How to Engage School Staff in Dialogues on Race and Class

By Ivan Rahman

Having worked in charter schools for three years now, I suspect what seems to be a pattern among schools driven by a sense of urgency for the work at hand.

It seems to me that we habitually let the urgency of our work—of lesson planning, grading, teaching, strategizing, and so on—harbor us from delving into critical big-picture discussions. I’m talking about the kind of discussions that force us to pause and reflect on the systemic variables that shape the lives of the youth we serve.

How can we, as urban school leaders and teachers, move beyond mere acknowledgement of these factors and into a deeper awareness of them? How can we prioritize in-depth analyses of the role we play in perpetuating or dismantling the social conditions and worldviews that contextualize our students’ experiences in the classroom and beyond?

For example, when I was a student in the Bronx, adults in my public school instilled in me a worldview. “Hard work, hard work, hard work”—that was the recipe for success they proclaimed. But I soon realized that the idea of hard work by itself is only half the story. I realized that it’s not only about working hard. It’s also about working smart and knowing the right people.

And then there’s also the elephant in the room—that experiencing success is usually an uphill battle for low-income people and minorities. Had the adults in my school been more attuned to their own biases and privileges, would they still have conveyed messages that misaligned to the reality my friends and I experienced?

That said, I wanted to jump-start conversations about race, class, and privilege where I currently work. But I knew that I would face two obstacles in doing so. The first is that staff at my school—like in most schools—are crushed for time. The second is that there are risks to having these conversations. If not facilitated well, these conversations could cause fissures in a harmonious team culture.

With these hurdles in mind, I was able to convince my manager of the necessity for such dialogues. Afterwards, I forged a diverse team of three, including myself. In hindsight, I realize I was lucky to find two colleagues who were passionate about engaging staff in discourse around these issues. They were also adventurous enough to conduct such an experiment.

In our initial team meeting, we grappled with the question of purpose. We knew that structured and periodic conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion were important. We just struggled to articulate why.

After an hour of staring at a blank Google Doc and laughing at ourselves for struggling to express something that seemed so intuitive, we had our epiphany. The point of these dialogues is to help our staff (including ourselves) come up with new ideas on how to better meet the realities of our students.

Perhaps this might mean rethinking our recruitment practices or how we engage students’ families. Or, it could mean reimagining a more holistic process for deciding who gets into AP courses. It could even mean reassessing the messages we hammer into our students.

I wish I could say that we hit the ground running once we fleshed out our goal. We didn’t. Sure, we found excellent articles to ground our first discussion with the central staff. Sure, we had a great set of questions to guide our session. And, sure, we even involved the staff in setting up the conversation norms. But when it came to discussing the heart of the matter or speaking from a personal perspective, getting anyone to talk felt like pulling teeth. This was surprising to my team and me because, when we proposed the idea for having these sessions, most of the staff seemed excited by it.

After debriefing the session, my team and I realized the mistake we made. We had assumed the staff would readily share their thoughts and stories if we only asked the right questions. Instead, we should have devoted the first few sessions to establishing a certain level of trust among the participants.

After all, the nature of these discussions entails vulnerability from the participants. So, if trust is lacking, then no matter how good our questions are, we are unlikely to engender the type of frank and powerful discourse we value.

So we dedicated the next two sessions to building trust, and we did so by playing CONNECT. When we returned to the heavier topics by our fourth session, what transpired was beautiful. The conversation bubbled with passion and flowed organically. People opened up. And, as testimony to the vigor of the interaction, my team and I were able to get through only one of the five questions we had prepared.

Now, I don’t know if the energy of the last session will persist in the upcoming sessions. I also don’t know what the long-term impact of these dialogues will be. After all, it’s not always easy to measure the outcomes of heightening our consciousness or of identifying and upending our biases.

Yet, I was reassured the other day. A key decision-maker at my school told me that the most recent dialogue helped her unearth a bias of hers. She told me that, as a result, she would approach her role at the school more mindfully. Her admission—which, I imagine, required tremendous courage—made me think that, perhaps, this experiment is worth it.

