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Leadership Principles That Can Make a Profound Impact on Students

Cultivating Equity in the Classroom

By Matt Utterback

As educational leaders, how do we cultivate equity in the classroom?  This is a question that deeply resonates with me because it presents a challenge for those of us charged with improving student achievement. It took me years to understand that in leading my North Clackamas colleagues, my role was to help them recognize that privilege matters in questions of equitable access to education.

I have enjoyed privilege that I didn’t always acknowledge. I grew up in a middle-class family with the advantages that come from being white and the son of well-educated parents. I have always benefited from my parents’ status. I knew the dominant community’s operating norms and used them to my advantage. Unlike many of our students today, going to college was always a given for me.

We wrestle with these issues of privilege, dominant culture, and expectations in North Clackamas Schools. We’ve found that there is a strong interplay among instructional practices, equity, and leadership. At the intersection of these concepts lie six principles that we can follow to have a profound impact on our students—especially our traditionally underserved populations.

  1. Our job as educational leaders is to improve our ability to notice, acknowledge, and promote the replication of strong instructional practices.

If students are not learning, they are not being afforded powerful life opportunities. We also know that teacher quality matters above all else, including family income and education.  We also know leadership is second to teaching as the highest correlate to student achievement. As leaders, we can’t lead what we don’t know.

The purpose of educational leadership is the improvement of instruction — period. Many of the best practices promoting classroom equity are already occurring within our system, and modeling is a critical piece of professional learning. It naturally follows then that leaders charged with the task of leading instructional improvement must know, through an equity lens, what good teaching looks like.

  1. We must identify and change our practices and beliefs so that each child knows she is expected to succeed.

We must all recognize and embrace that our students can’t and won’t rise if our expectations are low and that we must hold firm to the belief that all students are expected to and able to realize their potential. This includes establishing high standards and making it clear to students what the criteria are for meeting them.

  1. We must learn who our students are and focus on where they want to go.

Relationships are critical. We have to learn about our students as individuals and embrace our role in helping them develop and discover their identity. We must convey a fundamental belief in each student that she can develop their intellect and their critical capacity to think. We do this when we build relationships with our students and recognize the racial, cultural, and economic differences that impact an academic growth mindset.

  1. We must engage our students in civil discourse.

As students enter our nation’s classrooms each day, they are doing so under a cloud of vulnerability, fear and confusion. The daily hurtful rhetoric in our community and across our nation has the potential of producing alarming levels of anxiety among children of color and inflaming gender, racial, religious and ethnic tensions in the classroom.

As educators, we must be committed to protecting our students, families and each other. When we commit to protecting each other, we must also commit to interrupting when we hear or see offensive words and acts.  We must commit to creating schools that are protected from discrimination. We must commit to communicate, daily, to each student that we will protect, advocate for and value them equally no matter their race, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, language or ethnicity.

 When we take these actions, we model for our students what we want to hear and see from them.  One of the most powerful actions we can teach our students is to engage in respectful conversations.  This is the foundation for civil discourse. When we allow our students to listen to one another, and when we create space for multiple and diverse perspectives on various issues, we develop competent and critical thinkers.

  1. Creating inclusive learning environments for each student takes strong leadership.

I am proud of our school board and proud to be the superintendent of a school district that is not only talking about equity but is bringing equitable practices into our operations, our classrooms, our resource allocations and the lives of our students. Our district took a stance and publicly committed to this important work through policy. We have an equity policy because like all school districts, student success in North Clackamas is currently predetermined by race, gender, ethnicity, culture, poverty, language and disability. We cannot accept this, and that is why we commit to continuous improvement, knowing that our work is never done.

  1. We have an ethical and moral obligation to take action.

Despite this obligation, it’s often easier to settle for an easier, quieter path. We must not give lip service to education equity only to accept the status quo. We say we want to be a school system that provides access and opportunity for each student, but in the interim, we keep using the same practices and systems we’ve always used. The interim strategy isn’t working for significant groups of our student body. As educational leaders, we need to take care of what is most important and not keep the same, old routines.

Building from these six principles has had a profound impact on student achievement in North Clackamas.  Graduation rates are up 14 percent in the past five years, nearly 90 percent of freshmen are on track to graduate at the end of their freshman year and our district boasts some of the highest attendance rates in the state.

Taking these actions has a cumulative effect that creates a culture of success.  When we repeat these actions, it creates momentum. When we build momentum, we positively impact the trajectory for each of our students, allowing them to reach their full potential.

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