The Presence of Hope: How School Leaders Can Lead After the Loss of George Floyd

With the unjust losses of Black lives taken too soon, and social unrest from coast to coast, here is how education leaders can respond and advance equity in their schools.
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Hal Harris

In school communities across the country, the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic now serves as a backdrop to a crisis of even greater magnitude: the persistence of racism in every facet of American society. The brutal killings of Arbery, Floyd, and Taylor – and a chain of death that begins, in this era, with Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown – has sparked outrage in the consciousness of those who honor justice and who affirm Black lives.

Schools are vital parts of our communities. These institutions, when effectively led, provide education, nourishment, and safety; they give a sense of love in the present and the presence of hope for the future. The pandemic has damaged school leaders’ ability to provide those states of beings physically. And with the deaths of Arbery, Floyd, and Taylor, such damage has happened in a time of social conflagration when the school’s reassuring hand is most needed.

School leaders are in a prolonged period of adaptive change, transformations in practice that researchers Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky argue “require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.” Leaders who embrace this challenge will find themselves modeling “changing attitudes, values and behaviors” to guide their learning communities to “internalize the change itself.” [1]

With the unjust losses of Black lives taken too soon, and social unrest from coast to coast as the backdrop, leaders must now prepare for a new year in which the adaptive challenges they must confront go far beyond the pandemic. School leaders must model how to navigate loss and change, while ensuring that all members of their school communities, particularly their Black faculty, families, and students, feel seen, heard, known, and cared for. We at New Leaders would like to offer guidance on how to do this:

Time to process. School leaders should address the gravitational pull of the recent killings of Arbery, Floyd, and Taylor, along with the deleterious impact COVID-19 has on the souls of their learning communities. Empowering leaders – school faculty, parents, and students – to facilitate critical conversations in these spaces is an important part of the adaptive work.

Sociologist Eve Ewing writes that “death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state – through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration – are receiving renewed attention.” [2]

Creating spaces to process, share, discuss, challenge, and explore how Black life must confront this age, and empowering members of the learning community to lead these places primes the school for adaptive change.

Time to plan. School leaders making adaptive changes in the wake of Floyd also must plan to model the centrality and safety of Black students in the four major arenas of running schools – learning and teaching, school culture, talent management, and planning and operations.

“If the entire school community,” argues educators Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III, “is organized around a culture of achievement, if the culture is sufficiently strong, and if African-American students are seen as full members of these communities, these schools seem to be able to counter the larger society’s ideology about the intellectual incompetence of African-Americans.” [3]

This is the vital work of learning communities that serve Black children and families. Rigorous content and high expectations communicate that their lives matter.

Time to persist. This epoch makes it difficult to persist. School leaders, however, should persistently model and coach on the adaptive changes necessary to keep learning and hope alive in these tumultuous times.

Researcher Jon Saphier, when writing about what it takes to build a culture of achievement in classrooms, cites this endurance as key. “Students interpret communicating high expectations,” he writes, “holding them accountable, and support them in meeting expectations as their teacher regarding them as a worthwhile person.” [4]

School leaders must develop and empower their staff to continually pursue the academic rigor and socio-emotional health of the learning community and check in on their progress on a scheduled, consistent basis. They must also be explicit in modeling this persistence for Black students who need psychological safety to make grade-level progress.

Leadership changes everything. In times of calm and calamity, school leaders have the responsibility to prepare students for the upcoming world. In these hard times, we are committed to supporting them as they make the changes necessary to ensure that their schools can prepare the next generation for a more just future. Leadership that honors Floyd’s death will provide Black students the education they deserve, which has been denied them for far too long.

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Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris is the Senior Director of Program Implementation and Adjunct Trainer Corps at New Leaders. He has over 13 years of classroom and leadership experience. Prior to joining New Leaders, Harris served as the Charter Principal of Little Rock Preparatory Academy where he coached principals within the district and developed academic infrastructure.

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

[1] Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002. 13.

[2] Ewing, Eve. Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 155.

[3] Hillard, Asa III, Perry, Theresa, and Steele, Claude. Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 100.

[4] Gower, Robert, Haley-Speca, Mary Ann, and Saphier, Jon. The Skillful Teacher: the Comprehensive Resource for Improving Teaching and Learning. 7th edition. Acton: Research for Better Teaching. 397.

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