Check Yourself: Why Self-Reflecting on Privilege Matters

DECEMBER 21, 2015


As of 2014, the majority of students in K-12 public schools in the U.S. are children of color, while 80 percent of teachers are white. If you are a teacher who happens to be white, middle-class, and heterosexual, then there are privileges that you are afforded in this society, and even more so if you are also male, that your students may not experience.

If any of us are under the impression that we are living in a post-ism society, think again. Consider the underrepresentation in Congress: Thirteen percent of all Americans are African American, but only 43 African Americans hold seats in Congress, just eight percent. Latinos and those of Hispanic heritage make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, but only seven percent of Congress. Only 19 percent of Congress is female when women are more than half the population (50.8 percent).

And what about the incarceration of people of color in the U.S.? For every 100,000 people, 380 white people are incarcerated, while the number ofAfrican Americans incarcerated is 2,207. And the school-to-prison pipeline is a serious and legitimate concern with a study this year indicating that southern states suspend and expel African-American students at a significantly higher rate than white students. In Boston and NYC schools, African-American children face school suspension up to six times more often than white children.

It’s vital we have conversations with our students about the inequities in our society and empower students to take their voices beyond the classroom walls — particularly for those of us who work in schools located in communities of color. (Check out this fifth-grade teacher, Emily E. Smith, who radically changed her curriculum so as to reflect the lives of her students and the issues that concern them most.)

Reflecting on Privilege

As educators, we need to also reflect on any privileges we may experience simply due to specific identity markers we hold (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental wellness, and physical ability). It’s key we do this so as to check any biases we may bring to our instructional practices and curriculum.

White Privilege

In Peggy McIntosh’s work titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she presents a series of privileges to consider, that if you are white, perhaps you’ve never considered before. Here are some examples from the piece:

    • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
    • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
    • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
    • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Male Privilege

The following list on male privilege was inspired by McIntosh’s seminal text:

    • I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers.
    • I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my gender — even though that might be true.
    • As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own gender. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.
    • As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.
  • The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

Straight Privilege

If you are heterosexual, take a moment to reflect on these statements from“Heterosexual Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:”

    • I am never asked or assumed to speak for all people of my sexual orientation.
    • I am certain that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and validity of my sexual orientation and family structure.
    • I do not need to fight for legal and social recognition of myself or of my family.
    • I can walk down the street with my opposite-gender partner or spouse holding hands without fear of being bullied, harassed, or assaulted based solely on my sexual orientation.
  • As a parent, I don’t worry if my child is being bullied or harassed due to my sexual orientation.

Checking one’s privileges is not about taking on guilt in any way. It is about acknowledging and confronting systemic racism, and other isms, that hinder our nation from truly reflecting its citizenry — and its Constitution.


How America’s Schools Are Going Green — and How Yours Can, Too


Independent schools are playing important leadership roles in creating more environmentally sustainable schools. That’s according to a 2015 analysis by Inverness Associates that sought to map the state of green schools nationally. Our firm surveyed more than 25,000 school principals in 2013 and 2014, approximately a fifth of the nation’s total. The response rates from three parallel surveys allow for statistically meaningful generalizations about the strengths, weakness, challenges, and opportunities all schools face.

Key Findings

Comparative analysis of public and private school responses revealed many similarities. For example, both public and private schools appear to be more focused on areas such as energy efficiency and waste management/recycling than on incorporating environmental education in the curriculum.
Significantly, however, independent schools appear to be more advanced in incorporating environmental education and sustainability in almost all categories measured.  The following are among the factors contributing to independent school leadership:
  • strong commitment from school heads faculty and students;
  • a governance model that allows for strategic changes in direction;
  • school mission or green mission statements that include sustainability;
  • adequate resources directed to green initiatives;
  • a culture of innovation; and
  • a sense of civic purpose.
Public schools are challenged by limited resources, state-mandated high-stakes testing, large-scale bureaucracy, and political sensitivity. Independent schools face their own challenges, however, and often do not work to achieve advantages of scale. Meanwhile, some public school districts, such as Virginia Beach, Virginia; Boulder, Colorado; and San Francisco, California, are achieving profound changes, especially in building green schools, healthy operations, and renewable energy.
green schools graphic 2.png

Detailed Findings

Here are some specific findings the surveys revealed:
  • Interest in environmental sustainability is higher in independent schools than public schools (42 percent vs. 29 percent in public schools are interested to a very great extent/great extent).


