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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Urgency in our schools
Meeting the need for diversity in school leadership
By Carol Van Vooren | March | April 2022
As the nation is reckoning with multiple social injustices including systems of oppression and brutality, the evidence is clear that racial inequities exist in most systems, including schools. In addition to data gaps in test scores, unequal participation in clubs and sports, and the failing of punitive school discipline, there is a large equity gap in the racial demographics between students and school leadership across the United States. More recently, this difference is seen as possibly contributing to the academic and social difficulties of students. Research shows that school leaders who are like the student population they serve may have more resources, experience, dispositions and knowledge to understand the many contexts of students, their families and the communities they represent. “Hispanic and Black students experience the largest principal representation gap. In comparison to White peers, students of color are less likely to encounter a principal who shares their ethnicity” (Grissom, et al., 2021, p.12).
Research indicates that before schools can close the achievement gap, it must be recognized that not all students, teachers or school leaders experience school in the same way (Javius, 2020). Many school districts have discussed the importance of a diverse workforce to better serve students’ academic and social needs. Additionally, research notes that current teachers and leaders of color are some of the quickest to leave the profession. The Learning Policy Institute (Ingersoll, R. & May, H., 2016) finds a lack of support and isolation, additional unpaid assignments, few advancement opportunities, and site leaders untrained in a diversity lens are some of the reasons for the lack of retention of schoolteachers and leaders of color.
Personal and institutional barriers to advancement for teachers of color
A focus group with teachers of color discussed barriers into the leadership gap, giving new insights into how to encourage and retain teachers and emerging leaders of color in our schools. Citing from the focus group, personal factors that contribute to current teachers of color not taking on leadership roles include a no-trust mindset of their colleagues, lack of networking or mentorship, skepticism of the system, fatigue from few connections, feeling he/she is not a good fit for a leadership role, non-acceptance in peer groups, and groupthink that reinforces disempowerment (Van Vooren, 2019).
Institutional factors at the site that teachers of color say may cause barriers in the workplace include the informal site norms, faculty and community cultural biases, systemic racism, lack of support from other leaders, limited opportunities for praise or advancement and the presence of White fragility.
Kansas State University Center for Research (2022) collected two years of qualitative data with 10 mentors and 10 underrepresented emerging leaders. Data found that the protégés had anxiety over professional growth opportunities. The program showed them how to be mentored and to reframe the experience. Mentors indicated that they were more successful if they gave the mentees space, served as a sounding board, created paths for brainstorming and ensured the mentee felt valued.
The personal barriers, institutional barriers and hesitancy of teachers of color to take the steps to become school leaders calls for immediate training on the part of both the prospective candidates and their site/district leadership. This translates into support strategies for teachers of color who are highly acclaimed for their teaching abilities to feel respected and open to advancement in their current positions. Fortunately, those agreeing to be interviewed also gave solutions to their honest concerns, indicating if these solutions were in place, they might consider joining an Emerging Leader Academy and become an educational leader in some form. These suggestions were also found in research and were implemented in planning the Emerging Leader Academy at California State University San Marcos.
Planning an academy
From the literature and small group data collected, engaging a pipeline of school leaders of color will take both macro and micro conditions. The strategies recommended by the literature include targeted recruitment and outreach, financial incentives, mentoring and workplace support (Camp, Oct. 2019). In addition, keeping workload, such as translating (Spanish speakers), serving on multiple committees (diversity representation), and experiencing the heavier responsibility of working in low-performing schools, lighter would not discourage qualified teachers. The strategies suggested by the teachers of color focus group members included implementing a like-cohort to feel connected and share experiences. “This is something we crave” said one participant. In addition, they would like to have program mentors with regular check-in meetings, district leadership trained in a lens of diversity and cultural proficiency, and scholarships to relieve the financial burden of the leadership credential and master’s degree. On the social-emotional side, they want to connect with the right language and support to see the big picture, meet program alumni of color to share their stories, practice how to lead while leaning into the discomfort, and feel like they could make a difference.
Candidates for a leadership position are far more likely to show interest in a career move if their supervisor taps them on the shoulder as a prospect for that role. When a school leader signals to a teacher that he/she has potential as a leader, this notion engenders confidence, expands thinking and inspires the teacher for the possibilities. As teachers of color indicated a hesitancy and lack of confidence in pursuing leadership roles, a nod from a school leader that the teacher is supported and may have skills in this area can make all the difference. In this model, school leaders recruit their teachers of color to join in a preliminary professional development in social justice and encourage them to go beyond the training and enroll in the Master of Arts in Educational Administration. With the package of incentives including a cohort model, professional development in culturally proficient educational practices, university course credit from the professional development towards the masters, and a mentor, the candidates may find this the right time to pursue leadership development.
