Speaking out: Mentoring and 4 other paths that lead to more diverse school leadership

School leaders of color recall clearly the moment when a mentor recognized their leadership potential.

Here’s what educators say about diversifying K12: Mentoring programs are among the best ways to close the representation gap between students and school leaders.

Many educators are already well aware that students of color reach higher levels of academic achievement when the principal in their school shares their ethnic or racial background. For example, Black students get better grades in math when their school’s principal is also Black. This holds true even if those students don’t have a Black teacher, according to “The Shoulder Tap,” a new report on mentoring programs and other strategies for diversifying school leadership. Here are some more facts:

  • Hispanic students have higher attendance and are more likely to take advanced courses if their school is led by a Hispanic principal.
  • More Black students participate in gifted programs in schools led by Black principals.
  • Black students who attend schools led by Black principals are less likely to receive in-school suspensions. Those rates drop further the longer a Black principal remains at the school.
  • Principals of color hire and retain teachers of color at higher rates, which improves academic outcomes for all students and helps to diversify the leadership pipeline.

But there are barriers to building this pipeline—some of which principals have little control over, such as state licensing requirements or district hiring processes. In a 2022 survey, 80% of K-12 leaders said they are committed to diversifying school leadership but over 60% of them lamented that their district does not know how to build the pipeline.

Mentoring programs and 4 other paths

Five key insights into diversifying leadership emerged from educator focus groups conducted by Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, New Leaders, and Spelman College, the organizations that produced “The Shoulder Tap” report.

1. Inspiring future leaders. Educators said that when they were students, the teachers and leaders of color they connected with were essential to their decision to pursue a career in education.

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2. Cultivating the next generation is deeply interpersonal. School leaders of color recall clearly the moment when a mentor—one who shared their racial, ethnic, or cultural background—recognized their leadership potential. Without this “tap on the shoulder,” many educators doubted whether they would have pursued a leadership position.

3. Pre-service preparation that recognizes their identities and lived experiences. Leaders of color want professional development that teaches them adaptive strategies to navigate community tensions. They also want support in overcoming “impostor syndrome” as they transition from teaching to an administrative role and guidance on bringing their identities into play as principals of color.

4. Hiring and onboarding can pose formidable challenges. Leaders of color are concerned about the influence of “unwritten rules” around leadership style, “fit,” and networking. They believe they face a different set of consequences and higher stakes if they make missteps or mistakes.

5. Networks of support, especially mentors, are critical. School leaders of color said having a mentor is by far the most important factor in staying in their roles. Guidance and professional advice offered by mentors improved their ability to tackle new challenges and opportunities.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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