  • Compared with public schools, independent schools have a greater presence of green teams and green policies (54 percent and 48 percent, respectively, vs. 51 percent and 37 percent for public schools). But fewer independent schools have a sustainability coordinator (27 percent vs. 39 percent for public schools).


  • Two-thirds (64 percent) of public schools spend less than $1,000 a year on green activities, such as assembly speakers, field trips, and professional development. A third of independent schools (32 percent) report spending $10,000 or more.


  • Environmental concern and engaged faculty and students account for independent school success (80 percent and 76 percent, respectively). In public schools the principal’s role is relatively more important (60 percent vs. 55 percent).


  • Waste reduction as well as recycling and composting are well developed in many independent and public schools (93 percent vs. 81 percent). Independent schools lead the way in LEED buildings and with renewable energy (26 percent and 31 percent, respectively, vs. 11 percent and 15 percent for public schools).


  • The school garden movement and nutritious, local, organic food have caught on in independent schools and to a lesser degree in public schools (83 percent and 44 percent in independent schools, respectively vs. 57 percent and 19 percent in public schools).


  • The integration of environmental education across the curriculum is just beginning. Strikingly, 10 percent or fewer independent and private schools define environmental literacy, require environmental education of any kind, or assess its impact (8 percent, 7 percent, and 10 percent in independent schools, vs. 7 percent, 5 percent, and 9 percent in public schools).


  • An area where independent schools are especially strong is in integrating environmental education into the wider school program, through outdoor learning experiences (79 percent vs. 50 percent for public schools), service learning projects (73 percent vs. 41 percent), and using the campus as a learning laboratory (70 percent vs. 38 percent).


  • Public and private school principals alike report that their key challenges are lack of time, lack of funding, and inadequately trained personnel (68 percent, 73 percent, and 39 percent for public school principals vs. 70 percent, 64 percent, and 35 percent for private school principals). State mandates and teacher workload are challenges especially cited by public schools (54 percent and 73 percent).


Applying the Research

Here are specific steps all schools can take to strengthen their engagement with environmental education and sustainability:
  1. Provide board and head leadership and make sustainability a top priority.
  2. Benchmark your school’s performance using the Inverness Associates survey.
  3. Promote your successes on your website, in your marketing and admissions materials, and in the media.
  4. Measure your footprint using a carbon calculator.
  5. Quantify and publicize your annual savings.
  6. Adopt green operational policies, such as green purchasing plans and green cleaning materials.
  7. Define environmental literacy; for example, see the North American Association for Environmental Education.
  8. Incorporate environmental education across the curriculum.
  9. Assess students’ achievement as environmental stewards.
  10. Participate in the Green Ribbon Schools program, the national awards program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.
  11. Become a member of the Green Schools Alliance, one of the largest organizations devoted to environmentally sustainable schools.
  12. Join the National Green Schools National Network annual conference.
And remember, green schools offer a “triple bottom line.” They save money, improve health, and boost achievement.


The surveys were designed to assess sustainable schools as defined in Greening America’s Schools and Greening 2.0 (NAIS 2012 and 2013, respectively). In addition to being well organized, these schools share “five foundations.” The schools
  1. use resources efficiently;
  2. focus on healthy operations;
  3. offer an ecological curriculum;
  4. provide nutritional food that is local, seasonal, and healthy; and
  5. develop environmental stewards.
An initial 2013 survey of 1,879 independent school principals, supported by NAIS and 14 state and regional associations, received a 36 percent response rate from school heads in 46 states and Washington, D.C.  In 2014, the survey was expanded to 7,703 public schools in California, followed by a survey of 17,500 public schools in 12 representative states — Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Although the response rates were lower (7 percent and 6 percent) in the public school surveys, they still allow for generalizations that are valid and reliable. We should note that generalizations are based on the perceptions of the school principals. Copies of the survey reports are available at

15-1208-PaulChapman-sm.jpgPaul Chapman is executive director of Inverness Associates, an educational consulting group that promotes green schools that embrace environmental sustainability in their facilities, operations, and program. Previously, he served as head of school at the Head-Royce School (California).