Developing identities through mentorships
Historically, the foundations and processes of mentoring theory and practice are built on the perspective and experiences of White, educated and employed American men in the field of business and finance. As people of color move into mentorship and mentee roles, they should not be considered as “other,” conversely a new paradigm and model of mentoring must be built. This is especially true in education, where few formal mentorships are being organized and positive identity, cultural hesitancy and groupthink may hinder opportunities
One reason leaders of color might be facing challenges in cultivating positive identities at work is in the need to have their leadership claims validated by others (Roberts, Cha, Hewlin, and Settles, 2009). From the Guiding Tools of Cultural Proficiency (Nuri-Robbins, 2006), we know that people have both group identities and individual identities. Identity construction is key to leadership because a leader must mobilize others and be credible to the followers. Identities matter because they evoke thoughts, activate emotions and guide behavior. The negative experiences of the participants in the focus group and interview may be surprising, but not unexpected or unique. Our identities are co-created through experiences and micro-encounters with others (DeRue and Ashford, 2010). When focus group participants see themselves as dead in the profession and possibly not a good fit as a leader, we must look at what creates this self-perception.
Research says that emerging leaders will typically need to “claim” their role as an influential actor who others are willing to follow. “Claiming” can take many forms but many organizations/groups are most favorably impressed by a specific style such as dominance and assertiveness as well as other traits specific to that group’s demographic or preferred behaviors. Leaders from under-represented, non-typical groups might not fit the mold the organization associates with leaders. In addition, diverse leaders who struggle to feel validated and credible at work might also find it difficult to understand and manage these unfavorable reactions, possibly jeopardizing their ability to maintain trust and positive relationships. Research on mentoring supports the importance of building social resources and that same-race relationships may be valuable in establishing positive identities (Higgins and Kram, 2001). Being connected to a school leader of color in a formal mentorship/mentee role can be a life saver for those who feel they are sinking.
In this academy model, mentors are placed with emerging leader protégés in a formal role to support, sustain and motivate the future leader.
The role of mentors
The mentors are selected based on their experiences, match with the protégé and willingness to give back to the profession. A structured mentor role was developed through research to guide the collaboration for successful outcomes. With their personal experiences, the mentors will assist with positive identity cultivation as a tool to help the emerging leaders understand and manage their internal experiences, interactions and behaviors while navigating challenging experiences. Cognitive coaching as a form of relational leadership helps to create a safe space and understanding of the protégé’s needs.
As we compare a proposed mentoring program with the Guiding Tools of Cultural Proficiency, we start to understand how mentoring supports the emerging leader of color.
The caliber and diversity of a school leadership team, including the principal, has a significant influence on the students, teachers, and the community served. Currently there are holes in the pipeline for teachers of color becoming school leaders.
The phases of mentoring
As mentors support candidates, they have a variety of phases and topics within the formal structure of mentoring.
Initiation. In this stage, the mentor discovers the cultural needs of the candidate and applies these to future conversations and strategies. Candidates express their preference as working individually, independently or collectively and having the support of a group. They also consider the formal mentoring approach versus a more informal interaction. Many leaders of color are looking for personal development in their leadership quest, such as possibly becoming a better teacher or a department chair. Others strive for career advancement such as an assistant principal or curriculum coordinator. Finally, candidates have expectations of the mentor, from sharing personal stories and experiences to sponsoring the candidate with introductions to growth opportunities not typically offered to teachers. These expectations and needs are all discussed in the initial phase of the mentoring process.
Cultivation. The next phase of mentoring is the actual work that takes place. Because the candidates in this model are attending the Center for Culturally Proficient Educational Practices professional development program prior to entering a leadership credential program, there are assignments and readings that will be shared with the mentors. As part of the course practicum, candidates attend school or district committee meetings at their campus to get a bigger picture of the systems, policies and practice. Mentors will recommend a parent meeting such as the District Language Acquisition Committee (DLAC) or the Parent Student Advisory Committee (PSAC) to look at overall goals, data analysis and budget priorities. Protégés will also visit schools and meet with school leaders in grade levels or demographics where they don’t typically teach. Written reflections of these big picture events are enhanced with the mentor’s feedback.
Separation. At the end of the training, the mentors complete their formal relationship with the candidates and end with feedback, recommendations and contacts for future dialog outside of the structured mentorships.
