In a Thursday afternoon virtual session during the National Association of Secondary School Principals' annual National Principals Conference, principals discussed strategies for promoting and leading a school culture focused on diversity and unity, as well as how to overcome problematic stances that may persist within buildings.
"Regardless of the color of your skin, we all need to be advocating for a culture of unity in our schools," Bill Ziegler, principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pennsylvania, said.
Over the course of the 40-minute conversation, Ziegler was joined by Marcus Belin, principal of Huntley High School in Illinois, and Derek McCoy, principal of North Asheboro Middle School in North Carolina, to cover topics ranging from the importance of vulnerability to the problem with saying, "But I'm not racist."
Where to start in order to promote a culture of unity and diversity
Belin said the first thing he would recommend to other school leaders is to show some level of vulnerability.
He’s currently in his first principal position, and in a school of 3,000 students close to Chicago — a much different dynamic from the Central Illinois school where he served as an assistant principal with 1,200 students. As a result, it was important that his staff see that vulnerability and understand he doesn’t have all the answers, but is willing to search for them and learn and help them grow in their journeys, he said.
He added it’s important to intentionally create spaces where staff can grow. Not only is he a Black principal, but he’s the only Black staff member in his whole school out of 300 people. As a leader, he said it's critical that he be willing to sit down and have conversations with staff about difficult topics like race when they come up.
For McCoy, the No. 1 thing he keeps in mind is that if staff and students don’t hear him say something, they don’t know it’s a priority for him.
It’s important that the mission and vision for the school be well-documented in multiple places and stated outright, he said. McCoy also highlighted the importance of professional development in adjusting approaches to teaching and learning, and eliminating fixed mindsets in the classroom.
“It’s not about what students are doing, it’s about what teachers are doing,” McCoy said, noting that it’s important to look at adult practices and beliefs, and for adults to hold themselves accountable for the success of all students.
Ziegler added that it's also critical to examine the art and posters and other graphics in hallways and classrooms, considering whether they reflect student demographics so learners see people who look like them.
There's no validity in “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind”
If you claim to be "colorblind" and don’t see color, then you don’t see the individual standing there, Belin said. Every individual comes with a story, and that story is valuable to the dynamics of the school.
A lot of students are trying to find themselves and connect with others and themselves. “Everybody needs to be seen for their individual selves, so take off the blinders,” Belin said, adding that students need to hear educators say, “I hear you. I see you.”
McCoy said he started teaching in Georgia 25 years ago, and he was mentored to take this approach and then quickly reminded of the danger of it. If you don’t see a person’s color, you’re ignoring their experiences.
For example, the experiences of a Black man growing up in the rural South are very real and consequential experiences that include specific racial interactions.
"If we don’t see color, we’re choosing not to see life. We’re choosing not to see what [students are] going through — the good and the bad," McCoy said. "We’re not embracing where they come from, the stories their parents are telling them."
If you don’t see color, are you suggesting you don’t want to hear those stories? There’s a lot of harm and denigration in that suggestion, McCoy said, adding that students need to know educators embrace all of them — their strengths and faults, their victories and the things they’re still working on.
Ziegler noted that some people say this thinking they’re being nice, and not realizing that they’re hurting others with it. He suggests maybe starting the school year asking faculty if they see color and starting that dialog with them, because principals need to have these uncomfortable conversations in their roles.
Belin recommended the book “The Subtle Acts of Exclusion” as a good resource for diversity and inclusion. You may have the best intentions, but not realize you’re excluding a group of people or somebody else just by using common language that you didn’t know any better about, he said.
“We need to be ready to move conversations to a whole other level,” McCoy added.
Belin and Ziegler also called attention to the fact that diversity and inclusion isn’t all about race — it also includes inequality around gender, socioeconomics, disabilities and more.
Being “not racist” doesn't go far enough
To say "But I'm not racist" doesn't go far enough to address equity issues — it’s how you live it out and examine your biases, Belin said. “You have to dig deep inside to determine what your biases are and be able to come to grips with some of those things yourself.”
McCoy said he struggles with this in the action that some people take. He believes they truly believe it when they say it, but have they done things that are bold or evident that have made a difference in the lives of students? Have they moved the needle in areas like advancement and achievement?
“Action is absolutely needed,” McCoy said.
Ziegler noted it almost sounds like people are being defensive when they say “I’m not racist.” If people are passive, they’re not doing what needs to be done to help students, he said. Instead of giving examples of how you’re not racist, it's critical to provide measurable examples of real action to foster diversity and unity. Principals must also directly address racism and bias when they see it in their schools, he said.
McCoy reiterated, “Have you done something that placates you, or something that benefits learners?”