The Leadership Academy: Culturally Responsive Leadership in a Global Pandemic

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(Photo Courtesy of The Leadership Academy)

For schools across the country, COVID-19 has meant rapidly adapting to new learning experiences while continuing to meet the needs of every student. For The Leadership Academy, this has been an opportune moment to cultivate culturally responsive leaders who can respond, in real-time, to students’ most pressing needs today.

The principles of culturally responsive leadership have been at the heart of The Leadership Academy’s vision for a long time. Culturally responsive leadership, which recognizes and actively mitigates, disrupts and dismantles institutionalized racism, is central to ensuring that children of every race, ethnicity, language and other identity characteristics have what they need to achieve academic, social and emotional success.

Since 2003, the Leadership Academy has worked with thousands of leaders in more than 200 school systems and organizations to practice culturally responsive leadership as a means to counter the systemic inequities pervasive across our education system. Most recently, The Leadership Academy developed an innovative new framework with best practices for leading culturally responsive schools and a guide for observing remote classroom instruction with a focus on culturally responsive practice.     

To learn more about the importance of embracing culturally responsive leadership during COVID-19, I spoke with The Leadership Academy about tangible ways educators can successfully model culturally responsive leadership in virtual classrooms.

As school looks different in schools across the United States., I imagine that training for professionals looks very different, too. What are three key ways educators can bring culturally-responsive learning to virtual classrooms during this time?

First, it’s essential to build a strong foundation of cultural understanding. Culturally responsive leaders understand the dimensions, impact and history of cultural constructs in society. They continuously consider the impact of societal culture on their personal identities, as well as the ways in which it shapes their professional practices.

In virtual classrooms, this looks like:

  • Being in a state of constant learning by reading, listening and watching content that supports the unpacking of your own identity and actively sharing your own learning during opening check-ins.
  • Creating a virtual background that represents your own identity, as well as backgrounds that show support for the identities of your students.
  • Providing tools for students to give feedback via anonymous surveys, in-class polls, etc.

Of course, educators must focus on the academic success of all students. Culturally-responsive leaders center student learning and academic rigor across every school, classroom and learning environment in their system. They cultivate and value content expertise. They select high-quality instructional materials aligned to standards. They hold, model and communicate consistently high and transparent expectations for all learners. 

In virtual classrooms, this looks like:

  • Ensuring work is interest-driven and project-based;
  • Leveraging high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials while incorporating real-life examples; and
  • Shifting from solo achievement to team process, and prioritizing coaching over teaching. 

Third, culturally responsive leaders cultivate sociopolitical consciousness by supporting adults’ and students’ abilities to question and critique social norms, values, practices and systems that produce and maintain inequity. They facilitate adult and student discussions about culture and identity, and consistently look for and utilize opportunities to generate inquiry about inequity, oppression and change.

In virtual classrooms, this looks like:

  • Creating office hours so students can check-in with teachers and other caring adults outside of the academic setting.
  • Opening the virtual classroom early so students can connect and talk before class begins.
  • Creating opportunities for bringing family historical and present-day experiences into the classroom.

How can these tactics be implemented by or with students’ parents and families?

Now, more than ever, school communication with students and families is essential for student success. Schools need to make a shift from family engagement to family partnerships. We all know that with remote learning, parents are the in-person teachers. We must respect and honor that new role by building the capacity of parents and guardians to support their children’s learning. To that end, we urge principals and teachers to:

  • Maintain regular outreach to families in whatever ways that families feel works best.
  • Make sure all communications are in the family’s primary language.
  • Ask families if they have the devices and internet access needed for their children to attend class.
  • When students are absent, reach out to understand what is going on and see how the school can support the family in ways that can get the child back to the classroom.
  • Solicit feedback from parents, guardians and students on areas of remote learning they find particularly challenging and determine what kind of support they need.
  • Offer workshops and materials to help parents and guardians better support their children’s learning.
  • Seek out and leverage the expertise and resources of community groups that represent and serve their families.   

Learning Heroes offers some great resources for principals to strengthen family partnerships.

Policies regarding COVID-19, such as school in-person learning, are likely to be reassessed throughout the coming months and year. What are key factors that school leaders should keep in mind regarding aspects such as cultural responsiveness, assessments during distance learning and instructional evaluation?

A culturally responsive leader recognizes the impact of institutionalized racism on their own lives and the lives of the students and families they work with while embracing their role in mitigating, disrupting, and dismantling systemic oppression. When leaders are creating policies and establishing new school or school system practices, we encourage them to consider some of the following questions.

  • Are you collecting and using data and evidence to inform decisions that show the experiences of each group of students, by groups such as race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status to reflect the experiences of all stakeholders?
  • How are you making sure students who need extra support are receiving rhat help? For in-person or hybrid classrooms, how are you addressing the needs of students who did not receive the instruction they needed during remote schooling?
  • How are you addressing student access to curriculum if they don’t have access to computers, internet or tech support?
  • What does support look like for students who have IEPs, exceptional needs or who live in an unsafe environment?
  • Are schoolwork and materials being appropriately translated so that non-English speaking parents can help their children? Are translators accessible to families that have questions and need additional assistance?
  • How are you helping teacher teams and school leadership teams connect and support each other in this time of uncertainty and grief?
  • How are you building the capacity of teachers and coaches to choose instructional curricula and high-quality instructional materials that are appropriate for the remote learning environment?
  • How are you supporting teachers to engage and continue to build relationships with students in new and innovative ways?
  • How are you eliminating any attendance, grading and other accountability structures for student learning that are not conducive to the current situation?
  • Finally, how are you using this experience to create a more equitable school experience for students and families whether they are learning remotely or on campus?

You can also check out The Leadership Academy’s Equity at Work guide, which supports system leaders through equity-focused strategic planning

Read how other organizations are tackling racial equity in the school system here.


Rachel Sacks is a Communications Associate at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.