3 Ways of Getting Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching


During the summer, you’ll want to improve your teaching and lessons, but how do you decide where to start? Your students! I use these three ways to get feedback from my students on my lessons, activities, and what I can do to improve next year.

Collecting Input

First, I’m trying to identify my awful lessons or units so that I can rework them over the summer. For example, I set as a goal to take the most boring lesson or unit from one year and making it epic next year. Last year’s most boring lesson, my PSAT prep unit, came back from the dead this year when I dressed as a zombie and created World War Z-themed zombie prep. (I think an awesome teacher can make any content cool and interesting.)

Second, I want to understand firsthand what kids love and what they hate. They need to watch me level up from year to year, because they have to level up, too. I’d like to share how I gather that information.

1. End-of-Year Focus Groups

I end the year with students in a circle. I turn on the audio recorder in Evernote to capture the conversation, which goes something like this.

I’m so proud of what you’ve done this year and how you’ve improved. Today we have a focus group. [Explain what a focus group is.] I need you to help me set my goals to improve this course for next year and to be a better teacher. Will you be honest so that I can improve? I’m recording this in Evernote so that I can listen to the conversation again this summer.

First of all, what did we learn that you loved this year? [Each student answers. We go around the circle for every question.]

What were the things we learned that you liked the least?

So what is the most boring thing we did the whole year? Do you have any ideas for making it more interesting?

Is there anything you wish we’d had more time to do?

Was there anything you wish we’d done more of?

How about ______? What can I do to improve that? [This is where I insert specific initiatives.]

My final purpose is a quick review of what we’ve learned. You can feel as if you’ve done nothing the whole year when you’re tired on the last day. I want them to leave me with their impression of the whole year in their mind so they (and I) are positive about the effort we’ve put in since September.

2. End-of-Year Survey

I do an anonymous end-of-year survey as well (particularly if a class was reticent in the focus group time). You could adapt this and send it to parents for feedback. I do this in Google Forms and like to use open-ended answers for several of the questions.

This survey is more focused on finding the things I may need to improve in a personal way, because kids may not want to say those things in front of their peers. Questions might include:

  • Is there something you wish I knew about this class that would make me a better teacher?
  • Is there a habit I need to work on improving to be a better teacher in the future?
  • Is there something you wish that you could have told me this year?
  • Is there anything good you’d like to leave as an encouragement to me?
  • Name one small thing I can do to be an amazing teacher.

Instead of getting bogged down in the details, I’ll take the answers and paste each one into a text file. Then, I’ll paste them in Wordle to see trends. If I need to read each answer, I will, but I usually wait until summer when I’m more rested.

3. Anonymous Notes

I always make a point to tell every student that they can type or write their feedback and put it on my desk any time. I suggest that you invite anonymous notes, because sometimes students want to tell you important things but don’t want to be a “snitch.” That’s why the last day of the year is the best time for this type of note — no repercussions and total honesty. One year, I found out that some kids had been dishonest, and the next year I changed how I administered a certain test to end cheating.

Just keep anonymous notes in perspective. I have received one from an angry student. It was vitriolic! These things happen. Learn from it if you can even if it is to know that many kids are angry. Hurting people hurt people but I’m still glad they can give me feedback.

Why You Must Reflect and Improve

Students are what we do. They are the center of our classroom, not us. However, as a teacher, I am the most impactful single person in the classroom. Honest feedback from our students will help me level up.

I’ve been doing this for more than ten years. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry — and sometimes I’m mortified. But I can honestly say that every single piece of feedback I’ve received has made me a better teacher. And great teachers are never afraid of having or inviting hard conversations. This is one of best practices that has helped me to be a better, more excited teacher every year.

Diversity Makes You Brighter

The New York Times

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION is back before the Supreme Court today. The court has agreed to hear, for the second time, the case of Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who claims that she was rejected by the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. Ms. Fisher invokes the promise of equal protection contained in the 14th Amendment, reminding us that judging people by their ancestry, rather than by their merits, risks demeaning their dignity.

