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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
From gatekeeper to ally
How educators can shift postures to help kids thrive
By Eddie Scruggs Smith and K. Kaaekuahiwi | May | June 2023
School and system leaders have a close-up view of how our society’s most noxious ills manifest in our education infrastructure. Whether we’re standing in front of a classroom, behind the principal’s desk or in a hidden corner of the central office, we bear witness to myriad ways that the system can make our professional preparation seem inadequate and irrelevant. After years of service, small injustices come to seem routine and we can become inured to even the largest systemic failings.
These feelings about injustice and how we as educators bear witness to its starkest manifestations were piqued after a recent conversation with a group of teenagers at an ostensibly high-performing California high school. Each student at the school expressed both hope and frustration at the various challenges along their pathway to lifelong success and liberation: Difficult high school courses, impenetrable college admissions processes, multi-generational poverty, systemic racism and complicated relationships with their families, to name a few. The range and extent of the issues did not surprise us, but the students’ response to them did. When we asked a simple question — “Who can you rely on when the stuff gets hard?” — everybody had an answer. Kids sought help from sisters, brothers, cousins, the older kid down the street or that one family member who went to college.
Not a single student mentioned reaching out to an educator.
The conversation had a profound effect on our thinking. Could it be the case that some educators’ pragmatic jadedness was getting in the way of fostering caring, authentic relationships with marginalized students?
When we probed deeper — not just with this particular group of kids, but with other young people — we saw a pattern. Students, often avoid having difficult conversations about systemic injustice with educators, because they view teachers and administrators as gatekeepers. The adults in a school — not just in students’ minds, but in reality — possess a great deal of power with respect to the present and future of the young people around them. We make the rules of the road, set the standards for success, provide feedback on student progress against those standards and make high-stakes judgments about whether or not kids are prepared to achieve critical next steps. While this gatekeeping function can be important at times, it also can be a barrier to relationship building. If students view adults, first and foremost, as defenders of a standard, little room is left for them to be allies in breaking through to what lives on the other side of that standard.
Something’s gotta give, and each interaction with a young person calls for a subtle variation in approach. After decades of collective experience in school leadership, we have come to the conclusion that shifting one’s posture from being a “gatekeeper” to being a “critical ally” is one of the most fundamental adjustments that an educator can make.
Critical allyship means ensuring that your disposition reflects an anti-racist mindset, while also being a constructive partner to students, evoking multiple meanings of the word “critical.” This work requires demonstrating adaptive leadership, so that you can have real conversations with adults that address the racial climate and equity in your school. This work also includes fostering strong parent and family partnerships, flattening decision-making structures, engaging in real conversations about race with stakeholders in ways that promote culturally responsive instruction and integrated SEL programming.
Perhaps more than anything, though, critical allyship means leaning into the discomfort inherent in discussing how our own schools — and often our own peers — contribute to the explicit political oppression of Black and Brown minds.
While this shift may seem abstract, there are specific ways we can ensure that we are showing up for our students to propagate allyship and collaboration, rather than gatekeeping and authority. Those approaches fall into four categories: disposition, awareness, language and decision-making.
Students have an innate ability to suss out our adult mindsets. More explicitly, Black and Brown students possess the social awareness and cultural aptitude to know when adults care and are acting in service of their needs. This sort of resilience tactic allows them to protect themselves, while navigating the nuances of power, race and culture in their classrooms. They know, almost before a conversation starts, whether we are approaching them as problems to be solved, puzzles to be assembled or as delicate humans with a range of complex emotions. They recognize that their struggles as learners pit them against forces larger than themselves — racism, oppression, discrimination, poverty and more — which makes it easy for some gatekeepers to avoid feeling responsible for upending these systems.
Educators, fortunately, can be disruptors to that dynamic. The first thing we can do is to approach challenging and courageous conversations with young people from a place of humility and vulnerability. When a student comes to us with a challenge, and we immediately jump to problem-solving, that can come across as insensitive and impersonal. A disposition of humility allows us to recognize that we do not have all of the answers, nor do we understand the full extent of the context and history our children bring to us.
One way to exhibit humility in one-on-one conversations with kids is to ask lots of questions. When we seek to understand the root of our students’ wonderings, we gain a greater appreciation for their uniqueness and are demonstrating to them that we care to see them as something more than widgets. As educators, we cannot rush to solve a student’s problems so that we can move on to the next one; we have to immerse ourselves in the full reality of their condition. Shawn Ginwright, in his book “The Four Pivots” (2022), describes this as “mirror work,” where we reflect back to students the circumstances they share with us, so that they recognize us as full allies and accomplices in disrupting the conditions that are contributing to their struggle.
To the point about social conditions, being a great ally to students means demonstrating awareness of the various systems that act as barriers to success. Centuries of systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy mean that our students with marginalized racial identities face unconscionable obstacles just in the process of arriving at school ready to learn. Gentrification, displacement, wellness disparities, wealth inequality, food insecurity and untreated mental health issues can get in the way of students’ openness toward school and learning. Educators must recognize these contextual issues, not for the purpose of virtue signaling, but in order for students to know with a level of comfort that we actually understand the circumstances they are facing.
