Speaking about racism and equity is a tough thing to do. Words can get misconstrued and meaning can be misinterpreted, but it is vitally important to have these conversations. It’s really the only way to recognize systemic racism and begin to take the first steps to correcting the problem. To get some ideas on how to gauge a school’s culture and address those difficult conversations, we spoke to Dyan Harrison, principal at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown, MD; Bill Ziegler, principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA; and Albert Sackey, principal at Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont, NY. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.

Savicky: What do you do for teachers to help them recognize their own bias, prejudice, and systemic racism?

Harrison: Our school has done quite a bit of work with a text called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta L. Hammond. We use that book study as part of our discussion to address different areas. We have gone through an almost three-year process helping teachers identify their own biases and prejudices, and are now in the process of looking at systemic racism within our school system that we can disrupt. To do that, we have done various exercises: Our teachers write their own story. Our teachers watch videos of our students and students from around the country, and … analyze those videos so they can process what they’re hearing students say and how they interpret the students’ messages.

Ziegler: The No. 1 thing we can do is to have courageous conversations with teachers, and that begins with the principal engaging when a situation arises. As principals, we need to talk about the racism right there and have that conversation. I also think a key part of this is having professional learning designed and targeted toward helping teachers identify their own biases. We have done some good work as a district—thanks to our superintendent—of really helping teachers identify their own biases and how they can overcome and move beyond that to support students.

Sackey: I am new to my current school. What I have done in the past and what I am looking to do now is lead by example. I try to use real-life examples, as well as book studies, as a way to help staff recognize their own biases. A book I will be looking to read with my staff that addresses this issue is Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn E. Singleton. This has been a great tool for helping teachers pause and reflect on their own upbringing and their own biases. I explain that bias and prejudice can be present regardless of an educator’s race or ethnicity. Helping them understand that the fact that we all bring these biases into the work we do—knowingly or unknowingly—is important. The charge is to recognize those biases and make the conscious effort to address them.

Savicky: How do the teachers make connections with their students, making them more culturally responsive and relevant? 

Harrison: Our teachers do a phenomenal job of really getting involved. We have an extensive after-school program, and some of our clubs are student-driven. For example, we have a diversity club, and we have a Korean club that’s very rooted in the students’ actual culture. Our teachers also attend student events … [some] are outside of the school day, outside of extracurriculars. If we’re invited to a student’s quinceañera, or there’s a Diwali celebration or festival, we attend. We have our Chinese New Year celebration. Attending these celebrations helps teachers make connections in real time. And even if it’s not culturally based, our teachers attend football games and activities that have nothing to do with the school that help them make connections to our students.

Ziegler: Making connections begins with the first meet-and-greet. During school, teachers are at their classroom doors. When we’re virtual learning, they start the day with “Hey, how’s everybody doing? How was your weekend? What’s happening in your life that you want to share?” It’s about teachers building relationships with kids in a way that resonates with students. One of our English teachers told me, “Hey, Bill, in the middle of Shakespeare, one of the students wanted to show us their new chickens, and they walked the computer back and showed us.” That’s OK! It’s building relationships one student at a time, calling students by their name. We also need to celebrate. We need to see and celebrate color. Teachers can no longer say that they’re colorblind to a student. We need to embrace color, and we need to celebrate color, because that color is what makes that student who they are—the rich background to that student’s life and that student’s color. As educators, we can no longer say, “I’m not racist.” We need to be anti-racist, and our students need to see that. So the students feel culturally safe in the classroom, our teachers need to be anti-racist and working to build a relationship with every student regarding their race or color or origin, and really working to treat them equally, fairly, and equitably.

Sackey: Most teachers try to find their own way to connect with their students. Unfortunately, unless there is a concerted effort by schools and districts, this work will not be as effective. It is often left up to the individual teacher to proactively do work on becoming more culturally responsive. In my district, there is a lot of work being done at the district and school level to not only assist teachers, but also students and parents about culturally responsive pedagogy and anti-racist teaching. This is an effort made by the district to tackle issues of systemic racism that may exist. The district has created a multiyear District Equity Plan that outlines all the proactive measures the district is going to be taking in order to make this work meaningful and impactful. This work is based on the [New York State Education Department] Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework and its four guiding principles: creating welcoming and affirming environments, ensuring high expectations and rigorous instruction for all students, inclusive curriculum and assessment, and ongoing professional development. Having a PTA and staff who see the importance of this work and are wanting to do this work is also critical in the success of this important work.