Upholding affirmative action in 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued that it served the intellectual purpose of a university. Writing for the majority, she described how the University of Michigan aspired to enhance diversity not only to improve the prospects of certain groups of students, but also to enrich everyone’s education.

Ms. Fisher argues that diversity may be achieved in other ways, without considering race. Before resorting to the use of race or ethnicity in admissions, the University of Texas must offer “actual evidence, rather than overbroad generalizations about the value of favored or disfavored groups” to show that “the alleged interest was substantial enough to justify the use of race.”

Our research provides such evidence. Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.

To study the effects of ethnic and racial diversity, we conducted a series of experiments in which participants competed in groups to find accurate answers to problems. In a situation much like a classroom, we started by presenting each participant individually with information and a task: to calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks. First, we collected individual answers, and then (to see how committed participants were to their answers), we let them buy and sell those stocks to the others, using real money. Participants got to keep any profit they made.

When trading, participants could observe the behavior of their counterparts and decide what to make of it. Think of yourself in similar situations: Interacting with others can bring new ideas into view, but it can also cause you to adopt popular but wrong ones.

It depends how deeply you contemplate what you observe. So if you think that something is worth $100, but others are bidding $120 for it, you may defer to their judgment and up the ante (perhaps contributing to a price bubble) or you might dismiss them and stand your ground.
We assigned each participant to a group that was either homogeneous or diverse (meaning that it included at least one participant of another ethnicity or race). To ascertain that we were measuring the effects of diversity, not culture or history, we examined a variety of ethnic and racial groups. In Texas, we included the expected mix of whites, Latinos and African-Americans. In Singapore, we studied people who were Chinese, Indian and Malay. (The results were published with our co-authors, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Mark Bernard, Valerie L. Bartelt and Edward J. Zajac.)


The findings were striking. When participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate. The prices they chose were much closer to the true values of the stocks. As they spent time interacting in diverse groups, their performance improved.

In homogeneous groups, whether in the United States or in Asia, the opposite happened. When surrounded by others of the same ethnicity or race, participants were more likely to copy others, in the wrong direction. Mistakes spread as participants seemingly put undue trust in others’ answers, mindlessly imitating them. In the diverse groups, across ethnicities and locales, participants were more likely to distinguish between wrong and accurate answers. Diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.

For our study, we intentionally chose a situation that required analytical thinking, seemingly unaffected by ethnicity or race. We wanted to understand whether the benefits of diversity stem, as the common thinking has it, from some special perspectives or skills of minorities.

What we actually found is that these benefits can arise merely from the very presence of minorities. In the initial responses, which were made before participants interacted, there were no statistically significant differences between participants in the homogeneous or diverse groups. Minority members did not bring some special knowledge.

The differences emerged only when participants began interacting with one another. When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.

Our findings suggest that racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning, the core purpose of a university. Increasing diversity is not only a way to let the historically disadvantaged into college, but also to promote sharper thinking for everyone.

When it comes to diversity in the lecture halls themselves, universities can do much better. A commendable internal study by the University of Texas at Austin showed zero or just one African-American student in 90 percent of its typical undergraduate classrooms. Imagine how much students might be getting wrong, how much they are conforming to comfortable ideas and ultimately how much they could be underperforming because of this.

Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it. By disrupting conformity it produces a public good. To step back from the goal of diverse classrooms would deprive all students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, of the opportunity to benefit from the improved cognitive performance that diversity promotes.

Sheen S. Levine is a professor at the Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas; David Stark is a professor of sociology at Columbia.

What do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure

Mind Shift

By Holly Korbey

AUGUST 12, 2015

In the first pages of Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz writes, “In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy.” This cultural terror of messing up, combined with modern modes of parenting and schooling obsessed with narrow versions of academic and career “success,” are making students more than risk-averse.

Books like How to Raise an Adult and Teach Your Children Well say kids are coming to college “underconstructed,” at best unsure of who they are and where they fit, at worst anxious and depressed, because their parents have protected them from the uncomfortable and unacceptable state of being wrong. Focused on getting the grades or winning the game and excused from helping out around the house, these children have internalized the pressure, and it’s morphed into a monster that paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks, screw up, find out the consequences and learn from their mistakes.

