Stop Schooling

School has not worked for our son, D.

Don’t get me wrong, our family has found many adults at his schools who love him and are committed to educating him, but they – and he – need to work extra hard. They work much harder than those for whom school was designed – and that does not include D – a brilliant and strong, young black, male child who we recently adopted out of the foster care system where he has had a history with trauma.

Our experience is similar to those of many, many… many others. Schools and school systems have repeatedly proven that they were designed to provide the best education to some while preparing many others to serve those few who are intended to maintain power and privilege. I also have learned to trust the predictability of demographics – in other words, without intentional interruption, a child’s demographics serve as reliable predictors for the quality of education and/or the intensity of barriers provided to students. Our pandemic crisis only has both crystalized and intensified my learning – pushing me to a radical opinion: we need to stop schooling our children.

When our district first closed schools, my husband and I made a calculated risk to create a schedule for D that strove to replicate much of the schedule and many of the daily rituals within school. We decided on this course of action even though school has not worked for D because our district had closed schools only for two weeks and we felt it was important to maintain some resemblance to the school structure to which he might soon be transitioning back. Those two weeks were painful.

As career educators, my husband and I were embarrassed by the mistakes we seemed to believe were necessary to remake:

  • Even though we knew his process for learning was not supported by precisely timed and pressurized increments for engaging in and finishing work (part of his trauma manifests in the equating his own safety with the need to not make mistakes), we replicated a rigid schedule of moving stoically between activities with work completion (and rewards) attached to end times.
  • Even though D is a social learner, we faced a logistical challenge of his being an only child and trying to support his learning space while simultaneously participating in our own work tasks and challenges.
  • Our son is a deep critical thinker; we saw and agreed that much of the emergency lessons being provided seemed more like busy work than curriculum to which he could make meaningful connections.
  • Even though our schools had little choice, unfolding new technology before there was deep understanding and experience with it was fraught with challenges as students were expected to refrain (sometimes to the point of consequences) from engaging with many of the bells and whistles that they actually knew more about).
  • In the process of trying to school in a new platform, the aura of unfairness was exacerbated between the spoken high expectations for students and the actual leniency of accountability.
  • Perhaps most importantly though, we were trying to maintain ineffective-at-best design at a time when each-and-every student also was going through their own meaning making bout what the hell was happening around them. For an 8-year old child who has experienced great loss, this was the challenge that sat most seriously with our family…again, and for so many more.

After the initial two weeks, our school district extended the stay at home order for another two weeks. This time however, the uncertainty of the timeline for returning to school changed on minds and direction. We decided to stop schooling and focus on educating. We have a meeting with D’s teacher and asked a couple of key questions:

  • At the time of this initial stay-at-home order, where were students academically? What could they have been expected to know, do, and be as a result of the year to date? What of the annual outcomes have they been provided enough instruction and practice to be expected to have mastered?
  • Given the probability that many students would be denied equal conditions and access to education, was there yet an assurance once conditions and access were assured, students would be held accountable only to that which was covered before the shelter in place orders? For example, if students returned to their physical schools in September, would fourth-graders’ curriculum begin with second semester of their third-grade curriculum – or would it be expected that enough instruction was provided to all students to reasonably expect all students to have progressed?

We did not get answers to these questions, but rather we got answer to the expectations of structure – of school. We were told that D was expected to do schoolwork for about 4-4½ hours a day. Later in that same week, the teachers’ union finalized a COVID-19 agreement in which teachers were expected to work 4 hours a day and during that time, no pre-set schedule could be required – nor could it be required that their time had to include live interaction with students. I support the negotiated agreement for teachers, yet I don’t understand the incongruence behind the thinking for educators and their families as compared to the thinking for students and theirs.

Given the responsibility on families to carry so much of the schooling plan for students, where is their union. Who is negotiating on their behalf? How is their voice leveraged?

It seems to me that after years of evolving from commitments of equality to visions and struggles for equity, we are slipping back to a conflation of understanding. Understandably in this unprecedented situation, schools and districts must first ensure equal access: Does every student have a computer? Does every family have WIFI?

Without a vision for equitable outcomes however, we may rest our laurels on numbers of students who have or have been provided opportunity to have either. Without a commitment to equity, we reproduce the structures of school that have us asking “what did we do” rather than what did we achieve?

