Equity-Focused Leadership: 4 Tips to Keep Moving Forward

Championing educational equity in schools is a marathon, not a sprint. If your equity work has stalled, these insights can help you take a concrete step forward.
students doing work in a classroom
6/14/22
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The effects of COVID-19 and the opportunity gaps it magnified, in addition to the ongoing second pandemic of racial injustice and reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, have shone a light on inequities that have always existed, especially in our K-12 education system.

At this moment, many people are seeing those inequities. They’re paying attention to what’s always been true in public schools, but many have been unwilling to see. Yet, we know that equity work—and the equity-driven leadership it requires—is not as simple as flipping a switch as much as we wish it were. For those of you who have worked hard to identify the equity gaps and opportunities in your school or school district, you most likely have many emotions around this work. Fatigue. Frustration. A sense of urgency, along with overwhelm. 

Even when this work is difficult, risky, or challenging, it’s imperative that it continues. The pace of these summer months offers a place for reflection and action—especially if you feel like your equity efforts have been stalled or if you’ve been stuck between ideation and implementation.

Here are a few ways to continue to move this important work forward, ensuring equity-focused leadership is at the forefront of your efforts. 

For those of you who have worked hard to identify the equity gaps and opportunities in your school or school district, you most likely have many emotions around this work. Fatigue. Frustration. A sense of urgency, along with overwhelm. 

Revisit your school’s equity-focused vision and shared language

If you asked your team what equity looks like in the present moment, would you get a variety of responses? If the answer is yes, here are a few actions to help you collectively retool your school’s equity vision, taking the diverse viewpoints of your team into consideration: 

Use a research-based definition as a starting point.

The Center for Public Education, The Glossary of Education Reform, and The National Equity Project all offer their own definitions of equity and have a number of resources that can provide a quality foundation. These definitions can be enhanced and infused with the lived experiences of your greater community to create a vision that’s unique to your school or district. 

Think about your school’s vision in the context of the bigger picture.

A good exercise is to consider what “equitable” looks like not just within the metaphorical walls of your school but within the context of society as a whole. Dr. Daryl Diamond, Director of Innovative Learning for the Broward County School District in Florida, frames it this way: “If we want to live in a society where everyone can flourish, what role does our school system play?” 

Define a common vocabulary in addition to a vision.

Having a common definition and vision of equity focuses on opening conversations and inviting in different perspectives, which means the language used needs to be intentional. Think about the words you and your community will use to describe your school’s equity work. What words work, and which ones will you avoid? Again, remaining open and transparent is the goal, so think about the vocabulary that will keep the conversation going—not shut it down.

A good exercise is to consider what “equitable” looks like not just within the metaphorical walls of your school but within the context of society as a whole. 

Think about your “next logical step”

Part of what makes equity-driven leadership challenging is that there’s much work to be done—and it’s tempting to want to solve everything at once. It’s this kind of thinking—even when it’s well-intentioned!—that can lead to indecision. Before you know it, you’re in an endless loop of exploration and discussion, which can impede action.

Our advice? Break it down. Consider the next solid step you can take for your school community, and ask yourself honestly if that step is going to truly impact student success. Answering these questions can help you determine the systems, processes, and programs you have control over. You don’t need to have control of the entire puzzle to make an impact. Even if you have a steady hand in one or two key pieces—hiring and retaining faculty and staff, for instance, or guiding curriculum decisions—start with those and consider your next move.

As New Leaders Senior Director of Implementation Hal Harris recently noted, there will likely be vacancies that happen during the summer, and these vacancies present an opportunity to hire teachers that not only possess strong skill sets and a commitment to accelerated learning but also have an equity focus. It’s also a chance to further diversify your school, so students of color see themselves reflected in the educators and leaders that surround them.

Create an environment where equity leadership is owned and shared

The responsibility for equity efforts can be strengthened if shared. This kind of change can only occur when there’s a commitment to it at every level of a school or district—not just the leadership. 

One way to share the accountability for equity work is to create an Equity Leadership Team within your school. The team can be a diverse group of stakeholders: teachers, staff, parents, community members, and maybe even students. This group can work together to unpack, explore, and understand the issues of equity and belonging that are present in your school or district, and develop a plan for how change gets implemented. Having a team like this builds capacity throughout your school, creating several champions for your equity efforts. Or, if the idea of creating another team doesn’t seem like the right move, consider how your equity efforts can be embedded into an instructional leadership team or another team that already exists within your school. 

Another aspect of this capacity building that’s incredibly important is finding a network of support, both for yourself as an equity-focused leader and for any leadership team you create. Tap your network to see if your peers or other education leaders are embarking on similar work—and having similar challenges. Is there an opportunity to have a conversation around a particular topic or engage in collaborative problem-solving? Hearing stories of how other school leaders are leading equity work can be a way to learn about new strategies and solutions you may not have otherwise considered. 

The responsibility for equity efforts can be strengthened if shared. This kind of change can only occur when there’s a commitment to it at every level of a school or district—not just the leadership. 

Shift your mindset from “finish line” to “continual journey”

Equity work is complex and multi-faceted. There is no finish line. Making peace with that truth—and continuing to do the work anyway—will be an important part of continuing to move forward with your efforts. 

Confronting inequities may be new and uncomfortable for your community, and part of the journey will be making mistakes. Conversely, it may be frustrating to wait for others to “catch up” and understand equity. Either way, you need to persist, no matter how dispiriting it gets. Concentrate on providing a “brave space” where stakeholders can be transparent, ask questions, and learn from each other. This is a critical step in being able to take action. The sooner people can understand, the sooner they’ll be ready to make changes. 

And, don’t forget to allow space for your own self-reflection. Self-reflection is what truly fuels equity-focused leadership, and an ongoing inquiry of your own perceptions and understandings can be valuable tools to call out and act on the inequities in your school or district. 

Equity work is complex and multi-faceted. There is no finish line. Making peace with that truth—and continuing to do the work anyway—will be an important part of continuing to move forward with your efforts. 

Keep pushing forward

Championing equity in our schools is challenging, long-term work. Please don’t give up. Continue to push forward, even when it gets hard. Even when you get stuck. Your students, teams, and community need you. We need you.

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