Parent and educator Jessica Lahey, author of the new book The Gift of Failure, wants parents (and teachers) to back off. She said it’s time for adults to do the responsible thing and let the children fail. Trying something and failing, she writes, is how children learn and make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. This applies to unloading the dishwasher as well as the science fair. Becoming autonomous gives children pride in themselves and their abilities, and makes them independent thinkers and doers who can cope with the ups and downs of life.

Stop bringing forgotten homework to school, Lahey tells the parents of her students.

But it will be messy, and adults should expect as much. To Lahey’s credit, The Gift of Failure defiantly rejects the binary choices of either “triumphant or bumbling adulthood” as end goals, and sees growing up as a series of peaks and valleys with lots of time to figure things out in between. Instead, she offers practical advice, steeped in the latest research, on how to let kids find their own way as parents and teachers guide them, the key word being guide — not instruct, dictate, or enable. Giving kids autonomy may or may not make them a big “success,” but the research supports that it will make kids happier, less anxious and depressed, and more fulfilled to work towards agency in their own lives.

Lahey taught middle school for more than a dozen years, and said that in that period of time, she watched as kids went from cautious to take risks to too terrified to even make a move — write a sentence, for example — without considering what people might think or how it would affect their grade.

“The thing I began to notice was not the fear of an ‘F’, it was the fear of any mistake,” she said. “It’s not that students couldn’t get to a final draft, they couldn’t get even their ideas down. From a teacher’s point of view, that’s a nightmare! If they can’t take a risk, then certainly they aren’t raising their hand with an I-wanna-try-this-idea-out kind of thing.”

Many educators already know this, but what to do about it? Educators can play a crucial part in helping kids to get comfortable with failure, which Lahey calls “autonomy-supportive teaching” and goes hand-in-hand with “autonomy-supportive parenting.” She says there are ways educators can encourage parents to let go, and here are a few:

Encourage parents to think of raising a child as a long-haul job

Stop bringing forgotten homework to school, Lahey tells the parents of her students. And stop stressing over how your daughter will do on next week’s quiz: instead, focus on what your daughter can learn if she does it all herself, without nagging and pestering and pressure. If she does indeed fail the quiz, she may be forced to ask herself what went wrong, and what she could do better next time. Parenting is a long-haul job, Lahey says, and parents and teachers need to think more about what’s going to make kids happy in the long term. In the case of the quiz, the short-term goal is getting an ‘A,’ but the long-term goal of self-sufficiency eclipses that minor ‘A’ by a long shot.

“It’s so freeing!” she said. “You can stop worrying about the stupid details of the moment-to-moment junk, and start focusing on the big things. Just think about where your kid was one year ago today. They’re amazing!” Lahey said she’s not sure if adults just forget, or worry that’s not true. She suspects, though, that parents don’t see the amazing growth in kids because they aren’t given the opportunity to show it very often.

Focus on Process Instead of Product

Lahey confesses this is a tricky balance, especially since schools today are inherently — almost obsessively — focused on product (and may inadvertently be contributing to parents’ anxieties over academic success). But there are ways to get around that, she says.

Adjust expectations (and grades) to make room for real student work. In the book, Lahey asks a kindergarten teacher what her kids can do that their parents don’t think they can. She responds: “Everything!” In autonomy-supportive teaching, work that students plan and orchestrate themselves will look like — well, like a kid did it. That means no more science projects worthy of their own Nobel. “Teachers need to move their expectations as well. Our lines for where grades should be have creeped up anyway, based on our expectations for what the product should look like. Our expectations have been skewed by the work of the parents.”

Lahey knows that teachers love to hear that a parent has decided to make the child more responsible for his own learning: “If you tell your teacher you’re making the move to more autonomy-supportive parenting, and to please hold your child to consequences without letting the kid off the hook? If you ask the teacher to help you through this — that this is the only way your child is going to learn? Just knowing when a parent is interested in supporting a student’s voice and ability to speak up for themselves: a teacher will kiss you on the lips for that!”

