Every day, a student of color experiences micro-aggressions, subtle and not-so-subtle interactions with classmates or teachers that tell them that they are not smart enough or good enough, that they do not belong. Perhaps their teacher consistently passes over them to answer a question in class, or, when the student is called on, asks them to express the thoughts or opinions of their entire race or culture.  

Experiences like these were a regular part of my K-12 career as a Black student. I never had a teacher or principal who looked like me, which is not unusual – today, while 51% of public school students across the country are of color, only 16% of teachers are. This wouldn’t have been a problem for me if my teachers had been culturally proficient, if they had taken the time to learn about me, my history, and my lived experiences, and if they had leveraged their understanding of who I am as a foundation to create a classroom experience, from assessments to how the classroom was managed, that was both academically rigorous and reflective of me.  

It wouldn’t be a problem today if all school employees were able to do this for their students. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  

So how do we change that? We need to give aspiring and sitting school leaders better professional learning experiences by developing effective, racially responsive facilitators of that professional learning. School leaders need to learn from highly skilled professionals who understand why race in education is important and know how to teach that to others.  

For the past several years, I have facilitated and overseen the facilitation of equity-focused professional learning in school systems across the country for the NYC Leadership Academy. I recently had the opportunity to conduct research on our facilitation practices. The Leadership Academy’s facilitation work is grounded in a set of facilitator competencies, and I wanted to better understand where we were being true to those competencies and where we needed improvement; what impact our facilitation was having on the leaders we work with; and what other school systems and organizations can learn from our work.  

Overall, I found that Leadership Academy facilitators carry a deep belief and understanding that race affects the beliefs and actions of students and school staff. As one of our facilitators, a white woman, said, “Race is a part of the fabric of everyday life. It’s a part of the identity of who people are. It’s part of the teaching and learning dynamic in terms of how people are, how students are seen, and what they are seen as being capable of, and what problems or gifts they bring into the classroom.”  

Key facilitator competencies 

We train our facilitators to adopt a few key behaviors in their work, which are codified in our facilitator competencies. Those competencies include: 

Demonstrate self-awareness and attend to the relationship between the participants/group and the facilitator  

It’s critical that a facilitator practices self-exploration, work that requires reflecting deeply on one’s own racial identity, sharing personal stories, and naming one’s race and the oppression or privilege associated with that race. The Leadership Academy facilitators I studied worked hard to be true to this work. One facilitator, a white Latina who has been with the organization for 13 years, said that she starts every learning session she leads by sharing about herself and her race. That helps the leaders in the room feel that they are in a space free of judgement where they can be vulnerable, she said.  

Said another facilitator, “As a man of color, I acknowledge that race plays an integral part in my everyday existence whether I want it to or not. I intentionally throw my race into the ring when it comes to how I’m facilitating, how I’m discussing what my role in the facilitation is, what my purpose and what my goals are from facilitation.” A white facilitator brought a different perspective: As a white woman, if I’m facilitating in a room of predominantly white educators, there are a lot of assumptions that are coming out. I feel like that’s the first place to challenge the thinking.”   

Support participants to engage in authentic dialogue by recognizing the vulnerability, historical distrust, risk and discomfort demanded of conversations regarding equity and race  

Just as it is hard for professional learning participants to talk about race, it is also hard for the facilitators. In fact, researchers Guerra and Pazey found that most facilitators try to avoid conversations that could create conflict, that could uncover prejudices and result in the facilitator being labeled racist. Before facilitators can lead conversations about race with principals, wrote researchers Patricia Guerra and Barbara Pazey, it is important that they have these conversations among themselves. 

For this reason, the Leadership Academy invests in training for its facilitators. In addition to regularly scheduled professional learning sessions, our staff members have participated in training facilitated by Glen Singleton of Pacific Education Group. The training introduced us to a framework that guided us in engaging in difficult conversations about race. “Those learning sessions really represented the turning point,” said one facilitator, a white man. Added another facilitator, a white woman, “Now that we’ve had this training, we can really push those difficult conversations, and now have to do it somewhat more publicly than small groups.” 

It’s OK – and it’s critical – to talk about systemic racism 

Some people believe facilitators should remain apolitical and avoid using their platform to guide aspiring and sitting principals toward developing any sort of political agenda, writes researchers Sarah Diem, Bradley Carpenter and Tiffanie Lewis-Durham. However, principals today do not operate in a vacuum. Their students and teachers, and their schools, are directly affected by public policies. We therefore believe that school leaders must be prepared to advocate at the school and district levels against practices and policies that disproportionately penalize students from historically marginalized communities.  

Our facilitators recognize the importance of critiquing policy. Said one of our veteran Latina facilitatorsWe need to understand that there’s a system that hacreated the discrepancy among the students rather than saying it’s the student’s fault for not knowing.” Added a white Latina facilitator, “Wneed to look at the systems and structures in place in a school building and at the district level.” 

Supporting the racially responsive facilitator 

Being a racially responsive facilitator requires a level of vulnerability and real-time pushing, which requires particular levels of support from their supervisorsEffective support includes providing 

  • Dedicated time for reflection and learning to improve their skills. 
  • Ongoincoaching to continue to hone their practice in a safe, supportive relationship with a non-evaluative coworker. 
  • Differentiated training beyond all-staff meetings to serve the individual skill sets of each facilitator.  
  • Opportunity to talk to each other in critical friends’ groups to be motivated to improve their practice.  
  • Feedback from supervisors through observation.  

Recommendations for school systems and organizations 

A racially responsive facilitator thrives within an equitable organization. To be that organization:  

  • Ensure that all facilitators have the skills to talk about what your mission looks like in practice. 
  • District or organization leaders need to be open and vocal lead learners about their own self-exploration.  
  • Provide structure and support to ensure conversations about race are always on the table. 

As the demographics in urban, suburban and rural public schools in the U.S. shift, there is an increased need for racially responsive school leaders. These leaders need professional learning from facilitators who can speak to these changes and challenges. It is only with this level of professional learning that we will begin to close gaps in access and opportunity for traditionally marginalized students and give every student the chance to excel 


Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D.

Executive Director, Curriculum Development & Equity

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined The Leadership Academy in 2015 and currently serves as Executive Director, Curriculum Development & Equity. In this role, she oversees The Leadership Academy’s internal and external equity strategy, design, and collaboration, and ensures expanded access to our work through different learning systems. At The Leadership Academy, she has had the opportunity to partner with school systems across the country to support them in implementing their equity policies. Mary has also supported the development of equity-focused resources for district-level leaders looking to name and dismantle the inequitable practices they are seeing at the school and district level. Mary came to The Leadership Academy with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, and coach. Before joining TLA, she worked at New Leaders, a national non-profit organization, as Executive Director of Content and Assessment, leading the team that designed, developed, and delivered content and assessments for the organization. She began her career in education as an high school English teacher in East Harlem. Mary is a certified Courageous Conversations about Race Affiliate and a certified Facilitative Leadership Trainer. She sits on the board of Marathon Kids. Mary holds a BA in Metropolitan Studies from New York University, an MA in English and English Education from the City College of New York, and a Doctorate Degree in Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Southern California. Her book, focused on leaders of color, will be published by ASCD in 2022. Mary lives in Round Rock, Texas, with her mom, husband, daughter, and son.