A fellow principal once called me “brave” for accepting the call to lead a school in East San Jose, California. Not because of the academic challenges that existed but because, in her words, it was a “scary” place.
This primarily Mexican-American school community was located just two blocks from where I was raised, and where my mother and family continue to live today. On my very first day as a teacher, a colleague who learned I had grown up in the community asked me how many of my siblings or cousins were locked up or drugged out.
Perceptions are powerful. They shape educators’ beliefs about students’ trajectories.
But equally powerful is the educator who understands the urgency around confronting low expectations. The school principal is well positioned to do that work on behalf of students of color living in under-resourced communities. As a former teacher and school principal of color—and now a person who builds the capacity of current and aspiring leaders—I know that this work is difficult but not impossible.
While there are no silver bullets, there are strategies that work well. What follows are three concrete entry points to proactively engage in this work:
Strategy 1: Start With Self: Challenge and Own Mental Models
If you are a principal, it is important to authentically recognize and own your biases and mental models, allowing you to demonstrate what it means to be self-aware beyond hanging a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. poster in your office. Organizational learning expert Peter Senge defines Mental Models as one’s underlying beliefs about the world and how it works, based on past experiences.
Mental models aren’t necessarily bad. They reflect an understanding of the world, as well as life exposure and experiences. But they become blind spots with great consequence for student outcomes and experiences when they undermine the ability to see the world through others’ perspectives and to adjust behaviors and actions that are detrimental to others’ success.
In a school, they can affect how principals engage with families, set achievement goals, monitor progress, select curriculum, and more.
Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference describes the mental steps we often take from the moment we hear a comment or observe an action until we draw conclusions. It’s easy to be unaware of our process of day-to-day data selection and its cascading influence on conclusions and practice. This is why it is important to practice inquiry and ask for evidence to create open dialogue: “I heard you say this. What led you to that conclusion? Can you say more?” Practicing inquiry allows you to drill down to data that is specific and descriptive. Do what any good researcher does before drawing conclusions: ensure adequate and quality evidence. Creating a school culture based on inquiry and learning, as opposed to quick conclusions based on perception and prior beliefs, is critical.
And doing this thoughtfully and successfully requires intentional steps towards reflection and self-awareness.
Strategy 2: Choose an Entry Point—Beliefs or Practices?
Challenging beliefs and continuously reflecting on mental models are at the core of breaking the cycle of persistent underperformance in schools. Yet, school principals are under so much pressure that their time is primarily spent, understandably, on instructional techniques and practices. A singular focus on academic achievement misses the opportunity to fully examine what motivates educators and to challenge their thinking about what their students should know and be able to do and what students bring to their own learning.
So which should come first, beliefs or practices? Granted, it is time-consuming to constantly engage in conversations about beliefs without a tangible proof point. So is starting with practices the right entry point? Shifting practices can bring about quick changes, but they might be superficial. Confronting beliefs can sometimes turn people off and create tension, but they are critical to making sustained change.
Whether you start with beliefs or practices, creating a culture of learning for students and adults is key. That means, for one, making the space for teachers to humbly, without fear of judgment, say, “I don’t know how to do that. I need help rethinking my approach. Can you help me?” This is especially important when it comes to addressing negative beliefs about students and challenging adult behaviors.
Strategy 3: When You See Something, Say Something
What principals do and don’t say speaks volumes about their expectations and beliefs about learning. The corrosive power of silence condones practices that not only hurt student learning but perpetuates inequity and bias.
Principals often experience and observe inequities, but how do they address it? The biggest mistake a principal can make is to see something, then walk away without doing or saying anything. Practices that hurt children need to be directly addressed, all while maintaining relationships, identifying ways to support improvement, and clearly communicating expectations of conduct and treatment of students.
Addressing low expectations does not need to be confrontational. Instead, it should be an open dialogue about the mental models we all have so that all those involved are made aware of how one’s expectations impact practice. One of the best tools a principal has is the practice of clear communication and inquiry. This includes the courage to name the concern, ask questions, reinforce expectations, and offer support: “At our school we strive to (blank) and I need your support ensuring (blank). What can I do to support you to improve (blank)?”
Addressing low expectations is complex and hard. It is about wielding courage effectively to challenge what one of my favorite professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, boldly names DID: Demography Is not Destiny.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report. Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification. Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at The Hunt Institute, Brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team. Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.