Back Away From the Parent Portal

One of the biggest pitfalls to autonomy-supportive parenting, Lahey says, are the parent portal websites, with access to up-to-the-minute feedback about scores and grades. Lahey and her husband decided to forgo the parent portal for their older child. They handed the password over to their son, telling him he’d need to let them know if he was in academic trouble. Some of her friends were shocked, “as if we were defaulting on our parental duty,” she writes. “I disagree. Checking in on children’s grades is a type of surveillance, which is one of the forms of control and is often mentioned in the research as an enemy of autonomy and intrinsic motivation.”

For parents who decide to forego the parent portal (or only check it occasionally), Lahey recommends sending a note to teachers about the decision, explaining that your student is now responsible for her own communication information.

Consider the Fear of Failure May Affect More Kids Than You Think

Some educators have called out the rash of overparenting books as only written for a few upper-class parents; some have called The Overstressed American Child “a myth.” Many students are well-acquainted with failure, both their own personal shortcomings as well as the systemic failures of their schools and homes. While Lahey openly admits that The Gift of Failure doesn’t apply to everyone, she cautions that it’s not just the 1% who are terrified of their kids failing: “What I did find out by talking to teachers, is that it’s far more pervasive than we thought,” Lahey said. “We’re talking about a big chunk, a lot of middle class kids are getting the same kind of pressure,” as kids at the top. Many times, she said, the pressure’s even greater if a family doesn’t have the means to pay for college — especially when it comes to sports and scholarships.

Fear of failure destroys the love of learning

In chapter 2, Lahey relates the story of one of her students, capable and intelligent Marianna, who has “sacrificed her natural curiosity and and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault.”

We taught her that her potential is tied to her intellect, and her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfection.

Above all else, we have taught her to fear failure, and that fear has destroyed her love of learning.

And this is the real shame: fear of failure taints the waters of learning, keeping kids from taking risks. Making failure normal — even celebrated — Lahey contends, may be uncomfortable in the short-term, but in the long haul makes for happier, more confident kids.

When Race Enters the Room: Toward Racial Literacy in America’s Schools

When Race Enters the Room: Toward Racial Literacy in America’s Schools

​Most people who grew up, attended school, or lived many years in the U.S. have a worldview shaped by their own racial identity that informs their understanding of race and what it means to be associated with a particular racial group. Yet these groups are dynamic, and each generation interprets them differently. In addition, the increasing share of students who identify as “multiracial,” “international,” or “other” further complicates efforts to make sense of race, its relationship to academic achievement, and its contribution to the larger project of attaining diversity, integration, and inclusion in schools.

Additionally, the growing racial diversity of America’s student population has far outpaced that of our teaching and administrative professionals. In the case of NAIS schools, during the 2014 15 school year, students of color made up 29 percent of total enrollment. Yet roughly 83 percent of instructional support and 88 percent of administrators who work in NAIS schools are white. Such trends are not, however, unique to independent schools. In fact, this demographic divide between educators and students continues to fuel what researchers have described as “cultural mismatch” between home and school that leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding.
Although the current discourse on school improvement and leadership focuses on closing achievement gaps and improving academic outcomes among students of color, race remains an “undiscussable” in many regards. It is a topic that most would prefer to avoid but that has become increasingly hard to ignore. As education professor and theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings explained based on her decades of research in schools, “race almost always enters the room.”

The Proverbial Elephant in the Room

Over the last few decades, the education discourse has been overwhelmed with national, state, district, and school-level data reflecting troubling disparities in student achievement based largely on race. Moreover, school resegregation trends and discipline gaps that feed a distressing school-to-prison pipeline are also informed heavily by race. These developments have spurred a growing interest in talking about race in schools.
But how do you prepare for such conversations? Where do you begin? What role should educational leaders play in advancing conversations about race? And to what end?
As Edith Rusch and I wrote in a 2009 article, “There is mounting evidence that aspiring school heads who feel unprepared to talk about racial and cultural perspectives and differences have limited ability to effectively lead in diverse social contexts.” In our study of educational leadership preparation programs, we found that aspiring school leaders who lacked opportunities to participate in constructive talk about race and other complex social issues tended to engage in “deficit thinking.” In The Evolution of Deficit Thinking, Richard Valencia defines the term as “the notion that students (particularly low income, minority students) and their families experience deficiencies that obstruct the learning process (e.g., limited intelligence, lack of motivation and inadequate home socialization” (Valencia 1997, x). Sadly, such focus on the deficiencies of students based on the meanings we attach to race gives power to harmful stereotypes, which often lead to lower teacher expectations for students of color.
As such, this proverbial elephant in the room has been harder to ignore in an education policy environment where school leaders in independent, traditional public, and charter schools alike are expected to improve educational outcomes for all students. Such correlations between race and achievement — absent an understanding of the origins of race that we’re about to discuss —can lead us to incorrect conclusions, and even assumptions, about racial differences in schools.
So what is “race” exactly? Where did it come from?  Is it real?  If so, how do we know?