School has not worked for D. Reproducing school – or designing a new school based on reproduced, white supremacy culture mindsets embedded in…

  • the urgency to show we are doing something done, rather than to getting our intended results,
  • the idea of one right way, or at best either-or thinking, for designing school by adapting technology but not interrogating and interrupting biased design and mindsets,
  • the persistence of individualism even at a time when social distancing is causing emotional harm to our communities,
  • the political power hoarding and fear of open conflict that continues play out for adults in their negotiations at the expense of our young people,
  • and the notion of quantity over quality in assuming there will any resemblance of curricular coverage during this time versus sitting in the here and now to prioritize healing and well-being.

So, if the first month-plus of shelter-in-place has taught me something, it is that even those who espouse and commit to rethinking school may be too confined by their connection to its construct. This is a perfect time to interrogate these connections – to question everything…including the purpose of school itself. This is a perfect time to recommit to education and liberation – and perhaps the first thing to liberate is our connection to the construct and confines of school. As a parent… and educator, a few first steps come to mind:

  1. As we adopt new platforms and technologies for teaching, maintain a wide-open inquiry for how and when these means remove previous barriers – or create new ones. Sadly, our newness with these technologies may cause further distancing at a time when connection is so desperately desired and needed. As an example, teachers cannot both facilitate lessons and discussions and also monitor chat boxes and engage individually. How might we rethinking teaching to have more adults present (even parent volunteers) to engage more personally with students throughout virtual learning?
  2. As my original questions suggested, focus on learning outcomes and not tasks. Make these learning outcomes transparent and public for all who are newly involved in students’ learning.
  3. Do not – do NOT – hold all students accountable for new learning that cannot be assured to be facilitated for all learners. Until our technology – and skill – catch up to our situation, students should be held responsible to have learned what was expected up to the day of the original shelter-in-place order (with some backslide). Once it is clear – for ALL – what was expected of all students at that time, current resources should be used prioritize catching up or maintaining that level of competence/mastery with the majority of resources committed to those who were behind and lesser resources committed to practice or enrichment for those who are ready to move forward.
  4. Schools should be planning at least as much for how they intend to re-introduce students to school upon return as they should for current lessons. Personally, I believe there should be an additional week of professional development just for healing and reorienting the adults, and similar planning for students – perhaps a retreat, before committing the entire first semester to a heightened integration of academic and social-emotional learning.
  5. Finally, there is an opportunity to rethink the voices of teachers – all teachers. What would it look like – and what would it take – for school design to truly integrate the voices of families in its design and decisions? A committed effort to be inclusive is deserved – beyond token seats – to those who now are picking up the “other half” of the education work during these times. This is not to say that every – or any – parent knows more about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, school design, etc. but parents do know what is and is not working for their children.

Perhaps it is time for our communities, in collaboration with our educators, to take back our schools – and focus on education.

Black Boys (February 2019)

(if you want schools to be “safe” from black boys, make schools safe for black boys)

The parents of our second-grade class called an emergency meeting. One of the other students, a small black boy, hit his teacher in the nose and a number of the class’ parents are concerned about safety.  Even though our principal makes it very clear that we will not discuss other people’s children, the sense of urgency from some parents leads to a more impromptu conversation with our principal (prior to the meeting) in a manner that conveys a desire to fix the problem of safety but also could sound like suggestions to fix or assess the appropriateness of the child’s family as part of our community.  In reality, these pointed questions and suggestions in a non-structured setting risk (un)intentionally and falsely validating assumptions held of this family. Such conversations always risk “othering” our most disconnected community members, and I fear, set the stage to oust them. 

I know the boy.  He is totally cute, sweet… and fragile.  He is tiny in stature and in voice.  Because it seems that he has – somewhere at some time – experienced more trauma than a child of 7 should, he is not tiny in emotions.  Because he is black and is not tiny in emotions, he is not tiny in how people see and experience him.  The boy’s mother, a black woman, is at the meeting.  She speaks with heavy emotions of her own; she speaks of the fear she feels being in this very meeting.  She shares about herself as an educated, professional woman (“a therapist, a good mother”).  She shares about the child so many want to but will not discuss as a beautiful and brilliant child who is going through something bad that neither defines him nor represents who he is when he is out of school.  It is good that her witness checks assumptions the other parents made of the child and his family just a day before; it is not good that she even had to do this. 

As I mentioned, it seems that this child has – somewhere at some time – experienced more trauma than a child of 7 should; yet, regardless of where the trauma originates, it has become overwhelming clear to me that our schools are places where a cumulative trauma is experienced and compounded for our black boys every day because of its very construct.

