5 ways to create a better sense of belonging for school leaders of color

Ensure that administrators of color have opportunities to provide input that actually shapes district outcomes.
Stefani Morrow
Stefani Morrow

One of the bright spots to emerge from the pandemic is a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools. COVID helped draw attention to the glaring racial and socio-economic disparities that exist in our society and the impact these have on students’ daily lives. For instance, while 53% of public school students in the United States are now persons of color, about four out of five administrators are still white.

Research shows why representation matters in our schools. For instance, one study found that Black students scored as many as 6 percentile points higher on reading and math achievement tests when they were taught by a Black educator. Another study found that Black male students from low-income families were 39% less likely to drop out of high school when taught by a Black teacher in upper elementary grades.

Building a strong pipeline of talent and hiring more administrators of color to ensure that school and district leadership more closely reflects the student population it serves are good initial steps in creating positive learning environments that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. Yet, it’s not enough simply to add more leaders of color. School systems also must ensure that administrators of color do not feel like outsiders in our schools; otherwise, we will have addressed the “diversity” part of DEI while ignoring the other two critical components for success.

I often liken diversity to getting a seat at the “table.” Equity is when leaders are actually given a chance to speak while seated at the table–and inclusion is about feeling heard and having one’s needs and interests responded to as a result.

When administrators of color don’t feel the sense of belonging that comes from inclusion, the problem cuts deeper than just its impact on those individuals. It also affects productivity, morale and the success of the entire school or district.

If educational leaders don’t feel a strong sense of belonging, their engagement will suffer. The stress involved in leading schools today is already overwhelming, and principals are leaving the job in record numbers. Administrators of color must feel like they matter if they are to remain 100% committed to showing up, rolling up their sleeves and tackling the hard work that needs to be done in our schools.

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Retaining administrators of color and keeping them fully engaged begins with acknowledging that a sense of belonging is important and must be actively and intentionally cultivated through the development of inclusive practices. Here are five strategies that district leaders can use to ensure that administrators of color feel heard and valued:

1. Engage in self-reflection

Thoroughly examine your policies, procedures and culture to identify where these operational practices might either directly or inadvertently alienate, isolate or exclude persons of color. Solicit the feedback of all stakeholder groups, be honest in your assessment and use these findings to enact substantive changes.

2. Empower and support leaders of color

Make sure that administrators of color have opportunities to provide input that actually shapes district outcomes. Give them a real voice at the table, not just a token presence. Listen to their feedback and follow through as appropriate. Also, make sure they feel supported in their job. Provide opportunities for both professional growth and personal development.

3. Create an inclusive environment

Make equity and inclusion a part of leadership training and integrate these into your district’s core values. Pay careful attention to how you communicate; for instance, use inclusive language such as “we” and “us” and choose images that showcase (and celebrate) diversity.

4. Foster connections

Provide dedicated spaces and structures for building meaningful relationships between administrators of color and others within your district. Strong interpersonal connections are fundamental to establishing a sense of belonging. Create forums and events for administrators of color to get to know their colleagues, connect with mentors, collaborate with peers and meet other leaders of color.

5. Recognize their contributions

Recognition is a powerful motivator, and it can help administrators of color feel like they belong. Not only does recognition deepen employee engagement and boost morale, but calling out and rewarding specific behavior also reinforces your school district’s values. Be sure to recognize the contributions of all employees, including persons of color. Highlight the contributions from leaders of color both within and outside your organization, such as in newsletters, on your school district website and in news releases and other communications with the press.

Adopting these practices can help leaders of color not only feel like they belong but also thrive within your organization–leading to greater success for your students.

Stefani Morrow is the learning design manager for instructional leadership at BetterLesson, where she designs professional learning experiences for K-12 administrators.

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