Savicky: How do you stay connected to the community to keep your finger on the pulse of racial tension?

Harrison: We have a very, very active PTSA—Parent Teacher Student Association—along with a very active member of the NAACP Parent Council. Those two ladies—the PTSA president and the NAACP parent council representative, who are part of our leadership team—are very much on the pulse of the community. When we meet as school-based leaders, they are a part of that organizational structure so that we hear each other in real time. When we’re dealing with racial tension, it often stems from the media. Currently, racial tensions seem to stem from what the kids are seeing on social media. We use our lunchtime in a remote setting to talk to kids about these issues. That’s where we get it, from the students. But from the parent community, we keep our fingers on the pulse from our leaders within the parent community, our PTSA president, our NAACP parent council representative.

Ziegler: I talk to key leaders in the community. It’s about having honest conversations, and I work to have honest conversations. I listen to groups. As a matter of fact, I’m actually bringing a group of students together to talk about racial unity and how we can bring people together and give everyone an opportunity to excel for who they are. We hope to have this group up in the next month where we will be looking at diversity in our school and how can we unify our school. The other piece, as a principal, is it’s important to have courageous conversations and ask people questions about who they are, where they came from, and have a dialogue with them to get to know them better. As a white principal, sometimes people shy off from doing that, but it’s our responsibility to have the courage to dig in and really talk about race.

Sackey: In my district, we have a strong PTA that has done a great job keeping me up to speed and educated on the community and possible issues within the community. Working with the school and district equity team has also been a way of knowing some of the current issues facing the community. There are also local newspapers and blogs that help to share some of this information. I also try and link up with the local NAACP chapter in order to ensure that I am connected with them. 

Savicky: How do you establish trust with students when you don’t look like them? 

Harrison: I was at the high school level for almost 20 years, so my middle school experience is just right now in terms of my leadership. It’s been fascinating to see the dynamic between a high school-age student and a middle school-age student, and in so doing also how to establish trust with students that don’t look like you. Often, it requires a little bit more work as a middle school principal because in middle school, kids don’t trust any adults. We’re almost taboo, right?

Regardless of ethnicity, to establish student trust takes a little bit more effort as a whole. That means participating in lunch, being in the hallway, even as they’re going through their “Oh my God, drama.” There’s so much “Oh my God, drama” in middle school—like when the biggest chaos is you didn’t get invited to the bat mitzvah, it’s a real serious situation. In those cases, it’s really important to just be a listening board. … If they’re able to talk to you, almost forgetting that you’re the adult, and they use their own vernacular and they use their own colloquialisms, and you’re able to say, “Oh, that’s horrible. Oh my God. What did you do next?” I have found that engaging with them in informal settings helps when I have to formally engage with them. 

Ziegler: There are several keys components here, and one of them is to be there for them, just be a part of their lives. Be at their football game, their field hockey game, cheer them on, support them. See them in the hallways, connect with them. That is number one. Number two is to listen to them and really hear them. Ask them questions about what they like to do and what their strengths are.

Another piece is to be consistent. We have to be consistently supportive of them. And then I think we need to recognize the difference between color and let them know, “Hey, I may not understand everything, but I want you to know I’m here to support you. I’m here to be an advocate for you, and I’m here to do everything I can to help you be successful.”

Sackey: In any instance, students have to know that you have a genuine care and interest in them. Knowing students’ names and what they do after school, such as sports and clubs, are good ways to connect with students. Any ways that we can make connections with students are going to be ways to build that trust. Students are aware when there is a genuine interest and care. By showing this to students and parents, you are able to build more trusting relationships with your students. 

Savicky: How do you address the trauma that students deal with because of systemic racism, and how do you make sure that they’re feeling safe in your school?

Harrison: We had a school-based issue right before the COVID-19 closure last March. It took a lot of work to create a space for students to have discussion. It could have been considered systemic, but it was really a locally school-based issue. We met in small groups. We addressed the issue as a grade level, because it was a grade-level issue. We had to meet with the individual students who had great objections to what was happening in terms of race relations. Then we had to expand it to the whole grade level. We had a town hall meeting and reassured students that this was a safe space. We then established protocols for how we were going to engage in this courageous conversation about race. We had to have students agree that this was a safe space and that, of course, what was discussed would remain in that circle. We did a tiered process. We started out with using some of the restorative justice protocols in order to create that space, and then we did a bigger town hall to elevate, to say, “We’re in a good place. We’re addressing the concern. Here’s how we deal with it. And here’s how we make change.”