My husband, Gary and I have a son in this same class – actually at the same table of this child.  Our son, another 7-year old black boy, has experienced and is working through his own situational and inter-generational trauma.  We actually know where and how some of his trauma originates… and just like his tablemate, school has been a place that both reignites and compounds his previous trauma while it also introduces and reinforces new and compounded trauma.  School is not designed to educate or benefit black boys.  Rather, it continues to be a place where we dehumanize some by normalizing expectations that are not culturally relevant and by criminalizing behaviors which do not align with white culture. 

Even then, we hold these expectations and standards unequally with students based on the skin they are in.  My observations as an educator for the past 20+ years, and even moreso as a new dad for only 1+ year, have validated what research has proven time and time again: Systemic racism manifested through our internalized biases disproportionately favor some students and disadvantage others simply based on their identity.  The fact that our teacher force is a steady 75-80% white and female even as our student bodies become more and more diverse is not just an interesting fact, it is a manifestation of a system which is designed for reproducing disparate results.

The realization of systemic white supremacy in our schools occurs as tangibly within our day-to-day classroom exchanges – even amongst our most well-intentioned teachers and schools.  In my frequent observations.  I continuously see black (and brown) boys (and girls) called out, checked, controlled and ultimately pushed out for infractions to a dominant culture’s code of conduct (even when these children are acting in age appropriate ways) and white children and (those who align with dominant white culture) ignored or addressed more therapeutically when displaying the very same behaviors.  On the other side, I see those who identify with white culture recognized and praised for all levels of “positive” engagement and “success” while their black and brown counterparts’ successes go unassessed and ignored because it is good enough that they are not “acting out”.  I have seen this dynamic in the classroom, the office, the hallway and the yard. 

This patterned dynamic is systemic, and it directly relates to our predispositions and beliefs about students based on the skin they are in.  Regardless of the behavior, when we educators (primarily from dominant, white culture) see a behavior – any behavior – from a black boy, we see it through the lens of our internalized, unconscious (and sometimes conscious) beliefs, fears and stereotypes, and that observed behavior immediately becomes distorted, exaggerated and criminalized because as a society and as a profession, we are irrationally afraid of black boys.  Furthermore, our desire to control students through a cultural standard that is natural only to some, results in some children being supported to be independent learners and others cajoled into being dependent learners – assuring access to high level success to the few. 

So, Gary and I attended this emergency parent meeting – and we did so for many reasons.  We support our son’s teacher and his class, and we want their shared learning experiences to be joyful and effective.  We support the boy who was involved and want to serve as allies to his family.  We also know fully well, that if the problem were to be put solely on this child, it wouldn’t be long before similar tactics would be used to ostracize our own son as the next problem for this community “to solve”.  Ultimately however, we attended because we believe our job to assure a quality education for our son requires us constantly and consistently to partner with his school and its community. 

At the meeting’s start, our principal asked parents to share their hopes and fears.  During this time, and later while smaller groups of parents talked at their tables, multiple parents stated, “I just want the class to be safe for everyone.”

I just want the class to be safe for everyone.

This phrase really stuck with me.  As a lifetime educator, I have heard it (and said it) more times than I can count.  But this time, it really stuck.  I could not agree more!  Of course we want the classroom to be safe for everyone, but still, there was something in this politically-correct-who-could-argue-with sentiment, that felt less than genuine.  At first, I thought it was my unease with how “not being safe” has become code to rationalize pushing students out (without the burden of feeling guilt) for unwelcomed culturally diverse behaviors even if those behaviors are responses for feeling unsafe themselves – or even if the behaviors are age appropriate but just culturally different.  Then it hit me.  “Everyone.”  Every-one.  This perfect catch phrase (“safe for everyone”) was being weaponized and used as leverage to explain why any single child’s behavior could be deemed unacceptable or unwelcomed.  So, when we say, “safe for everyone”, we really mean everyone except THAT one. 

Still, one could argue this as a rational standard if we actually believe that a child’s “unsafe for others” behaviors come from a raw, unprovoked desire to cause harm.  Yet, this simply is not the case.  In my own experiences, every time we have explored why our son has behaved in any way that could be regarded “unsafe” for himself, for others or for property, he points to a trigger event in which HE did not feel safe.  For example, there was the time we got a call because our son was climbing the fence to get out of the school.  “He was being unsafe.  Can you pick him up?”  When we asked what was happening 5 minutes before any attention was given to him, he shared that an older child, probably playing, was choking our son who has a real fear of being killed (compounded, situation trauma).  In this case, our son actually could make the case that climbing the fence was actually being safe.  In fact, I can recall no incident in my entire career in which a student who was considered unsafe for themselves or others did not have a root issue that was itself based in distress, fear and lack of safety – either at the surface or deeper in their experiences. 

