experiences, perspectives and biases than our own—and this can feel challenging, painful, and healing all at once. And, we feel these conversations are essential to have–-as we live in a time where there are ever more blatant expressions of hate, intolerance, and dominance in our schools and communities.

One of the core principles of our cultural responsiveness and equity work is that it is essential for each of us to continue to do our own inner work to understand the impacts and realities of oppression. In our work with schools, we focus on building safe, diverse learning communities where we can work together to raise our own awareness, engage in self-inquiry, and understand how we can take thoughtful and skillful action to interrupt bias in school and beyond. We see this work as a life long path of learning and growth.

Self-Inquiry around Cultural Responsiveness:

Developing our own capacity for cultural responsiveness gives us the foundation to cultivate this with our students. Taking a deep look at our own worldviews and beliefs and biases allows us to see how we might foster a more inclusive classroom.  Below are some reflection questions to support this inner work:

  • Growing up, what did I learn from my family and community about my own culture, as well as cultures that are different from my own?
  • As a young person, who did I interact with? Who was my friend group? Who did I go to school with? Who lived in my neighborhood? Who did I “date”? And who was I encouraged or discouraged to “date”?
  • What messages did I receive from society and the media about race, class, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation?
  • Which of those messages did I believe or internalize, and how might this affect my behavior and teaching?
  • What aspects of difference scare me or trigger me, and why?
  • How might my worldview and bias impact how I engage or don’t engage certain students and who and how I tend to “discipline”?
  • Who do I tend to call on and engage with—and who do I tend to “miss” or avoid in my classroom?
  • How can I more intentionally bring in students’ culture and heritage into my classroom?
  • What trends do the discipline data and academic achievement data in our school show about our community?

Self-inquiry can be an important first step, as it raises our awareness about ourselves and about our own perspectives and worldview. The next steps along this path call us to have the courage and commitment to act on this awareness—to speak up, take risks, and reach out even when we are uncomfortable.

This month, we invite you to consider checking out the following resources and working with the Self-Inquiry Questions. We also have two Culturally Responsive Leadership courses – February and April and an SEL & Equity course this spring to support you in your practice.  See below for links.


An article in Education Week – Why We Can’t Have Social and Emotional Learning Without Equity By Robert Jagers at CASEL

For further reading on how equity affects schooling we suggest having a look at these websites:


Teaching Tolerance:

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
~Helen Keller


Dr. Vivian Elliott         Laura Weaver

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