The anticipated result of these mentorships is to provide support for the candidates as they are transitioning from schoolteachers to school leaders. Attending board meetings, PTA meetings and learning from other school leaders is not a typical role for schoolteachers, and others will notice that these recruited candidates will likely be interested in broadening their perspectives by engaging in big picture events with the added benefit of the mentor’s participation to solidify the experience. This exposure, new relationships and the development of a leadership identity will start to take place in the candidates.
Financial support
Teachers of color, both in the research and in the interviews, indicate that the cost of a master’s program will impact them and their families negatively. In encouraging diverse teachers to grow into leadership roles through a distinct program, it is critical to have financial support. With this program, school districts did have the ability to pay for the preliminary professional development training, and the university accepted “like credit” for the professional development to specific coursework in the master’s program, thus reducing the tuition. Other financial reduction strategies for the Emerging Leader Academy are to recruit from donors, seek grants and utilize in-house funds for special projects.
The caliber and diversity of a school leadership team, including the principal, has a significant influence on the students, teachers and the community served. Currently there are holes in the pipeline for teachers of color becoming school leaders. The proposal to enroll schoolteachers of color in a professional development program of culturally proficient educational practices that leads to a master’s degree and an Administrative Services credential takes a commitment from the candidates, the districts, the center for training and the university. With the schools/districts and the university as joint partners, this type of program is experimental in planning, and a pilot in its implementation. Through research, hands-on conversations and personal experience, it is believed that this program will be an innovative and potential prototype for duplication by partnerships in other communities. With the components of personal recruitment, professional development, participation in a cohort, like-mentors, financial support and access to an MA in Educational Administration, the hope is to build a pipeline of emerging leaders to fill the need to hire diverse leaders in local schools and beyond.
Policy/leadership recommendations
It is recommended that school districts and universities look closely at the needs for developing and training school leaders of color in their communities and collaborate with local universities to build a pipeline through a well-planned program that includes the researched components of recruitment, equity training, a cohort model, mentorships and financial support for candidates to engage in the learning and complete a credential and master’s program in Educational Administration.
California Department of Education. (2021). California K-12 student, teacher, and principal distribution by race. Retrieved at https://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/dqcensus/EnrEthLevels.aspxcds=00&agglevel=state&year=2020-21
Camp, D. (Sept/Oct 2019). Attracting, recruiting, and retaining teachers of color. Leadership: Association of California School Administrators. Retrieved at: https://leadership.acsa.org/attracting-teachers-of-color
Chen, G. (2019). White students are now the minority in public schools. Public School Review. Retrieved at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/white-students-are-now-the-minority-in-u-s-public-schools
DeRue, D. & Ashford, S. (Oct, 2016). Who will lead and who will follow? A social process of leadership identity construction in organizations. The Academy of Management Review. 35(4): 627-647. Retrieved at: https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/amr.35.4.zok627
Grissom, J. Egalite, A., & Lindsey, C. (2021). How principals affect students and school: A systematic synthesis of two decades of research. Wallace Foundation. Retrieved at: https://www.wallacefoundatio.org/knowledge-center/Documents/How-Principals-Affect-Students-and-Schools.pdf
Higgins, C. & Kram, K. (2001). Reconceptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective. Academy of Managerial Review. 26(2): 264-288. Retrieved at: https://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2012/01/Higgins-Kram_Reconceptualizing-Mentoring-at-Work-A-Developmental-Network-Perspective.pdf
Ingersoll, R. & May, H. (2016). Minority teacher recruitment, employment, and retention 1987-2013. The Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved at: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/minority-teacher-recruitment-brief
Javius, E. (Jan/Feb, 2020). Can we really talk? Leadership: Association of California School Administrators. Retrieved at: https://leadership.acsa.org/jan-feb-2020
Kansas State University Center for Research. (2021). NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2021). Retrieved at: https://nacada.ksu.edu/Programs/Emerging-Leaders-Program.aspx
Nuri-Robins, K., Lindsey, D., Terrell, R., & Lindsey, R. (2006). Cultural proficiency: Tools for school leaders. Association of Educational Services Agencies. Retrieved at: https://www.aesa.us/about/Resources/CulturalProficiencyforLeaders.pdf
Roberts, L., Cha, S., Hewlin, P., & Settles, I. (2009). Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation. Routledge.
Van Vooren, C. (2019). Teachers of color focus group. Zoom meeting.
Carol Van Vooren is a Professor Emeritus at California State University San Marcos.
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