So, by definition, when we want a school that is safe for every student, we must include even the one student we thought did not count.  Disproportionately, we think our black boys do not count, and yet, as stated above, school is a place that dehumanizes black boys and therefore is for them, an unsafe place.  So perhaps to reach our goal of making our schools safe for all (from the black boys who don’t feel safe), where we actually need to start is making our schools safe FOR our black boys.

Perfection (January 2019 #1)

Guest Bloggers Camilla Greene and Jo Brownson share in an ongoing dialogue below about the concept of perfection. Camilla Greene co-founded the Center for Urban Excellence as Senior Associate with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and currently serves as a National Facilitator for SF-CESS. Jo Brownson joined SF-CESS in 2013 from the public high school math classrooms of Philadelphia and Oakland, and currently serves as the Operations Manager and Equity Facilitator.


In the skin you are in, how do you experience the concept of perfection?
An Ongoing Conversation


As a visibly brown skinned African American girl with natural hair and the only African American student in my kindergarten class at Brooklyn Friends School in the 40s, I learned from a white kindergarten student that I was “dirty.”   So If brown skin is dirty, then white skin must be clean…perpetually clean. Perfection lesson number 1. In the same kindergarten class, later on I learned that my hair was a “Bird’s nest” from another white kindergarten student-actually it might have been the same kindergarten student who made both comments. My black hair was shoulder length and natural then.  My mother neatly plaited my hair in 3 braids with a ribbon at the end of each braid. My hair did not lay flat on my scalp the way other white children’s hair did. My hair was puffy before it was confined in its braids. So flat hair is preferable to puffy hair. White people have flat hair therefore that is the world standard. And in my young mind there were sooooo many white people around me at school who had the preferred hair, I with brown skin, puffy hair, larger body frame must be different and not the preferred norm.  Perfection lesson number 2.


I was about 11 when my mother took me to a Black owned hair salon in Bedford-Stuyvesant to have a Lye chemical placed in my hair so that my hair could lay flat against my scalp and so that my hair would not become kinky, wavy, and wild when wet.  Having been the first African American student to graduate from Brooklyn Friends School; having attended the white run, white controlled school of learning for 13 years, I received an excellent European education where the domination of whiteness was a clear and consistent message.  Today, at the age of 76, I still have an overpowering urge to see whiteness as the standard of perfection. Intellectually and emotionally I know that white is not perfect; however, I have to fight stereo-type threat and the notion of the normalcy of whiteness every minute of every day.  I am very conscious of my conditioning into the normalcy of whiteness in Amerikkka and I have to consciously push against further normalizing whiteness with every breath I take.


In my experience a majority of white women I encounter give off the vibe of being polite and perfect.   Fortunately to counter balance being in the white world to be formally educated, I grew up in a solid, middle class Black family and I was part of a middle class Black  community in NYC that exuded Black excellence at all levels. Hence today I describe myself as a conscious, unapologetically Black elder who knows how to interrupt the white supremacy narrative in real time.  I am still on my journey to fully regain my full humanity and to help others of all colors regain their full humanity. My question to white women is: How hard is it to be fully human when you are deemed to be the pillar of perfection all day long?  

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As a pastor’s daughter in a white, protestant church, I would sing about Jesus’ perfection; how he was the only person who ever lived without the stain of sin. That was how he was able to “wash my sins away” and make me clean. Jesus’ perfection was heavily emphasized in my community growing up – much more than his humanity. I think, then translated through the prism of white supremacist thinking, this idea that I was born into sin, but that I could become perfect, and that it was all or nothing – like salvation – was deeply ingrained in me from my community. It also meant that “achieving perfection” is what morality is rather than ethical behavior towards other people (after all, Jesus didn’t do anything to become perfect, he was born that way). Very subtly in ways I am still trying to figure out, I was made to believe that perfection was a state of being that I could attain if I just tried hard enough, had the right belief system, and had enough people who approved of me.


