This Is What Black School Leaders Really Need

This post was originally published on Word In Black.

By: Barbara Logan Smith

From my early days as a classroom teacher in Milwaukee to my work partnering with the community and schools across the Greater Delta, and currently as the chief of equity & belonging at Teach For America, I have spent over 25 years centering my work around the belief that people are brilliant and wherever they are not shining, it is a reflection of barriers that have not yet been dismantled. My work has shown me that with the right resources and support, we can create conditions for people to thrive academically and in their lives.

Above all, what I have witnessed firsthand is that the need to be heard, seen, and understood, to feel safe, welcomed, and comfortable, is critical to our success, whether we are children or adults. I have learned that dismantling barriers often begins with creating space and building belonging for those who have historically been left out or denied access. Belonging is not only necessary; it is biological, sociological, and neurological, and it is a lifelong need.

I recently had the opportunity to create a space of belonging for over three hundred BIPOC educators and school leaders during Teach For America’s 12th annual School Leaders of Color Conference in Denver, Colorado. In a profession where people of color are often underrepresented in leadership roles, this conference served as a beacon of empowerment and solidarity. It allowed us to celebrate our achievements, confront our challenges, and collectively strategize for a more equitable education system.

As I worked alongside my team to build the agenda for SLOC, it was important that the conference served as a safe environment for attendees to address the unique challenges faced by leaders of color in the education sector and also unpack the most critical topics in education at the moment. Conversations around the Science of Reading, AI’s emerging impact on learning, staffing shortages, data equity and strategies for advancing racial equity in schools were top of mind.

These sessions provided valuable insights and practical strategies that attendees could bring back to their own schools and communities. The weekend was also filled with a mix of many emotions. I saw long embraces that suggested camaraderie against common struggles, tears that showed me that our leaders felt safe enough to be vulnerable, and laughter and levity that let me know that this space was healing, inspiring, and uplifting.

Perhaps most importantly, the School Leaders of Colors Conference served as a reminder of the importance of representation in education leadership. During a panel on the Science of Reading, led by the brilliant Dr. Michael Cormack, Deputy Superintendent for Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi, panelists underscored the urgency for all students, especially our most vulnerable and marginalized students, to meet and exceed literacy standards. Hearing Dr. Cormack speak about the role teachers play in a student’s success took me back to my days as a student in Milwaukee, sitting in Ms. Guinn’s classroom.

Ms. Guinn was my fourth-grade reading teacher. She was a proud Black woman, and she was the epitome of style and grace. Not only did she remind me of myself, she reminded me of my mother, and she, like my mom, had these incredible expectations of rigor for me. She didn’t just want me to be able to call out the words. She wanted me to deeply understand the power of reading. She wanted me to understand what it meant to have that kind of access to the world.

And it wasn’t just Ms. Guinn. It was Ms. Calloway, my fifth-grade teacher and Mr. Irish, my middle school algebra teacher. Mr. Irish, a Black man who taught algebra to me and all of my peers, allowed me to visualize myself as someone who could not only master the content that was being taught but also that I could actually be someone who was at the helm of the classroom, creating an opportunity for kids like me.

My experience, however, was and is not the norm. Students of color represent more than 50% of the public school population across this country. Teachers of color represent 20% or less. What that means is that students of color can go an entire school career and not have what I had with Ms. Guinn, Ms. Calloway, and Mr. Irish. I got to see and be around educators who looked like me, who were from where I was from, and who understood my experiences. They were not the only teachers that I had, and they were not the only teachers who cared about me, but it mattered that I had access to them.

Research tells us that Black educators produce greater outcomes for all students, regardless of a student’s race. And, for students of color, when they see people who look like them in positions of authority, they are more likely to feel valued, understood, and empowered. By supporting and elevating leaders of color, we not only create more inclusive and equitable school environments but we enable these leaders to also serve as role models for future generations.

I left the weekend reaffirming my belief that gatherings like the School Leaders of Color Conference are essential in building a sense of belonging and empowerment for communities of color within the education system. By providing a space for networking, learning, and advocacy, these gatherings contribute to the collective strength and resilience of educators of color and ultimately benefit all students.

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