Over the course of the past few days, I’ve been finding myself quite restless. Like so many educators, my mind is continuously spinning. Although I’m no longer in the classroom, my role as a Vice Principal is to be in service to teachers, students and their families. Knowing teachers are struggling in the amazing work they are doing, as are students and caring adults at home during remote learning, makes me wonder about the critical realities we’re facing as teachers, administrators and district leaders in our shared service to students.
So, as I tie my shoe laces at 6:00am and head for length early morning walks, I immerse myself into podcast worlds where I can make my physical gains all while having my mind and soul filled as well.
My podcast of choice as of late is Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. If you see yourself as a leader or yearn to grow in your leadership discernment, Brown’s book of the same name provides a masterclass in exploring why leadership matters and what it is. As Brown asserts in the first episode titled The Heart of Daring Leadership, we’re all leaders. Whether you work as a CEO, are a line cook in a restaurant, school custodian, classroom teacher or stay at home parent, anyone can and is a leader. Leadership is not about power, stature or gross income but rather the mindset to serve, make positive change, set direction and ultimately empower others to be their very best. This is all possible with courageous leadership.
To be leaders, we can’t as Brown shares “tap out” of courageous conversations. In fact, she suggests that “we can’t get to courage without rumbling vulnerability.” The use of “rumbling” may sound disconcerting as it brings forward images of a fist fight. It’s best to think of it as a dance of ideas and the action of minds coming together with purpose and intention. This is what’s needed in leadership; the will to dialogue, share ideas, respectfully disagree, learn, unlearn and relearn together all while setting direction.
In fact, I would argue that when looking at education and the change needed to give students a truly transformational learning experience, the will to actively rumble vulnerability is by and large missing. In fact, this lack of rumbling, is negatively impacting the greatest issue in education today: equity and inclusivity.
Looking at equity through the lens of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, the immediate reality is that individual privilege must be explored at system and school levels. For this to occur, system leaders, school administrators and classroom teachers must intentionally reflect on who they are and their driving educational philosophy. This is important as knowing who we are will help use dismantle the “armour” that Brown shares we all carry. This armour is created by our fears and shields the vulnerability that comes with real and purposeful learning and dialogue.
Therefore for us educators to truly create places of inclusivity and where equity and equality are truly understood and defined, we must know ourselves and embrace the courageous. What baggage do we come to education with? What are our blind spots? What bias do we carry? What shapes our thinking and our doing? Do we look to tap out or tap into courageous conversations?
For example, I have spent much time learning how to be a purposeful ally when it comes to Anti-Black and BIPOC racism. This has been at the foreground of my early work as a documentary filmmaker, which then became the driving force to becoming an educator. The power of story and how to be an ally who willingly unlearns and relearns with humility and understanding. This means checking my ego at the door, listening to and searching for new learning.
For this work and mindset to begin and be sustained, I needed to know who I was and this includes understanding my relationship with schooling. This process took time and where I am today didn’t happen overnight. Importantly, to me, schooling is not solely about curricular expectations and course content but rather process and purpose. For me, how students learn and who they are is just as important as what they learn. Thus, to be culturally responsive is to shape intentional opportunities where students can share their why, their goals, and important chapters of their personal story all while I work to create an environment that supports, cares for, enables and empowers them to be their very best in school and beyond. This means I must change to serve the students. Such lack of change is hindering marginalized groups today. This is evident in ongoing debates about the texts used in English classrooms or mindsets around specialized programming and recruitment. For example, specialized programming such as STEAM must be inclusive of all students, especially boys and girls of the BIPOC community in recruitment and retention. For this to occur the structure of recruitment along with teaching needs to be re-imagined at all level. This can only occur when privilege is checked and that comes by rumbling the vulnerability.
Ultimately, courageous leadership is needed. This doesn’t mean combative but rather humanity filled leadership that serves with empathy and understanding but is also guided by purpose and intention. This is leadership willing to “rumble” with the vulnerable to ensure that students receive the transformational experience they deserve. I dedicate myself to this type of leadership; addicted to learning, unlearning and relearning every step of the way in service to teachers, students, parents, caring adults, the public and myself as an educator and parent of elementary school aged children. The world I want my children to live and thrive in is the world I must work to create for all young people.
Importantly, within the space of culturally responsive teaching and learning, the idea of “transformational” is multifaceted. The intentional equity and inclusivity work that speaks to race, class, creed, gender and sexual orientation also comes with the mindset needed to appreciate that each child comes to school with a unique relationship with schooling itself. Thus, for educators to really know students, to shape learning that is intuitive, inclusive and responsive is to be about process and not content. It’s about knowing how students learn, who they are and create spaces where student voice and experience can be put into practice to enrich a sense of self and learning.
For example, I believe that to be fully inclusive is to empower intentional story telling; this is the storyteller in me. For this to happen, students need to document their goals, classroom and curricular learning all while be invited to share personal stories. This can then be leveraged by teachers as a guide to what their students know, need and who they are. This form of “assessment for and as learning” is cross-curricular and is about creating safe spaces where goals can be set, dialogue can take place, supports can be implemented all while checking our potential privilege as educators at the classroom door.
This can be done through digital portfolio design that empowers students to create, curate, share and connect. It’s about mobilizing in and out of school 21st century – multi-modal storytelling so peers, educators, parents, caring adults and other like-minded partners, can respond to who students are. In doing this work, students grow as responsible citizens with the digital skills to share ideas and the emotional literacy to be the change and neighbour the world needs. Character education cannot come without the time and patience to share, learn and unlearn together. Unity cannot come without understanding and valuing the individual pieces of a classroom or school puzzle. This is work that I have practiced in with student, teachers and believe in.
As educators and leaders, we have to embrace the “rumble” and come to conversations informed, ready to respectfully dialogue and with the willingness to look at and begin dismantling our armour. This can be scary but for our students, our fear can’t be a barrier to the change needed to ensure they become the leaders and responsible citizens the world needs today and tomorrow.
I still have so much to learn and do. There is still so much work that needs to be done. However, I won’t tap out of the courageous conversations.
Thanks to Brene Brown for the opportunity to reflect. I can’t wait to listen to the next episode of Dare to Lead.