I feel that for white women like me, the mythology that perfection is a possibility that is attainable for us (but not for other women) is reinforced in every direction. Our bodies have been the object of “perfect beauty” since the concept of race was being constructed by racial scientists. It is the other side of the coin from what you are saying you get from every direction, Camilla – that for women with your skin, your hair and your build, it is an impossibility but for me, I should be that, could be that and if I don’t, it is because there is something wrong with me. It is an everyday battle for me to not translate this perfectionist thinking into other areas of my life: that there is such a thing as a “perfect partner”, “perfect friend”, or a “perfect life” and I should be or have already or be actively working to achieve. So because I battle with this notion that perfection is something I should “be” when I do mess up, get called out, commit myself to take action against white supremacy in my life and then fall short, it is incredibly difficult for me to separate my behavior from something essential about me, bad about me, an “original sin”. As a result, I don’t have a very good practice of self-forgiveness or self-worth that comes from somewhere other than how well I measure up to this myth of perfection. When your self-worth is given to you by society and is rooted in capitalism and white supremacy, it is very fragile. So the potential to lash out in resentment when my identity is called into question or when I fail to meet society’s expectations of me is ever present. I know I always have the option to exploit the system’s willingness to protect me and my “innocence” when it is challenged, even if I know taking advantage of it will directly harm people of color (and my own sense of self).

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Camilla – I’m wondering if you’re feeling or thinking anything differently now? I’m thinking about your last question to white women about how hard it is to be fully human when you are seen as the pillar of perfection. I think in our work it makes white women approach facilitation very differently than women of color. As we know, the best balance in facilitation is between structure and responsive constructivist learning – it’s not an either or. But I notice constantly that what white women (myself included) tend to emphasize or pay attention to disproportionately is structure. And for all of us, what we pay attention to grows. So, I think this is about the way we internalize perfection. We pay so close attention to whether we stack up to an ideal that it blocks our ability to “see” other pathways to humanity. If we can control our environment, no one will know we aren’t perfect.


On a personal level, I feel frustrated that so many of the avenues towards self love available to me emphasize curating an appearance of loving myself when in reality I am just  competing with other white women to live up to perfection – particularly in how we look. Being healthy, doing “self care”, yoga, etc. which we should be healthy and take care of ourselves. But I am rarely in deep healing spaces with other white women. Often it feels like there is too much self consciousness to go there – so much attachment to doing it right that we do nothing or do harm. In our work with teachers it worries me because I think that translate into not knowing how to hold healing spaces in our classrooms. That anxiety gets mapped on to our students in different ways based on the skin they are in. What an addiction to perfectionism gets us is guilt, shame and self hatred which, if we live there, we know we make it impossible to be in solidarity with other white people and people across difference. Not to mention those are not the energies I want to be putting out in the world and infecting my children with.


What do you think and feel?

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Jo- Your deep reflection; the humility with which you reflect; and your willingness to be vulnerable…in a heart place…in your heart place, is healing.  Because in my mind always is the perfection standard of white women and to have that white woman perfection held up under a microscope; explained, examined and deconstructed from your perspective is healing.  In my heart I know white women are not perfect however our society and in my world white space all is done to epitomize white women.   For me to deconstruct white women perfection moment to moment is extremely exhausting and I more often than not choose not to go into white spaces because of how physically, intellectually and emotionally exhausting that space is for me.


In reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming,” I am struck by how often she asks herself “Am I good enough”  As a conscious woman in dark skin identity living in racist Amerikkka where I am bombarded with the perfection of whiteness, I would be insane if I did not ask myself the question: Am I good enough?  As a descendent of enslaved people who endured the middle passage where each of my ancestors were stripped of their humanity; where- since we did not speak a common language, all we could do was moan, and wail in unison.  Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine.  I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.  


There are two powerful songs “I know who I am” and  “Something Inside So Strong”  Both songs were written in opposition to what Toni  Morrison refers to as the white gaze.  I am strong and I do know who I am and I need to fortify myself every minute of every day to maintain my humanity, my sanity, my full self in racist, white supremacy driven Amerikkka.


The intergenerational accumulation of shared experiences among conscious formerly enslaved African Americans, keep us focused on the heart and our humility and the humility and heart of others.   In my facilitation, while I appreciate our agenda, I prioritize the feelings of the group over the structure of the agenda.  I also sense the emotions of the participants and the emotions of the other facilitators and prioritize recalibration of the emotional needs of the group over getting to the next item on the agenda.  We need each other across the racial divide because we need to model what it looks like and sounds like as we balance the head and the heart in our work.  And we need to be in authentic relationship with each other in order to do our transformational race work.  The ultimate beauty in our work is that we have developed over time both our intellectual capacity to do this work and we have maintained, nurtured and sustained the humanity in each of us to do this work.  I am grateful for every opportunity I get to work with you.  

