By Gregory C. Hutchings Jr.
In today’s increasingly diverse world, we don’t expect educators of color to have a different experience from their counterparts. But even in 2019, this is too often the case. My recent travels to the South reminded me of how far we have come, but also how much has stayed the same when it comes to race relations in America.
All school leaders experience adversity, contention, trials, and tribulations during their tenures. However, leaders of color will almost certainly experience situations that have an additional layer of contention or adversity due to bias, stereotypes, and incorrect cultural perceptions.
More than 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, only about three percent of superintendents across the entire United States are African American, according to survey information from AASA. At superintendent forums and gatherings, I am an anomaly — frequently, I’m the only African American superintendent (or one of very few) in the room.
Based on my experiences and the statistical evidence, I know that educators of color have to work that much harder to get into leadership roles. We are expected to be smarter, better in our jobs, and outperform our counterparts in many instances. Furthermore, leaders of color don’t often get the benefit of the doubt.
This is nothing new for most leaders of color. As a high school student, I personally had to petition to be allowed into honors classes — and this kind of segregation still exists to varying degrees in schools across the nation today. Recently, a student of color informed me that she had been discouraged by her counselor from taking an Advanced Placement course, with the counselor saying it might be too rigorous for her despite the fact that she had maintained an A/B average throughout the school year.
Due to these negative experiences and being forced to overcome adversity, many diverse leaders feel a visceral reaction to continuing inequities in education. For us, it’s personal — and urgent. The good news is that because school leaders of color have experienced discrimination in our own lives, we are perfectly placed to lead the conversations that need to happen.
For some educators of color, it can be tempting to avoid the obvious in our work and brush over racism and bias for fear we will be criticized for bringing it up at all — or worse still, making it all about us. Any educational leader striving to unapologetically remove barriers and dissolve inequities within an educational environment will face resistance or risk being forced to resign or even termination.
But race is personal, and it is also something that we need to unashamedly own. Our racial issues are the issues of the past and present, but will also, sadly, be the issue of the future if we cannot establish a culturally competent culture in America. Racial equity in education is an issue that every leader should be tackling no matter the color of their skin.
Our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, must not be forgotten. If we are to do everything possible to stop schools from moving backwards and repeating the mistakes of our past, change needs to be bold and courageous— and leaders of color can’t back away from it.
It is our role and responsibility to shine a light on problems that may be uncomfortable to others and to ensure that students today do not experience the same inequities, acts of oppression, and racism that many of us did. Shying away from this equity work is shying away from doing the work in our schools that is needed most.
Learning from the Past
In this respect, an essential tool for leadership development, especially for leaders of color, is to revisit and engage in the history of Africans and African Americans. We must must study the history of slavery, Emancipation, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and integration.
Recently, my family and I traveled the Freedom Riders travel route through the Southeastern United States: Farmville, Greensboro, Atlanta, Montgomery, and Birmingham. These places served to remind me of the role each one of us has in bringing about change for the next generation. And it is important not just to know the story but to own it and retell it so that the next generation also knows it and owns it. Owning the real story of our nation’s past will prevent us from repeating history. It can also help leaders of color appreciate the sacrifices, turmoil, and lives lost to allow us to even get the few seats we have at the table to make change today.
But equity is not just a black and white issue. It is far more nuanced and has far more shades than that. Just because you are a leader of color does not mean you yourself are without prejudice. How many of us African Americans educators can name three positive historical figures from Central America? Not many, I fear—and yet with the changing demographics of the United States, that region is the source of the largest student population that many of us serve in our school divisions today.
Cultural competency training is essential for everyone, no matter what your racial background is. Learn what it means to be an immigrant. Learn what it means to not speak a word of the language that all other students speak at school. Learn what it means to be unfamiliar with the food that is served in the cafeteria, or not be able to eat it because of religious beliefs, or to not see yourself reflected in a single textbook from which you learn from in class. Leaders of color are well-positioned to empathize with these students— and take the lead in encouraging education systems to better support them.
Role Models of Equity
At a time when equity and the existence of modern-day segregation in our schools are among the biggest issues we face in education, it is more important than ever to see the work of education as cyclical. Your experiences as a person (and, in the past, a student) of color impact your work, just as your work as an educator or leader of color impacts the children you serve. In turn, some of these students will become educators and continue the cycle. And just as you had mentors and role models, it is essential that you see yourself as a role model for others who will grow into your shoes.
By owning our own experiences and history and serving as role models, we can ultimately break the cycle of inequity and ensure that students of color are no longer discussed in terms of resources or additional costs incurred. As leaders of color, we know only too well what this feels like, and we have the power to change this conversation for other demographic groups as well.
There are limited professional development programs for leaders of color that boldly focus on the essential tools needed to navigate the treacherous waters of educational systems in the United States. There are few educational leadership programs that will train you how to stand up to explicit and implicit biases. Yet these are exactly what we all need.
In the meantime, be your own best teacher. Teach yourself to be who you want your students to be. Study equity, make yourself culturally competent, and catch yourself when you are not. Learn to exhibit the political savvy, social media expertise, social justice advocacy, and equity focus that are needed to usher in a new era of educational excellence.
Most of all, lead from your experience.
About the author
Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. is the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in Northern Virginia.