Understanding Race: From Literacy to Reconciliation

In my work, I have argued that racial literacy is essential to constructive conversations about race because it focuses on the origins, function, and persistence of race as a social and political construction. In the 2003 PBS documentary,RACE: The Power of an Illusion, historian of science Evelynn Hammonds explained, “Race is a concept that was invented to categorize the perceived biological, social, and cultural differences between human groups.”
This is an extremely important concept for educational leaders to understand. It helps to give much-needed historical, social, and political context to contemporary manifestations of racial inequality in schools, such as the “achievement gap” and other disparities that tend to fall along the color line. When we know that race was, in fact, created to sift and sort individuals into a racial hierarchy that places some groups on top while others remain on the bottom, we are better equipped to recognize and respond to the reproduction of racial inequality in classrooms, schools, and society. Despite the evils and pervasive nature of racism today, we can take some solace in the fact that because race is a human invention, we can reinvent or reconstruct the ways in which we imagine race.
The graphic below provides a brief description of each stage along the multi-step progression from racial literacy the ability to understand what race is, why it is, and how it is used to reproduce inequality and oppression to the aspirational goal of racial reconciliation. I present more detailed discussions of these concepts in my previous works (Horsford, 2011, 2014; Horsford & Clark, 2015).
Much like the proverbial elephant in the room, the troubling legacy of race continues to manifest itself in the very places we should want to protect from such discrimination, inequality, pain, and injustice our schools. School leaders can and should play an important role in navigating the issue of “race,” and whenever and wherever possible, consider the meaning, function, and power of race when it enters the room.

Racial Literacy Resources

Below are selected recommendations and resources for school leaders and teams interested in increasing their racial literacy as part of a larger commitment to advancing educational equity, diversity, and inclusion in school communities.
Adelman, Larry. RACE: The Power of an Illusion. Directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Tracy Heather Strain, and Llewellyn M. Smith. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003. Online resources retrieved from
Horsford, Sonya D. 2011. Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequality, Ideology, and (Dis)Integration. New York: Teachers College Press.
Horsford, Sonya D. 2014. “When Race Enters the Room: Improving Leadership and Learning through Racial Literacy.” Theory into Practice 53(1): 123-130.
Horsford, Sonya D., and Christine Clark. 2015. “Inclusive Leadership and Race.” In Inclusive Leadership for Increasingly Diverse Schools, edited by George Theoharis and Martin Scanlan, 58-81. New York: Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2005. “Reading, Writing, and Race: Literacy Practices of Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.” InLanguage, Literacy, and Power in Schooling, edited by Teresa L. McCarty, 133-150. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Milner, Richard H. 2015. Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Nieto, Sonia. 2010. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities (10th Anniversary Edition).New York: Teachers College Press.
Rusch, Edith A., and Sonya D. Horsford. 2009. “Changing Hearts and Minds: The Quest for Open Talk about Race in Educational Leadership.” International Journal of Educational Management 23(4): 302-313.
Schieble, Melissa. 2012. “Critical Conversations on Whiteness with Young Adult Literature.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56(3): 212-21.
Thompson, Aaron, and Joe B. Cuseo. 2012. Infusing Diversity and Cultural Competence into Teacher Education.Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
Valencia, Richard. 1997. The Evolution of Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice. London; Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.

15-1202-SonyaHorsford-sm.jpgSonya Douglass Horsford is an associate professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her research interests include the political and policy contexts of education leadership with a focus on school desegregation and education reform in the post-civil rights era. She is editor of three books and author of Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequality, Ideology, and (Dis)Integration, which received a 2013 Critics’ Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association. 