Peace and Love, Camilla

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I wanted to continue this conversation in light of some reflecting I have been doing over the past two weeks.


Camilla, your last response has been resonating with me deeply; your words often stay with me long after they are said. That is a gift you offer to the world and to me specifically that I seek to not ever take for granted. The particular words this time that have stayed with me are these: “Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine.  I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.” The idea of “growing humility, vulnerability and creative expression” is the opposite of perfectionism, which is stagnate, fragile, and arrogant.


I spent a lot of the past two weeks with white family members and perfectionism was on full display, particularly from my white female elders. It took the form of micromanagement of other people’s time, bodies and ways of being (i.e. “Are you going to do it that way?”, “You look like you lost weight…good for you”, “Let me show you the right way to do it”, “Ugh, I hate my body”, “Aren’t you worried you will spoil your dinner by eating that?” “Take another picture, so-and-so looks bad in this one.”) All of these small actions and comments are so deeply rooted in the standard of whiteness you are talking about that, let’s be honest, individual white people can never attain either. But we are so addicted to the illusion that we can (and society keeps feeding it to us) if we just work hard enough. Or if we can’t really attain it, then we better curate the appearance of it so that we won’t be exposed to criticism and punishment from other white people (most often our family members and immediate community). Keeping up that farce is exhausting and takes constant vigilance and policing of ourselves and others to ensure we are not exposed. That is what my white aunties and mothers have been practicing their whole lives – policing of the norms of whiteness inside their homes. It brings me back to what you said about growing into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. I believe that spending so much time policing ourselves and others (“Am I doing this right?”; “We should do it another way”; “Are you sure this is the best way?”; “I’m so bad at this; I’ll never be good at it”; “I don’t want to try until I know how to do it perfectly”) is part of what stunts white folks’ ability to grow into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. Which is also why theft and exploitation of those things when we find them in people of color is such a characteristic of white, dominant culture.

Curious about any of your thoughts…


Love you,


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Fearless leadership: not a thing (December 2018 #1)

Guest blogger Lena Van Haren reflects here in the skin she is in on her experience as a school leader and an alternative to the notion of “fearless leadership.” Lena Van Haren is a leadership coach for San Francisco Unified School District’s new TLEE (Transformative Leadership for Equity and Excellence) professional development and support program for new school leaders, and has been an SF-CESS partner for several years.


As I opened my inbox, I cringed – my heart beating rapidly, palms forming sweat, jaw clenching.  They were still coming. Mean and full of hatred… from strangers:

“You’re complete scum”

“…your twisted view of diversity…”

“…you’ve taught your students how to be racist in the name of ‘diversity’”

“Forcing diversity is fascism.”

“You sick, twisted liberal white idiots that hate white people…you are a f-ing bigot.”

“Quit being a stuck up liberal b*tch.”

“You are one incredibly stupid woman…you don’t deserve your job.”

Then I opened the last email, from my boss:

“You are a fearless leader but there are instances when you have to take a step back. This may be that instance. Send another email that you have reconsidered and that you will honor the election and that you will have a forum with students about diversity…this is a teachable moment!”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  I was confused and tired, but also clear with conviction.  A new principal, I was in the midst of a right-wing media storm that reached far beyond our local context and stemmed from my decision to pause on sharing our student council election results with our community (our racially and economically diverse middle school elected a student council that was nearly 100% homogeneous, representing mostly those from dominant culture) until we’d had an honest and open conversation with all the candidates about diversity and representative voice.

It’s funny that my boss called me “fearless” when in fact I was straight up scared.  But having some fear doesn’t mean we don’t act with courage. It doesn’t mean that we give up when our efforts to interrupt the status quo are met with hatred and resistance.  Working through fear to access our courage is central to equity leadership.

In SFUSD, there are a set of common core values we’ve adopted as a district where the “F” in SFUSD stands for “fearless”.  This word as a value or a descriptor who we want to be has never totally resonated with me, especially as a school leader in today’s climate.  Fear is real and exists for a reason inside us as leaders…so I don’t think being fearless is a worthy aspiration. Developing courage however, which feels like something we need to muster through struggle as well as cycles of self-doubt and challenge, seems like the real and lofty goal.

As leaders, we should question:

How do we recognize and acknowledge fear, sit in collective acknowledgement of it, name it in community, not let it hide inside of us….and then work towards nurturing the collective courage to address the fear and move past it into action?