Ziegler: I think a key component is professional learning. Our superintendent has done a great job with taking care of our teachers, providing professional learning to teachers on students dealing with trauma, especially the students of color and how they deal with trauma, what that looks like and how we can support them. We must provide professional learning to our educators about how to identify and support these students because our teachers are on the front line. They see it first and need to capitalize on that opportunity. The next piece is social-emotional education. For example, I was just in a class, and the opening entrance-ticket type of activity was a teacher asking kids, “How are you doing right now? How are you feeling?”

Last March when we went virtual, for our attendance, our students had to answer an attendance question to be marked as present. One of the questions was, “How are you doing? Are you struggling?” If students indicated that they were struggling, we connected them to the counselor. We really work to identify students who are struggling, and then get them support.

Another piece is we have to be able to find the resources and get the professional help for students. For students who are experiencing trauma, especially [those] who are Black or Hispanic, we bring in outside services for support. We have our counseling team ready and prepared to be able to help students through that.

Sackey: I’ve had an opportunity to speak on several occasions at my alma mater. I also had opportunities in my previous school to help students know that I understand what they are going through. Whenever I’ve been able to connect my experiences with theirs, I have been able to help them know that they can get through this. Part of what I do during this time is try and use real-life examples, as well as hands-on support, to assist them when these issues arise. I also help them know that we as a school community are working on tackling this issue. I want them to know that they are part of the solution. 

Savicky: How are you able to provide a virtual space for students to discuss really what’s going on in the world right now—COVID-19, systemic racism?

Harrison: Systemically, we have social-emotional lessons that allow students to engage in everything from feeling anxiety about the coronavirus to anger management from the election. We have designed lessons systemically for our students as a whole to engage in that dialogue. We also provide a lunch meeting. In our school’s schedule, we still have “lunch.” During that time frame, students can meet with counselors and administration, just like they would if they were in a cafeteria. So, we provide “space” virtually, where kids come in, they ask us questions. Because we’re in middle school, the questions range anywhere from, “What’s your favorite type of French fry? Waffle or wrinkles?” to “What is your feeling on defunding the police?” It runs the gamut in terms of questions the kids ask, but it creates a forum for kids to engage with other kids in those types of conversations naturally and organically.

We also have informal conversations with our counseling team—our wellness team—where the kids can set up a meeting with anybody, whether it be administration or counselors, to just talk. What we really found successful is that the kids are really starving for opportunity to engage with each other about nonsense, so, we created that space within our school day to do that every day. 

Ziegler: We do several things. Our school counselors do small-group counseling sessions around coping with COVID-19. Kids can sign up for sessions to talk about everything from dealing with disappointment, FOMO—fear of missing out—how to deal with anxiety, how to deal with a loved one who’s sick. Our counselors run small groups and activities on that. The principal team runs Falcon Feedback. We bring together about 20 students, randomly chosen, virtually and we ask them four or five questions. First question is, how is the virtual world for Pottsgrove? What does Pottsgrove do well? The second question is, what would you improve in the virtual world? Third question is, what do you dream school can be—and then the last question is, what can you personally do to make Pottsgrove a better place? In addition to that, I think it’s also about really having teachers provide students the avenue and the open forum to be able to discuss current events.

Sackey: Student advisory has been one of the ways that we have been able to give students an opportunity to share their thinking in regard to items or issues occurring in the world. During advisory, there are various topics that are tackled that allow students to express themselves.

Savicky: What resources do you use to help yourself and your teachers prepare for hard conversations that deal with racism?

Harrison: As I said, we have several book studies that we’re going through, and I really want to put a stamp on Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain as a discussion point, because it leads the reader through a very strategic walk, analyzing themselves and getting to a place of awareness and then, ultimately, to the next steps. Our leaders are also conducting a book study using Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi as our discussion board and some other resources that are along the racial discussion points, such as white privilege. We also provide staff with a compass activity that talks about courageous conversations about race, and it gives you the quadrants where staff can identify where they are in that conversation. So, it’s not just “I’m feeling emotional,” but how to engage in the conversations with students—with each other. Conversations raise all kinds of emotions, and raise all kinds of intellectual or social connections. We also provide articles to our teachers that we include as part of professional development so we can keep on the forefront of where they are as individuals and what that means to the work they do.

