Listening as a Catalyst for Advancing Educational Equity
Asking the tough questions is just one necessary step in your journey to cultivate equity as an education leader. The next one is listening to the answers you receive and taking action.
Nicole Furlonge, a professor and director of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, calls this “leadership listening.” She says this priority skill and capacity “positions leaders to grapple with what it means to center inquiry in their practice, what it means to tune into all the constituents for whom they’re responsible.” Then, she says, it’s about filtering, making sense, and making decisions with that information.
Listening is curative. When you’re actively listening to your school community, you’re better able to understand perceptions and assumptions, uncover what’s working and what’s not, and create a sense of belonging and respect. What’s more, you develop an emotional response to what’s being said—and get the information you need to make decisions.
Listening is curative. When you’re actively listening to your school community, you’re better able to understand perceptions and assumptions, uncover what’s working and what’s not, and create a sense of belonging and respect.
That doesn’t mean that all listening—or all actions—have the same effect on your constituent groups. Each group within your school community requires different levels of listening and action to feel like they’re truly being seen, heard, and understood. Here’s how to listen with an ear toward educational equity action when you’re working with students, teachers and staff, parents and families, or organizations and groups outside your school or district.
For students, listening means elevating voices & building agency
The Center for American Progress defines student voice as input from students on a variety of topics, from curricula to school policies to school improvement. Student voice is most effective when students work in partnership with their teachers and school leaders to create meaningful change in their school community.
As equity-driven leaders, when we invite students to voice their opinions—and we actively listen to what they’re telling us—our relationships with them flourish. They have more self-confidence, and they take a more active role in their learning. This can also be an opportunity for students to become agents of change. What begins with students sharing their perspective about something important to them can empower and inspire them, potentially turning into a lifelong passion.
When we invite students to voice their opinions—and we actively listen to what they’re telling us—our relationships with them flourish. They have more self-confidence, and they take a more active role in their learning.
So, how can educational leaders use listening to students to cultivate more equity and more student achievement? The simple answer is to ask for feedback and use it—and there are several ways to do that:
- Experiment with making students part of classroom-, school-, and even district-wide decision-making, like this charter system that invited students to take part in their strategic planning sessions.
- Lean on the groups that are already an active part of your school climate, such as student councils or affinity groups.
- Develop student focus groups related to specific equity and inclusion topics.
- Make yourself visible and ready for impromptu conversations in the hallways, or in the lunchroom. A less structured, 1-on-1 conversational approach might appeal to a cross-section of your students.
For teachers and staff, listening means providing scaffolding & support
We often think about equity through the lens of our students. The adults in our buildings also need scaffolds that help them not only feel a sense of belonging in their schools, but also remind them that they can achieve at high levels, just like the students they teach. Simply put, your teachers and staff need an equitable school, too.
Part of this support means ensuring your teachers and staff see themselves as part of a broader and more inclusive vision. As someone who never felt a sense of belonging, New Leaders alum and Deputy Chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools Dr. Melissa Kim sees this as one of the key elements of her role. “This is where leadership really matters,” she says. “We have to cultivate and bring on people who have a different purpose for why we do this work. It’s more than just closing the achievement gap. It’s about students becoming whole, being ready to engage in and take on the world right now.”
Championing this vision can mean starting small. First, prioritize having a common definition of and vision for equity. What words will you and your team use to describe your school or district’s equity work? Which ones will you avoid? Working with them to develop a shared vision of equity can increase both engagement and accountability in the work.
Once a shared vision has been co-created, consider using distributed leadership to create an Equity Leadership Team—a group of teachers, staff members, parents, and community members that 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 those changes get implemented. Having the chance to listen to a variety of diverse voices in your school community can not only create a safe space for professional learning about equity, but it can simultaneously build capacity and teacher leadership, too.
One last thought: as principal, look for places you can provide additional support, professional development, and resources for equity work. Can you help your teachers and staff find a network of support, where groups in nearby schools or districts are embarking on the same work and can share what’s worked for them? Is there an opportunity to engage in collaborative problem solving? Hearing stories of how other schools and districts have embraced equity work can lead to even more engagement.
For parents and families, listening means building intentional structures for communication
Communicating with parents and families requires schools and districts to meet them where they are. This is why having a variety of ways to listen to families is the key to equitable communication.
For example, consider the data that nearly 1 in 4 homes in the United States have no internet access. This means there might not be a personal computer or device through which to access an online portal to get information about their children or general school announcements. There are also other communication barriers. Some parents might have more than one job, and their schedules don’t allow for in-person meetings. Or, they may not speak English, and will need to have conversations translated for them.
Here’s where listening is critical for an equity-centered leader. Ask your parents—by phone, text, email, in-person conversations, online surveys, and more—what would be the lowest barrier to entry in terms of communication tools. You might find that several methods of communication are needed.
As you’re listening to the parents and families who contribute their thoughts, make sure you’re also listening for the ones who aren’t participating. We’ve all had situations where the “loudest voice in the room” gets the most attention and the most resources. Creating an equitable school means recognizing and considering the voices that might not be in the room. Ask those families in a more direct way for their input. Let them know that they bring a perspective that not only you need, but your school system needs to truly be inclusive.
And this goes for students, too. As you’re listening to students and finding more ways to involve their voices, intentionally seek out those students who may not be the most ready—or eager—to sign up for a focus group or are part of student council. Their perspectives matter just as much as those students who are already active in sharing their thoughts.
As you’re listening to the parents and families who contribute their thoughts, make sure you’re also listening for the ones who aren’t participating.
For your broader community, listening means a focus on engagement & sharing expertise
Just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” it “takes a community to raise a school.” And when it comes to equity-focused education, there are other key groups that are part of your school family—the community organizations, local businesses, government entities, event organizers, and affinity groups that are located in your neighborhood and school district.
It's hard to talk about equity without talking about access—meaning that students should have plenty of opportunities to connect with, learn from, and contribute to the world around them—regardless of their household income or zip code. One of the ways educational leaders can do that is to champion culturally responsive teaching. Prioritizing cultural responsiveness in our classrooms and schools can help historically underserved and underestimated students feel pride in and affirmation of their own identities—and the communities around us can help us do that.
Prioritizing cultural responsiveness in our classrooms and schools can help historically underserved and underestimated students feel pride in and affirmation of their own identities—and the communities around us can help us do that.
Listening to what kind of experiences your community partners are able to provide and making a plan to harness that expertise is a great way to expose all students to the learning, opportunity, and student services that exist in their own backyards. Collaborating with them also might be a chance to meet the needs of your students and staff that might otherwise go unmet.
Place-based learning is one more example of how listening to your community can turn into a great opportunity for more student learning. Place-based learning is an approach that engages students within their communities by sharing knowledge about their physical environment, local culture, history, and people. Through place-based learning, students can discover that every community has individuals and experiences that have left a lasting impact.
Turning insights into action
Prioritizing listening for equity isn’t merely about hearing a variety of voices—it’s about valuing them, understanding their context, and turning their feedback into actionable strategies. This is an essential part of educational leadership.