Building Resilient Schools: A conversation with Vernita Mayfield


As we approach the Conference on Teaching Excellence in Orlando, Florida June 25 to 27, ASCD asked conference presenters to answer questions about their sessions. Our first Q&A features Dr. Vernita Mayfield, the author of the upcoming ASCD book 12 Minutes to Cultural Competency. Learn more about CTE 2019 here.

Describe your session and what educators will take away from it.

Vernita Mayfield: Teacher leaders are the key to creating resilient schools that are free from inequity and cultural or racial bias. Teachers can galvanize staff, lead professional learning communities, facilitate activities, discussions, and increase both their understanding of cultural competency and actionable skills to confront and change inequitable practices. And you can get started this school year by taking 15 minutes or less to build your capacity to do so.  If you are interested in increasing your leadership skills in this area, this session will get you well on your way.

How and why did you start working in education?

VM: I started as a substitute teacher in Compton Unified School District in the Los Angeles Metro Area. I was only working part-time.  But then I fell in love – with my students. They would race to greet me first thing in the morning and walk me to my car after school. Many of them lived in difficult situations and I realized I was making a real difference in their lives. Serendipitously, I had found my life’s purpose.  Subsequently, I enrolled in a teacher licensing program. The rest is history.  I would eventually go on to work primarily in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse school communities throughout my career.  I continue to make positive differences in the lives of youth, practitioners, and agencies who serve them.

What drew you to teaching cultural competency?

VM: When the Obama administration appropriated several billion dollars for school improvement, I was working at a state education agency. My role was to review the school improvement plans from schools who sought to benefit from the funds.  It was in that process that I noticed a disturbing trend. Most schools did not include strategies to address historical disparities or inequities that caused them to fall into the area for improvement in the first place.  Most, if not all, school applicants ignored the influence of race or racial bias on academic outcomes.  When I brought this to the attention of a few individuals who were not people of color, they minimized my concerns or dismissed them as unimportant to academic gains, without realizing that their very actions were reinforcing a system of racial hierarchy that gave voice to some while muffling the voices of others; that advantaged some, while disadvantaging others; that perpetuated educational injustice by refusing to examine the influence of racial bias or the subtle markers of its existence. I became an equity warrior out of necessity – teaching cultural competency to anyone who would pause long enough to listen.  In the rapid, high accountability environment of schools that was not always easy.

What does cultural competency mean and why is it important? What does it do for students?

Cultural competency, as I define it, is the ability to utilize critical thinking skills to interpret how cultural values and beliefs influence conscious and unconscious behavior; the understanding of how inequity can and has been perpetuated through acculturated behaviors; and the knowledge, determined disposition and skills to disrupt inequitable practices to achieve greater personal and professional success for yourself and others.  Thus, cultural competency is both knowledge and discrete actions. The knowledge is the ability to recognize the influence of culture, race, bias, and inequity in individuals, systems, and institutions. The discrete actions are steps taken to confront and dismantle inequity when it is observed or found. Knowledge alone is of little value if not paired with action.  For example, I had a colleague who would often observe disparities in the treatment of teachers of color in her school.  “I think it’s terrible,” she would observe and go back to eating her ham sandwich. In stark contrast, a culturally competent educator speaks up, stands up, and steps up. This is the kind of educator-advocate all children need – educators equipped with cultural knowledge, advocate dispositions and competent activist skills. Educators who recognize unfairness, injustice and/or inequity and then are aptly prepared to challenge and change it. 

This session ties into your upcoming book, Twelve Minutes to Cultural Competency. How did you form the concept of this book? How can someone build cultural competency in 12 minutes?

VM: Educators in schools face competing demands for their time.  Even when they recognize the need to increase their understanding and skills in cultural competency, they are hard-pressed to find the time to do so.  That often means it doesn’t happen or it happens sporadically.  The concept of the book is 1) To take brief snatches of time to build your cultural competency over an extended time period 2) To preferably utilize the established learning community in which you operate so you build a collective support group of people who can grow together, and 3) To employthe use of highly interactive activities to prompt and provoke critical thought and dialogue.

Spoiler alert. While some activities may take twelve minutes or less, the work of unlearningbiases or dismantling racist practices, procedures, systems and institutions, is likely the work of a lifetime. 

Building on CTE’s theme this year, what does a resilient school look like for you?

VM: A resilient school is one in which all stakeholders are empowered to grow and evolve into their best authentic selves.  Unexamined practices, policies, procedures, and biases can impede the ability of staff, students, parents and community members to engage authentically in schools.  When that happens, one dominant culture can have a stifling effect on progress.  It can create an untenable and toxic environment that is neither sustainable or resilient.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your session that I haven’t asked already?

VM: Teacher leaders are the key to leading successful school improvement. Teachers can galvanize staff.  Teachers can lead professional learning communities. Teachers can facilitate activities, discussions, and efforts to examine culture, race and bias.  Teachers can increase both their understanding of cultural competency and actionable skills to confront and change inequitable practices.  I challenge teachers to awaken the Equity Warrior in you. Stop by to learn some activities that will help.

Learn more about becoming an equity warrior by attending CTE 2019 and Vernita’s session, which will take place on June 25 at 3:15 p.m.