We also interviewed a student group, recorded it, and then played it for teachers. It was interesting to hear our students’ perceptions of what the teachers believe they’re doing. For example, we used our [student government association] and some members of our diversity team, and asked them a series of questions about their experiences in the classroom, and our teacher leaders were surprised at the perception that the students have on how teachers were engaging with students of color. The group of students was diverse, so it ran the full complement of our school. The teachers were surprised that holistically, the perceptions of the students were the same.

Ziegler: One of the things that we’ve done is invite our teachers of color to share their story. I have a teacher from Puerto Rico, and he shares his story about coming to Pennsylvania and having a hard time adjusting to this culture. I have another teacher that is from Kenya. He talks to us about his life. We held a town hall meeting with our teachers, our students, and our community, and talked about what it means to be a teacher of color, a person of color in our school, and how we can improve. Using our internal supports and any other pieces, we really like to work with our students to identify how can we get better. We’re currently putting an equity group together to look at how we can improve, how we can support all people of color.

Sackey: Professional development is critical in doing this work properly. Not all staff may be comfortable having those difficult conversations with students. For starters, we always ensure that staff have a detailed script with probing questions. Part of what I tell staff is that we do not expect them to be mental health experts, but we do expect them to be able to help guide difficult conversations with students through their questions. Staff know to refer any students who appear to have a difficult time with the conversations to the appropriate mental health staff.

We also began sharing short video presentations that we make with staff to show students—and then present students with various questions to discuss. This allows all the students to hear the same message and have an opportunity to discuss the message using highly engaging questions. 

Savicky: How does a Black principal talk about race in a predominantly white school?

Harrison: It is actually a bit challenging, to be fair, because there’s a certain level of balance that, as an African American principal, must be struck consistently so that the message is not lost. It may be perceived as a personalized agenda. I have used different venues in order to have discussions with staff and many of my conversations are informal. We have a staff development teacher as part of our organizational structure in our system, and part of that structure allows the staff development teacher to provide professional development. She is white.

Oftentimes, I really think about how I communicate in terms of what I’m trying to say as it relates to students and student achievement, and where we have to go as a school to make sure that all students are getting the same experience that they need to demonstrate their mastery and their success. It may be that not every kid gets the same treatment; child A gets one treatment while child B gets another. The teacher has to be OK with that. It’s not an indictment of inequality; it’s actually a move toward equity.

As an African American principal, when I talk about race relations and how we do what we do in our school, and how we engage in the work, and how we engage in delivery of instruction, I use data as my reference point because that is tangible. It’s viable. Using data is a much easier entry point in saying, “We have to do things differently. Here’s what the data shows.” Any other way sometimes comes across as, “Oh, the principal has a personal agenda.”

Sackey: One day at a time and one incident at a time. As long as we are moving forward and having the conversation, then we are progressing in the work. There is work that is starting at most district offices throughout the country, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement and the widespread civil rights demonstrations [in the summer of 2020] in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Districts are trying to do this important work, but it has not been easy. There are several layers we have to keep in mind. There are the students, staff, parents, and community who all need a level of support in this work.

As a school leader, working closely with the PTA to address issues as a school is also an important step in continuing the important work that has to be done. This is not easy, but it is very important and necessary work. When the community and district see the importance of the work, it makes it more meaningful and sustainable. Also, more people are able to support the important work that occurs. 

Savicky: Why do you think, or do you think, that white principals back off of having those conversations?

Ziegler: I think white principals shy away from the conversation about race for several reasons. One reason is they think that they can’t relate. They may come from a white privilege background and they feel like they can’t contribute to the conversation, which is completely false. Everyone needs to contribute to this conversation. I think the second reason is fear. They have the fear that they’re going to say the wrong thing, fear that they’ll be perceived the wrong way, or fear of the unknown. The third thing is there’s bias that gets in our way of us having the courage and the braveness to be able to say, “You know what? What’s this look like from a Black male’s perspective?” Ask a Black male, “What’s it like to be a student in our school? What’s it like to teach in our school?” I had a conversation with one of our Black teachers, and I asked him, I said, “Hey, tell me, what’s it like to be a Black teacher in our school? What do you see that I don’t?” He shared some really good observations.

Another reason the conversations are avoided is a principal’s inability to take action. They think, “If I ask the questions, I have to take action, whereas if I don’t ask the questions, I don’t have to take action.” They may be concerned about unearthing something that could be a wound that needs to be ripped off and healed. Sometimes it’s not easy to get involved, to dig into those tough topics. But we have to.