Teacher: A student told me I ‘couldn’t understand because I was a white lady.’ Here’s what I did then.

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss, November 24 2015

Emily E. Smith is a fifth-grade social justice and English language arts teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. She was just awarded the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award given at the National Teachers of English Language Arts Convention in Minneapolis. Smith created and founded The Hive Society, a classroom that inspires children to creatively explore literature through critical thinking and socially relevant texts.

In her speech accepting the award, Smith talked about a seminal moment in her career when she realized she needed to change her approach to teaching students of color, one of whom told her that she couldn’t understand his problems because she is white. The following is an excerpt of the speech in which she discusses her transformation (and which I am publishing with permission).

From Smith’s speech:

I’m white. My classroom is not. Sure, it’s been my dream to work at an “urban” school. To work with kids whose challenges I could never even fathom at such a young age. And changing at-risk lives through literature is almost a media cliché by now. These were, however, how I identified myself at the beginning of my teaching career. I was a great teacher. I taught children how to truly write for the first time and share meaningful connections on a cozy carpet. We made podcasts about music lyrics and filled our favorite books so full with annotated sticky notes that they would barely close. We even tiptoed into the alien world of free verse poetry.

But something was missing. If you’ve already forgotten, I’m white. “White” is kind of an uncomfortable word to announce, and right now people may already be unnerved about where this is going. Roughly 80 percent of teachers in the United States today are white. Yet the population of our students is a palette. That means America’s children of color will, for the majority of their school years, not have a teacher who is a reflection of their own image. Most of their school life they will be told what to do and how to do it by someone who is white, and most likely female. Except for a few themed weeks, America’s children of color will read books, watch videos, analyze documents and study historical figures who are also not in their image.

I’ve been guilty of that charge. But things changed for me the day when, during a classroom discussion, one of my kids bluntly told me I “couldn’t understand because I was a white lady.” I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.

My curriculum from then on shifted. We still did all of the wonderful things that I had already implemented in the classroom, except now the literature, the documents, the videos, the discussions, the images embodied the issues that my children wanted to explore. We studied the works of Sandra Cisneros, Pam Munoz Ryan and Gary Soto, with the intertwined Spanish language and Latino culture — so fluent and deep in the memories of my kids that I saw light in their eyes I had never seen before. We analyzed Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again” from the lens of both historical and current events and realized that the United States is still the land that has never been. The land that my kids, after reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son that connected so deeply to their personal experiences, decided they still wanted to believe in. The land they decided to still hope for. The land that one of my kids quietly said would be changed by her generation. A generation of empathy.

We read about the Syrian crisis, analyzing photographs of war-torn faces at the border and then wrote poetry of hope, despair and compassion from the perspectives of the migrants. Many of my kids asked to write about their own journeys across the border and their [dreams] for a better future. One child cried and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.

We listened to StoryCorps podcasts by people from different walks of life, and children shared their own stories of losing pets, saying goodbye to a mother or father in jail, the fear of wearing a hoodie while walking to a 7-Eleven, and thriving under the wing of a single parent who works two jobs.

So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.

Looking back, I think that my prior hesitation to talk about race stemmed from a lack of social education in the classroom. A lack of diversity in my own life that is, by no means, the fault of my progressive parents, but rather a broken and still segregated school system. Now that I’m an educator in that system, I’ve decided to stand unflinching when it comes to the real issues facing our children today, I’ve decided to be unafraid to question injustice, unafraid to take risks in the classroom — I am changed. And so has my role as a teacher.

I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of color deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of color, be the teacher America’s children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.

So teach the texts that paint all the beautiful faces of our children and tell the stories of struggle and victory our nation has faced. Speak openly and freely about the challenges that are taking place in our country at this very moment. Talk about the racial and class stereotypes plaguing our streets, our states, our society. You may agree that black and brown lives matter, but how often do you explore what matters to those lives in your classroom?

Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, “Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.” I know I’m going to continue to ask the bigger questions of myself and seek the answers that sometimes feel impossible, because my kids deserve it … you’re welcome to join me. Thank you.