Fit to Lead: December 2022
Research shows that school principals are second only to teachers in terms of their impact on student achievement. Research also finds that when students of color have teachers who look like them, it increases their rates of success in school.
When it comes to disruptions in learning, we know that children from Black and Brown families have suffered tremendously in the wake of the pandemic. Given COVID-19’s disparate impact on these families, it is imperative that school districts examine their hiring practices and ensure that they allow for increased representation of educators and school leaders of color to help combat the academic struggles that students of color are facing.
Bringing Equity and Inclusion to Life
Recently, the push for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) seems to be everywhere, especially in the private sector. Most Fortune 100 and 500 companies now have a DEI position in their organizations. But what exactly is the role and mission of such a position? According to livingHR, The Work Agency (a business designed to support organizations with DEI): “Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace is where everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do for the business, feels equally involved and supported in all areas.”
In other words, business leaders are saying that for their companies to perform at their optimal level, they must pivot and adjust to create a work environment where all feel welcomed, valued, and appreciated. One way that I’ve seen this shift happen in the business sector is through hiring practices.
Our education institutions must also embrace DEI positions and initiatives if they are to help transform the lives of students of color and make all of society more equitable and inclusive. In K–12 education, we can start this push for DEI by taking a serious look at the percentage of diverse candidates we are hiring in the roles of principal and assistant principal.
During the 2017–18 school year, the year for which most recent information is available, 78% of school principals were white. Only 11% were Black, and 9% were Latino. In most urban school districts, such as New York City, Chicago, Miami, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, the majority of the students are students of color. Could you imagine attending school your entire life and never seeing any school leader (or only one or two) who looks like you? What does that tell you as a student? A student of color may feel that school is not a place for them and not a place where all students are welcomed and valued. Ultimately, the lack of DEI starts with a school’s and district’s hiring practices.
Making Students Feel Welcomed
If we want to increase student performance, if we want to increase student attendance, if we want to reduce negative behaviors within the schools that enroll our most marginalized students in the country, we must examine how we make students feel welcomed through our hiring practices.
To that end, I offer the following ways that school districts can increase the representation of school leaders of color:
- Make a concerted effort to make school leadership attractive. Many educators decided to leave the profession during the pandemic because they felt underappreciated and overwhelmed. We need to celebrate our school leaders so that they choose to remain in the profession. The principalship should be a position that we honor. We should look up to our principals like the leaders they are! If I’m a Black educator and I see a school leader who is white being treated as “less than” and/or disrespected by specific individuals or society at large, then why as a person of color would I ever want to step into that same leadership position?
- Focus on recruitment. As a leadership consultant who works with superintendents and human resource officers, I’m always told that “we can’t find any Black or Brown teachers or administrators.” Every time I finish consulting with a school district, we have found more ways to increase their workforce of professionals of color. Social media is a great tool for recruitment, so make sure to consistently share job posts. Give employees incentives with signing bonuses. Visit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to find future leaders of color. If we really want to make our schools more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, we must do whatever it takes to increase diverse representation. Failure in this area is not an option.
- Create working conditions where diversity is celebrated—not just tolerated. Schools need to create environments where everyone’s cultural background, racial background, and lived experience is seen as a value added. If I come to work, and my culture is never mentioned, never celebrated, and never appreciated, then that tells me that this is not a place where I can feel safe to express my true authentic self. Also, when attempting to create a diverse workplace, remember not to put the entire weight of this responsibility on your Black, Brown, and/or LGBTQIA staff members. They do not want the entire weight of an organization’s commitment to diversity on their shoulders alone.
- Grow your own. When it comes to recruitment, schools need to run their own leadership programs within the district to help target and develop future leaders who can be tapped to serve their communities.
- Training, training, and more training. It’s no secret that school leadership is very challenging and is one of the most difficult fields in the country. What often makes the job even more difficult is the lack of resources and training for school leaders once they enter the role. My company offers leadership coaching for principals around the country, and school leaders love it because they learn concrete skills, knowledge, and strategies. They enjoy a safe, nonjudgmental place where they can feel supported, seen, and heard. When districts offer such training, the main reason why school leaders of color—especially novice ones—don’t speak up is because they often are afraid of being ridiculed or judged.
I offer all this advice to school districts as an experienced school leader of color and as someone who truly wishes I had had these supports in place when I was a principal. In my first position as a school leader, I was 30 years old and served as an acting principal in the second-largest urban school district in the state of New York, where I ran the largest school in the city. My first year, I received a vote of no confidence, and I was often criticized in the local news.
As the only Black man who was a principal in one of the most segregated cities in the country, I felt alone and underappreciated. Still, I was able to lead my school from a graduation rate of 59% to 87%, and for Black males I helped our school to increase the rate to 93%—among the highest rates in the country.
Although I was able to shut out the noise and do my job of leading my school and supporting teachers and students, other school leaders of color may not have the resources they need to succeed. Based on my 15-year career in education, I know firsthand that if we don’t support Black and Brown school leaders with the strategies I have outlined, our students will never truly get the representation and champions they deserve.
Marck Abraham, EdD, is the president of MEA Consulting Services LLC, a motivational speaker, and the author of What Success Looks Like: Increasing High School Graduation Rates Among Males of Color.