 

Ivan Rahman is a 2015-2016 Education Pioneers Fellow and currently serves at the Director of Data for Coney Island Prep in Brooklyn, New York. Born in the Bronx to Bangladeshi immigrants, Ivan witnessed his parents’ struggle to become citizens and make ends meet and, through that, he learned to value resilience and fortitude. Now, he works tirelessly to expand opportunities for working- and middle-class families. He is a lifelong student of what works and what doesn’t in the landscape of social innovation.

 

Comments

Ivan, I applaud your courage to take the lead and have a difficult conversation. I think it is even more important in the charter school space given their growth. Here are my thoughts based on my experiences. -Everyone is educated in a system that is inherently unequal and structurally oppressive. By that, I do not mean it produces racist, but it educates us in marginalized, oppressive, and privileged ways. For poor and minority youth, we hear "work hard". For non-minority and wealthy youth, they learn privilege. In addition, colleges of education and teacher certification programs perpetuate guarded learning that prevents educators - formal and informal - from speaking honestly about race and class because they have not learned it or find value in it - the discussion. -The "harmonious team culture" you speak of is only in terms of work and not true vulnerability required for teams to be transformational. It is not a bad thing, but when mixed with a lack of diversity (and not talking about tough topics on race and class) you essentially have teams that are barriers to minorities in education, or any industry for that matter. So this harmonious team culture is nuanced and similar to being a first-generation student going to college and not fitting in. -I did not see if youth/families were part of the evolution of your team to have difficult conversations. I have found that youth know when they are being marginalized. Personally and professionally, I know what it feels like and I point it out and empower (myself) the youth/families I've encountered to find language and courage to address feeling marginalized in their worlds - school, home, and world at large. -It would be nice to see talent directors adjust their rubrics for employment to diversify their teams according to an individual’s ability/comfort level to articulate how they engage racism in education. As education continues to be mostly white educators and minority students, recruiting for "vulnerability from the participants" might be worthwhile. -Schools say they value diversity but very few display it in action or can provide concrete examples from minority staff/teachers, youth/alumni or parents. It does not have to be some dog and pony show, but meaningful accounts. This will ensure, in theory, the culture of diversity is owned by each individual and presumably for generations of the school...it evolves but it grounded in universal values. -Professional development is touted by all schools, but to one of your points who has the time for anything other than outcomes - curriculum, data, grades, etc. Race and class are luxuries to schools, which blows my mind considering the demographics alone. That said, PD should include these kinds of discussions and I am sure some do. And they get heated because they should, but hopefully the result is a heighten awareness how all of us have been educated for biases we are not always aware and how our biases are learned via our educational - formal and informal - experiences. Good luck and I enjoyed reading about the journey you and your colleagues are sharing.
Ivan, your courage and ability to teach others to be aware of their own biases and privilege is commendable. As an educational leader with a clinical social work background in schools, and having grown up in South Los Angeles, I can attest that these pivotal conversations happen too infrequently. Whats mind boggling is that most teacher training and certification programs do not even touch the surface of the topic of race and class and how being aware of your own "stuff", if you will, can make a tremendous difference in your practice with students and their families. I absolutely agree that trust, in all forms of relationships, is mandatory to get any kind of meaningful work done. I have always said that "If you cannot build a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with a student their will be very little teaching of any kind going on. Teaching of math, science, reading, writing, identifying emotions and learning new ways to deal with conflict all start with a solid foundation. I applaud your tenacity and forethought to assess and identify that this work had to be done in order to see real change at your school. I appreciate you leading the way for all of us to feel supported and like this work can really be done, if done right and with the proper intentions and tools. Now is the time to have these conversations. Reading about the wonderful work you did makes me recall the words of John F. Kennedy in saying: "If not us, who? If not now, when?
Chris James, thank you so much for your thoughts. I definitely agree with many of your points. But your point that speaks to me most is when you mention that dialogues on race and class are treated like luxuries at schools. I wish that that weren't the case—both at urban schools and non-urban schools. But such conversations will most likely continue being viewed as luxuries until school leaders themselves begin to value such conversations or enough school staff members step up to make such conversations a priority. Ideally, we would want both to be the case.

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