As leaders (for equity) in today’s climate, it may prove foolish to ignore our fears related to our leadership.  The right-wing media assault related to our student council election was a more public example, but there are many others.  Other examples include…

  • Fear of being personally attacked because of your identity or because of those with whom you choose to form alliances:

As a first-year principal I made it clear to a white parent with socioeconomic privilege in our community that I wasn’t interested in building and expanding an “honors” course structure – which would have kids segregated by race and class within the walls of our diverse school.  Rather, I explained that we were investing heavily in building teacher skill around differentiation and creating collaborative learning structures in the classroom. This parent, miffed by my answer, had powerful connections to the school board and was able to bring a topic of whether or not I was the right fit for the job to the closed session school board meeting later that month.  Luckily the board and enough of my superiors knew my work and recognized this as one person’s biased point of view, but the power of one privileged parent’s “dislike” of our equity mission was eye opening for me.

  • Fear of getting on the “bad side” of superiors when expectations and decision-making structures for our work aren’t clear or focused on what’s best for our children.  

As our school transformed from underperforming to higher performing, many more parents were interested in sending their child to our school. The size began to grow slowly which was challenging but manageable. Then suddenly, unbeknownst to our school’s leadership team, there was a decision made to double the size of our incoming 6th grade class. This was a last minute, adult-centered decision that would have the most negative impact on groups of vulnerable students such as our newcomers.  I was practiced in relentlessly saying yes to things that seemed they would move our school towards our equity mission and pushing back hard against decisions and proposals that would hurt us. When I pushed back, I was met with “disappointment” that I wasn’t a team-player, that I needed to step up to the plate and accept more students, and that there was “no time to meet with me.”  I was left with the decision, similar to above, where I must choose between protecting political alliances necessary to stay in my job and fighting for what I knew would be best for our newcomers and other vulnerable student groups.  

In each of the above cases, I had to face my own fears as a leader. I was able to “cope” and overcome, and continue to lead our school.  AND it’s also essential to name that my own white upper middle-class heterosexual privilege allows me to avoid and frequently not even be aware of a multitude of fears that are real, daily and insidious (or not) for my colleagues who belong to marginalized groups.  Privilege that allows me to push back and still have best assumptions made about me at every turn. I think about the fears of my colleagues across difference and the questions I never have to ask myself when confronting challenges.

I think about the fears of our leaders of color…”if I say something will I be seen as “that black woman”?”

I consider the fears of my LGBTQ colleagues…”If I am my true self out in open will there be consequences to my safety?”  

My leadership question evolves: How should we, as equity leaders, recognize, manage and lead with courage in spite of fear?  

And as the new year approaches, I’m specifically asking myself: How do I make 2019 a year of cultivating collective courage?

I’m in a brand, new role coaching first year school leaders, and I aim to offer concrete ideas, probing questions and antidotes when fears arise as they do…all the time.  One antidote is in leaders coming together and acknowledging that we are not alone.  The feeling of isolation or “it’s only me” is common amongst school leaders who have no peers at their school site.  Learning and reflecting as a community can provide great rejuvenation and strength. As educators, we must be adamant about creating conditions for genuine connection, healing and transformational learning just like we want for our young people.  Also, we must refuse to sit in meetings or ”learning” spaces that don’t meet our needs, that don’t meet the standards we expect for the learning spaces of our students. By coming together, we can experience universality, and we gain the strength and courage necessary to lead for equity.

Another important piece of work is to remind ourselves frequently of our own personal “why?”:  Why we are in this work?  What brought us to this work originally?  How is our purpose evolving over the months and years?  

For me, part of my “why” includes continuously working to make sense of white allyship, continuing to widen paths of leadership for women, and first and foremost bringing about radically different outcomes for our least-reached students.  When I’m feeling stuck and anxious, taking time to journal, to talk with a colleague, to reflect silently about my “why” helps to ground me and “fill up” my “cenote” (what Elena Aguilar calls the resilience reserve that each leader must cultivate and tend to).

Something about leadership also seems to position us to forget to call upon our elders.  Taking time to listen to those who have been in the work longer than we have can be cathartic and can help us see ourselves as part of a bigger web of interconnected efforts to make change.  In today’s fast moving technological age, accessing the wisdom of those before us may require us to check our assumptions – assumptions that we can have all the answers, and assumptions that those before us have less to offer simply because she or he hasn’t mastered all the ins and outs of Google drive.

