First Person

From reducing suspensions to engaging families, 17 things superintendents can do to combat racism

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For school system leaders, the summer should be a time of reflection and planning for the upcoming school year. This summer, that reflection and planning must include strategizing about how to work against racism in our society.

I believe system leaders, especially superintendents, need to confront head on the violence being perpetrated on black Americans by public employees who are supposed to protect citizens, and increasing attacks against students and others who are Muslim, LGBT, immigrants, or just simply not white.

For 10 years I was a superintendent of two very diverse school systems: Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md. Superintendents lead public institutions and therefore have the responsibility to confront institutional racism if we are to move towards truly living up to our potential and ideals as Americans. Educators are the keepers of that potential, but today’s times call for new actions.

Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular priority order, about what superintendents must do. Full disclosure: I succeeded at doing some of these, failed at others, and never got to a few. This is an aspirational list, as well as what I hope can become a new conditional list of requirements for superintendents. People who are not prepared to take on these issues do not deserve to be educators.

The list is incomplete, and I hope others add to it.

1. Read. Go out of your comfort zone and then share what you’re reading with your internal and external communities. Use it as an opportunity for collective learning. Start with James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” and move on to Gloria Ladson Billings’ 2008 AERA speech on the “education debt“; Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Freire/Horton, We Make the Road by Walking; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me; anything by Jeff Duncan-Andrade or Pedro Noguera; recent blogs by Sabrina Joy Stevens, Jose Vilson, Jessie Hagopian and others in the #educolor movement.

2. Look at policies. Ensure your district has equity and curriculum policies that are clear about what students should know and be able to do and that all students must have access to an instructional environment that promotes that knowledge and skills and necessary supports if they need it. If such policies don’t exist, start working with your board to develop them.

3. Clarify your message. Be clear and relentless about your core values and those of your district. Be clear and relentless about what adults need to do in service of children. Be clear and relentless that all children deserve to feel valued, loved, and safe, and that as educators, we have a special responsibility to our kids of color.

4. Review content. Ask your curriculum and instruction team to review all content for cultural competence and take steps to ensure that curriculum and materials are respectful and inclusive of multiple cultures. Engage teachers and leaders of color in this initiative and be public about it. Crowdsource it, as there are more culturally proficient materials out there than some might imagine or are on the state-approved publisher contract lists (see American Reading Company materials for a good example).

5. Review employee turnover data and flag patterns where there’s disproportionality. Talk to educators of color about their experiences. Ensure there are exit interviews so that employees who leave (including non-certified staff such as para-educators) can give honest perspectives about the climate within the school. Make sure that your principal evaluation procedures can take into account climate and turnover issues; if it doesn’t, put that into your next negotiations.

6. Reduce suspensions of students. Now. Send a clear message to principals that sending students out of the building to fix themselves after they’ve committed a transgression will not help them change that behavior. Students don’t miraculously change behaviors by being pushed away; the opposite is true, they change behaviors when pulled in and held close. Coordinate the moral imperative of suspension reduction with a commensurate effort to train staff in restorative justice and similar programs. Be very attentive to the messages that are being sent to the public about the need to reduce suspensions and explain why we need to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

7. Analyze your budget to see if resources are allocated according to student need. Make sure your budget reflects your district’s values and policies and that the children who need the most are getting the most. Yes, politics are a factor here, as the most vocal parents are typically the most entitled, but be clear, consistent, comprehensive and fact-based in designing and communicating a budget that reflects students’ needs. Look at your Title I funds too, as you can be more creative than you might think.

8. Engage with community leaders and families, and not just the usual suspects. Summon your best active listening skills and reach out to faith-based leaders, community leaders (formal and informal), and key communicators. Don’t rely on the same structures that have always existed, although they need to be engaged as well, they don’t usually comprise the non-entitled. Model this for others.

9. Elevate student voice, listen to their stories, talk to them individually and in large and small groups. Be sure to really listen. Answer their questions respectfully and honestly. Model this for others and tell everyone what you’ve heard. Be sure to talk to students who might not be formal leaders, or who have been in trouble, or are just plain old average. Be sure to engage with English language learners and special education students too.

10. Engage teachers, support professionals and leaders, listen to their voices. Try to understand their underlying fears and concerns while also being non-negotiable about your expectations. It’s really hard to learn new approaches and many white educators especially don’t know how to confront their privilege. Teach them by being a partner in the learning process.

11. Negotiate equity, social-emotional learning, and cultural competency into formal evaluation systems. Work with your bargaining units to create appropriate language. Use National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers language as models, as both have taken stands on institutional racism.

12. Be absolutely unequivocal in the message that relationships matter and learning doesn’t happen without love. Yes, outcomes matter, yes, academics are important. But teaching is a social enterprise, and if children — especially children of color — don’t feel valued, respected, and loved in classrooms, they won’t meet our expectations.

13. Analyze your data to determine whether non-academic needs are getting in the way of student achievement. If students are hungry, feed them; if they need support beyond the school day, work with community agencies to get it for them. Develop or purchase an early-warning-indicator system to identify kids that are in danger of dropping out and use the results at the school, district, and community level to organize wrap-around supports for kids and families. Look at disproportionality in special education students and English language learners in identification and suspensions.

14. If students are being tracked, stop it. The public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society. This has done immeasurable harm to generations of children. Look at district policies and procedures for identifying gifted and talented students, academic levels, magnet/choice programs, etc. Review the data, make it public, convene the right people to start dismantling it, consult with lawyers if necessary and Just. Do. It.

15. Measure engagement, hope and well-being, mainly of students, but also of employees. People need to be happy and engaged in their work in order to produce their best. They need to know that hard work will lead to improvement; that’s the basis of hope.

16. Never forget that you’re learning too. The superintendency can be a brutal job, but a wonderful privilege. No one will ever fully understand what you go through and why you had to make the decisions you did, and everyone expects that you have the answer to everything. Don’t become too enamored of your own expertise and past success; learn from and with others about how to lead from a social justice stance.

17. Don’t be afraid to get fired for standing up for what you believe in.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too. 

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.