By Elicia Bennett
Attending the Standards Institute was like a rebirth for me, and I am positive that I am not alone in that sentiment. In more than 15 years of professional learning, this was the first conference I have attended designed entirely within an equity framework. I’m not speaking about the surface-level construct of equity that tends to be put in air quotes when discussed in a meeting. I am speaking of the level of understanding that makes you feel awakened or “woke”. I am becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable space in which equity resides—the space inhibited by race, bias, racism and the potential for a very real change for our students, particularly those who are underserved. At the Standards Institute I learned that while many of our students have unfinished learning, we as educational leaders do too.
Currently, I serve as an instructional leader in the 6th largest district in the nation, which can be incredibly challenging and equally rewarding. I was grateful for the opportunity to attend the Standards Institute. My colleagues who attended previous Institutes spoke about feelings of enlightenment, a sense of revival, networking, access to new resources, and the many benefits gained by spending five days learning with like-minded people. I expected to have a similar experience, and I did. However, I did not anticipate the powerful way my experience at the Institute would empower me to reassess and take more intentional action to support my district’s implementation of standards-based practices within an equity framework.
On day one of the Standards Institute we were given five charges:
- Adopt aligned curriculum.
- Attend to the language of the standards.
- Talk about race systematically.
- Examine bias and its role in our work and learning.
- Commit to adaptive change with the shifts.
In every session, the five charges were intentionally woven throughout the learning. As the days progressed, I often ended sessions wondering why we still are not doing the work we know is necessary to effectively educate all students in our district. I left each session also reflecting on what it means to be an advocate for equity even when that requires speaking truth to power and calling out bias when I’m the only one who sees it. It has been more than a month since the conference and I still grapple daily with the weight of taking on this work. Post-Institute, I have implemented into my professional practice three processes that support the collaborative leadership required to achieve the Institute’s five charges.
1. Take the time you need to reflect, and then make a decision.
When it comes to pushing for equity, you have to be all in. If you stay in your comfort zone, you cannot confront the systemic biases that prevent achievement for all students. In her keynote, Kate Gerson told us that equity requires the convergence of high-quality curriculum and instruction. Hearing that was like a gut punch, and it prompted me to reconsider how to bring a higher level of integrity to professional learning in my school district. While I was learning, I began identifying the actions we would need to accomplish our charges. Change takes time, but how long can our students afford to wait? How many lives could potentially be lost while teachers and leaders grapple with their own unfinished learning?
Returning to my district, I had to make some tough decisions.
I asked myself:
- Do I stay in my lane or do I build a new one?
- What would that new lane look like?
- Who would lock arms with me to do this critical work?
Until the Institute, I didn’t recognize the distance to which I would have to travel in order to influence a shift. Before the Institute, I believed that knowledge is power. Now I know that more important than the knowledge itself is how you use it. The power to influence change is in the doing, and that requires both a sense of urgency and reflective practice over time.
2. Leverage your vibe to attract your tribe.
Once you are committed to equity, it is imperative that you surround yourself with like-minded stakeholders who are not afraid to push one another’s thinking and practice. In the past, I’ve built professional relationships that depended on my treading lightly in the political terrain. Now I understand that this work requires taking a stand even if you start out being the only one standing. I understand that this work will require me to be more courageous, reflective, and action-oriented especially in the face of adversity. Leaders must not be afraid to go first and then to attract others by example. If you are currently standing on your own in this work, try to think outside of the box. This may require looking beyond your immediate group and taking the initiative to find like minds in other schools, districts, and organizations.
Equity work is life or death for many of our students. Achievement for all students will require all of us to listen to understand not to respond, to judge less, and to show mercy for ourselves and colleagues along the way. This work will also require leaders to become more inclusive and considerate in making decisions that impact those stakeholders often left out of the most critical conversations about teaching and learning. It is imperative that our students and parents also have a voice that we honor by inviting them to participate in the conversations that may determine the trajectory of their family’s lives. All school communities deserve to feel confident that students are being taught by culturally competent educators who are using high-quality and standards-aligned curriculum to ensure student achievement today and in the future.
3. Start with the bright spots.
Sometimes I felt overwhelmed at the Standards Institute, which is like the Superbowl of professional learning. For one whole week, I was deeply engaged in learning, surrounded by thousands of educators who are also passionate and inspired. By the end of the week, the reality settled in that we were all going back to our respective communities without our new colleagues and friends to help us do the work. I wondered how I would return to my district community and identify what’s not working, what we need to fix or even give up in order to do better.
If you are in this position, I recommend beginning with a needs assessment. First, consider what is working well in your community, celebrate success, and take action by applying the most relevant ideas you learned. Also acknowledge that there may be professional loyalties, policies, time, and money invested in current curriculum and programs. Know that it is equally important to move beyond the current state of affairs and to have courageous conversations about any program, or part of a program, that is no longer serving in the best interest of achievement for all students.
About Elicia Bennett
Elicia Bennett is a passionate and intuitive educational leader with more than 15 years of experience serving and leading diverse school districts and organizations. Her career began in Illinois as a high school English teacher and she currently resides in sunny South Florida where she serves the students, teachers, and families of Broward County Public Schools as a Supervisor in the Department of Teacher Professional Learning and Growth and as a district Equity Liaison.
Additionally, she is a proud member of the Executive Board for the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), Ft. Lauderdale Affiliate. In each of these roles, she is a mother who holds her two boys at the center of her inspiration to ensure that all students, particularly those underserved, have access to a competitive and high-quality education that embraces and honors their individual and collective identities as scholars and citizens.