In order to work collectively towards racial justice, we as school leaders must be honest with ourselves about our own fears and build ways within ourselves and our communities to maintain conviction and strength in the face of them.  Maybe we should move from being fearless to cultivating courage collectively.  It doesn’t work quite as well with the SFUSD acronym, but I propose it may more accurately describe the equity-centered value our community of educators aspires to.


Rebel With a Cause (November 2018 #1)

“A rebel needs to say something.  An activist needs something to be heard.”

As a principal, my office was in the middle of the school.  Whenever a student left or was pushed out of one of our classes, s/he had to walk by my office, and it was not unusual for a student to make an unplanned stop to let me know what s/he thought about the incident that preceded their referral. One interaction I had with a particular student, still irate at being treated with less than the respect that he believed he deserved, stands out to me:

“Mr. Peters!”


“This is Leadership High School, right?!”


“And we are supposed to be learning to leaders, right?”

“Still, yes.”

“Then why, when I am just sharing my opinion, do I get kicked out?”

“I’m not sure – let’s go through exactly what happened.”

“Well, the class was boring and I shared that with the teacher.”

“How exactly did you share it; what were your words?”

“Well, I kinda said out loud, ‘This class sucks!’”

“Ahh. I think I see the problem.”  

On that day, a mantra was born.  While, the exact accurateness of it may be up for question, it has taken me a long way in the days and years since.  I shared with this emerging leader that “a rebel needs to say something; while an activist needs something to be heard.”  We talked about how there are times when one may be more appropriate than the other, but given the reality of power dynamics, his choice may not have been the most effective given how upset he was that the teacher did not hear and respect his opinion.  

How do we offer feedback so that it can be heard?  

I remember learning about feedback principles, years ago from a longtime Coalition of Essential Schools Educator Joe Macdonald.  His research suggested we should offer a balance of warm, cool and hard feedback.  

Warm feedback offers information about something that is effective and working well.  Warm feedback is offered in a supportive and appreciative manner and is authentic, meaningful, tangible.  Here is an example of warm feedback we might offer a teacher we just observed:

“It was great to see your classroom expectations and agenda posted before class began.  This really seemed to help students stay focused when you were taking attendance – every single student was on task!   When the one late student wanted to use her out-of-class pass, all you had to do was point to the classroom expectations.”

Cool feedback offers someone a different way of thinking about a situation.  Cool feedback is a little more distant and may raise questions about the situation but still is readily actionable.  When invited, cool feedback may sometimes include realistic suggestions without a lot of judgment. Here is an example of cool feedback for that same classroom observation:

“Answering students homework questions at the start seemed to help students move into the class work.  I noticed that all the homework questions came from the same 6 students – who sat at two tables in the front.  How do students determine where to sit – or how did you design your seating chart? I wonder if using a call and response structure would change the pattern of whose questions and answers you hear?”

Some time ago, we decided to change MacDonald’s “hard feedback” to that of “hot feedback”.  Besides completing the metaphor, “hot” also more represents the radical discourse we have come to recognize as essential if we are going to seek and attain educational equity in the face of the systemic racism and other forms of oppression well established in our school systems.  Hot feedback is intended to get to the heart of a matter – the root issues behind situation that may be more at the surface. In giving hot feedback we seek to challenge one’s thinking behind an issue and help them look in a mirror to consider how they may be situated within their own dilemmas.  Again, when invited, we may use hot feedback to raise concerns. One thing that we have learned about pushing people with hot Feedback is that it is best heard when the receiver of the feedback feels some ownership and thus, hot feedback often is heard best when put in the form of authentic questions.  Finally, here is an example of hot feedback:

“When TJ blurted out a question about the lesson, you reminded him that you already warned him not to interrupt the class – again referencing your class expectations.  You sent TJ out with a referral. Later, Mary interrupted your lesson with less volume. You stopped your instruction to clarify her concerns. Was the different response due to repeated behavior by TJ?  I am wondering to what extent are we more alert to some students’ interruptions because of their cultural norms for communicating. To what extent might this result in inequitable behavior management and or access to information?“

Balancing these principles have served those in our schools quite well, and now I wonder, how might these principles serve us outside our classrooms?  Given the nature of discourse in our society right now, and given the temptation to distance ourselves from those who disagree with us at a time when we need to find more ways to come together and have radical discourse across difference – including difference of opinion, what is it for which you are being a rebel and spouting your perspective regardless how it is heard?  In the spirit of activism – for whatever you seek to be an activist – how might you better engage in radical discourse with those across difference of opinion… so that you may actually be heard?