Over the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all heard this sentiment over and over: “I can’t wait to get back to normal!” As leaders, we’ve likely uttered that very statement many times in moments of exhaustion. Yet as we think about equity and inclusive practices that move us towards meeting the needs of all children, do we really want to go “back to normal?” If we are honest with ourselves, going back to normal is the last thing we should be trying to do.
Pre-COVID-19, “normal” is, quite frankly, harmful and broken when it comes to equity and inclusive practices in many schools and districts. Normal is massive opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color, students living in poverty, and students receiving English Language Learner (ELL) and special education supports. Normal is these same students placed on more restrictive pathways rather than least restrictive pathways towards graduation. Normal is a “send them down the hall” mentality, viewing special education and ELL support as a place rather than a service. Normal is antiquated grading practices that punish students for not learning it the first time and that train students to chase points rather than chase learning. Normal is tracking, sorting, and ranking students at an early age, making it nearly impossible for our most disenfranchised students to catch up with their peers. Normal is teacher isolation that places value upon independence above collaborative practices. Normal is a “my kids” versus an “our kids” approach.
We could go on and on about what normal looks like within many layers of our system. If we are honest with ourselves, going back to normal is the last thing we should be trying to do. Instead, we should strive to create a “new normal” (also a phrase we hear a lot right now) that puts an end to these practices. Our new normal needs to look ahead toward creating schools and districts where our students that need us the most are thriving and placed at the center of all that we do. As school and district leaders, there are a myriad of action items we can take to move our schools and districts away from normal and towards a new reality for the students counting on us to do so. If we embrace the following three strategies, which are both simplistic and challenging at the same time, the students we serve will never have to worry about us taking our schools and districts “back to normal.”
Leading with “The Why”
Starting with and focusing on the “what” and the “how” of a new idea, program, or initiative is a mistake we make far too often in our profession. Over time, our staff rightly develop a callous to this approach and a “this too shall pass” sentiment. It’s hard to blame them. With all of the complexities and challenges our staff have to manage in order to be effective, one more thing usually feels overwhelming.
But leading with the “why” shifts the narrative and the experience for our staff. If we begin with the assumption all staff members within our system are here for the right reasons and genuinely want to make a difference for the children they serve, leading with the “why” connects the dots for our staff in a way they don’t often experience.
To put it bluntly, equity work and inclusionary practices aren’t initiatives, they are best practices with a moral imperative component that we can’t continue to ignore. Statistically speaking, we already know what life looks like for students that don’t make it through our system – higher rates of poverty, incarceration, health complications, and even early death. Leading our staff through a journey towards equity and inclusion, where the “why” is front and center for them in that process paves the way for a new normal that benefits every student who walks through our doors.
Building Collaborative Cultures
The second leadership action item we can and must leverage is collaboration. Whether grounded in the work of a Professional Learning Community (Solution Tree) or another collaborative schoolwide strategy, we must help our staff experience the reality that collaboration, focused on the right work, leads to higher levels of learning for all students. Identifying which standards are most essential, building common formative and summative assessments as a team, and analyzing the results of those assessments to (1) identify and share which instructional strategies were successful, and (2) identify which students need more time and support in their learning...this is the right work when it comes to collaboration.
It’s ironic that during the COVID-19 pandemic, these collaborative strategies bubbled to the surface all across our schools and in our districts. Over the last year, we’ve been told to help our teachers get clear on what’s most essential, make sure our assessments are tied to what’s most essential, and so on. In some ways our teachers have been put in a position where they have no choice but to collaborate, just to survive. We should capitalize on these experiences from the last year and work with our staff to continue that momentum forward, even if these large-scale changes and improvements resulted from a worldwide pandemic and were not mapped out on a whiteboard. While collaboration is not the end goal in itself, it is one of the most powerful ways we reach our ultimate goal – higher levels of learning for all of our students.
Learning By Doing
Finally, as leaders, we must embrace, and help our staff embrace, the concept of learning by doing. That is, we will never be completely ready to take the next step towards equity and inclusion. All of the training and information we can gather will never be enough. So, we must take the next step! As leaders, this takes courage, confidence, trust in the process of learning, and a commitment to high levels of support for those that need it.
Within the idea of learning by doing, there is an element of proving to ourselves that we can do it. With our staff, we use the analogy of riding a bike. We can spend all day looking at the bike, getting the tires filled with air, making sure the seat is at the right height, testing the brakes, admiring the bike, imagining how we are going to ride the bike and dreaming of what it will be like, one day, to actually ride the bike! Or we can get on the bike and with a little guidance and a helping hand from behind, start pedaling the bike forward. We will make mistakes and have several starts and stops, but if we keep at it, eventually we will learn how to ride the bike and continue to get better, gaining confidence in the process. Once we learn how to ride the bike and experience the joy and thrill of doing it on our own, we never really think about going back to the days when we didn’t know-how.
Implementing practices that increase inclusion and equity are much the same. It takes time, practice, encouragement, and support, but the end result and experience is far better than it was at the beginning. The only way to get there is to jump on and start pedaling! Leveraging these three leadership strategies (leading with “the why”, building collaborative cultures, and learning by doing) on behalf of the students that need us the most will guarantee we don’t drift “back to normal.’ We simply can’t afford to do so. It’s our job to guide our schools and districts forward towards a new normal that erases the inequities that existed prior to COVID-19.
Brett Wille is the principal at Monroe HS (Monroe, WA) and an advocate for inclusionary practices in the state of Washington. He and his former staff at Hidden River Middle School (Monroe School District) became a nationally recognized Professional Learning Community (Solution Tree) and are a University of Washington demonstration site for exemplary practices in inclusive education.