Can transformational educators and schools eradicate these challenges? Not alone, no. Can we, though, with great care and intentional steps, ameliorate them? Of course. We do that every day. In a school that Eddie once led, five Black and Brown students walked out of class during finals week. The week before, their teacher had provided guidance on how that class's final exam would be administered, but the format changed without warning. When the young people expressed their frustrations at the shift, they were threatened with office referrals. The five students came to us to express their grievances — including the sense that they had been singled out due to their ethnicity — and to seek solutions.
As critical allies in this situation, it was our responsibility to have enough situational awareness to know that their lived experiences had created a context where it was rational to believe that there were racial issues underlying the teacher’s actions — however hard it may have been to assign those kinds of problematic mindsets to a peer. As Monique W. Morris noted in the book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” we must “Imagine a future for Black girls that is filled with dignity and where their learning spaces are places they are invited to critically engage, alongside educators in the construction of their education and in the redemption of their lives.” We listened, identified their needs and helped to restore the space so that students felt safe returning to their learning environment.
We also met with the teacher, bringing both empathy and a growth mindset to that conversation, knowing that this person was a potential ally on their own journey. The teacher identified how their choices might have been informed by reciprocity and mutual respect, while committing to include students in future decision-making about major changes to the assessment calendar.
When we use positive, truthful, inspirational and forward-looking language to describe our relationship with our students, it has a generative, compounding impact on their experience and efforts. On the contrary, if our language is rooted in deficit and deflection, we risk further alienating our kids by reinforcing the notion that they cannot trust the adults in their school.
Countless times in the course of our careers a student has approached us to say something like, “I know that teacher is racist, but did you know that teacher is racist? I don’t know why they don’t like me, I don’t know what I did to them, they just treat me differently than the other kids. I ain't going to that class no more.”
How we respond to this kind of disclosure matters a great deal and critical allies are adept at using language that both acknowledges the harm while holding enough space for children to work through their emotions surrounding that harm. Beyond that, though, children expect critical allies to possess the skills and knowledge to address their concerns without further escalation. They expect us to respond in courageous, self-actualized ways, which can be hard when restoration may require confronting a peer educator about their behaviors.
Critical allyship means ensuring that your disposition reflects an anti-racist mindset, while also being a constructive partner to students, evoking multiple meanings of the word “critical.”
When students approach us with challenges like these, we can use conversation prompts to guide the unpacking of harm: How is this impacting you right now, and what can I do to support you through this process? In addition, we can use these prompts to expand their concept of the situation, and introduce the space for restorative work: How do you think this teacher views this situation? What might be influencing their actions or responses toward you in this situation?
Perhaps most importantly, students need to see all of the mindsets, attitudes and values articulated above reflected in our decision-making as educators. When we make instructional choices in individual classrooms, we need to model the notion that we believe all students are capable of exhibiting academic excellence.
Consider this real example, which happened during a whole class close-reading discussion in K’s classroom. K asked one child to read, to which another kid responded, “He hella dumb, why you ask him to read, he don’t know how to read.”
There are centuries of baggage packed into this one moment, but critical allies can exhibit self-awareness and calmness in these instances, creating spaciousness to hold harm and discomfort, while modeling courageous vulnerability.
“I am disappointed that we think we can come to this space and mistreat and disrespect another person while we are all trying our best to learn,” K responded, modeling critical allyship. “Our class is a space for being our best selves; our space is about lifting and empowering each other. We are here because we are working towards transforming ourselves and our communities.”
Critical allies encourage themselves and their students to take accountability while promoting both self-discipline and respect. They redirect instruction while relying on courageous conversations and restorative norms. They tactfully de-escalate the situation but never ignore the hurt and pain. They create space for all students to reflect on why this happened and what they can do about it.
Unfortunately, too many schools, systems, and yes, educators, miss these opportunities to act, further burying the baggage that needs unpacking. There are concrete ways to embody these mindsets in our practice every day. One way is through regular “pulse checks” where administrators and school leaders use conversational prompts with teachers to reinforce these dispositions. Teachers can also ask themselves these pulse check questions — before, during and after interactions with students — to conduct self-assessments. One question to ask is: Am I approaching this challenge/student from a place of fear, or from a place of love? When we approach situations from a place of fear, we look to minimize downside and protect ourselves and kids from the world. When we approach from a place of love, we intentionally disrupt belief gaps, however small they may seem, to realize greatness.
A related question to pose, which comes from Ginwright’s aforementioned book: Am I stuck in a pattern of analyzing the problem, or am I creating space for possibility? When we are aware of all of the contextual challenges surrounding our kids, we can get into the counterproductive habit of reinforcing the problems by perseverating on them. Analysis is important, but when our seeking to understand becomes an academic exercise, and not a human one, we lose the opportunity to “freedom dream” for our kids, which is what Bettina Love describes as the necessary antecedent to unwinding the systems of oppression within which we all live.
Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that our role as educators? To be partners in lighting the candle and fulfilling the dream? There are countless ways in which the unjust realities of our world collude to shrink the universe of possibilities for our kids. As educators, our job is to hold back those forces, with every bit of our being, so that our kids can freedom dream without reservations.
If we’re serious about that work, it’s important for students to see us as allies in the freedom dreaming, and not bouncers at the door to liberation.
Ginwright, S.A. (2022). The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves. North Atlantic Books.
Eddie Scruggs Smith and K. Kaaekuahiwi are with Partners in School Innovation.
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