Five Tips: Making Equity and Inclusion a Professional Growth Theme

by Andy Shaw,  Director of Professional Learning


Events this year — and our nation’s response to them — have shone a spotlight upon the realities of racism and racial injustice in the United States. Seizing this moment, and the momentum that has come with it, many of Folio’s member schools nationwide have chosen to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics a key theme in their professional growth efforts this year. Because of the complexity and importance of issues around racial justice, it’s important to do this well: thoughtfully, authentically, and deeply. Here are a few pieces of advice for school leaders hoping to advance or deepen the work:

Set the tone and model from the top
Racism and racial injustice are deeply rooted in our society. It is difficult work to make the changes we will need to make in our nation, our schools, and ourselves: uncomfortable, painful, awkward, clumsy, and slow. It is all too easy to retreat from the work when the going gets tough. As such, professional growth efforts around DEI need the strongest possible support from the top: Heads of School, Boards of Trustees, and senior leaders, especially those who identify as White. Set the tone early and often as a leader, articulating in unequivocal, specific, and personal language why you believe working towards racial justice and equity must be a key priority for your school. Convey the message at every opportunity – it may take time for many people to hear and believe it. And model for your community the kind of mindset that is crucial to the work: be vulnerable, admit mistakes, create psychological safety, and acknowledge that none of us will be perfect in this work but that all of us must engage and persist in order to make progress.

Define the why and narrow the focus – and hold the organization accountable
It’s not enough to say, “we’re making diversity, equity, and inclusion a professional growth theme this year.” Why, specifically, are you making that decision? And why now? There are as many good reasons as there are schools, but those good reasons need to be grounded in your school and community context; your school’s mission, vision, and values; and your wider strategic priorities. Similarly, it’s much more effective to narrow the focus to a specific facet of DEI as a whole. Are you focusing on building inclusive and culturally-responsive classrooms? Having more brave and open conversations about race? Improving representation within curricula? Creating stronger relationships with families of color? The more specific you can be in your focus, the more effectively your faculty, staff, and community can engage in the work. Finally, and importantly: how will you support, educate, and hold individuals and the organization accountable?

Support and encourage candid self-reflection, self-evaluation, and discussion
It will take time and space for many teachers and staff to wrestle with their place in a DEI-focused professional growth effort. Many will benefit from tools to help them structure their self-assessment, such as this equitable classroom practices checklist (adapted from this more detailed report). White faculty and staff may benefit from White affinity groups and conversations where they can process their experiences and ask questions without burdening people of color to take on the emotional labor of educating their White colleagues; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) may benefit from safe affinity groups where they can let down their guard and be of support to each other. Everyone in the community will benefit from skill-buildingnorms, and tools to support open, authentic, and brave conversations about race.

Use a tool to support meaningful goal-setting
It can be hard to set good equity-promoting professional growth goals. Some teachers and staff members might veer into the vague and superficial, others might take on too much, and still others might set a well-intentioned goal that is counterproductive. People of color might feel pressure to set a goal that would benefit the community, when in fact they may already be carrying more than their share around this work. For schools that have specifically identified racial equity and inclusion as a focus, Folio has created a tool to support meaningful racial equity and inclusion goal-setting; you can download the tool here. You might give faculty and staff this tool as a whole, or share an edited version if you’ve narrowed your DEI goal as discussed above. Whether with this tool or another, consider what you can do to structure and scaffold DEI goal-setting for your teachers and staff members.

Make it long-term, rich, embedded, and resilient
Working towards equity and inclusion should be a life-long endeavor for all of us; it’s not a one-year project. It also must be intertwined with all elements of one’s work, in collaboration with colleagues. Look for opportunities to make sure a DEI-related professional growth theme is explicitly connected to strategic plan goals, long-term school planning, and priorities throughout the school. Seek out opportunities, in collaboration with leaders throughout the school, to weave DEI conversations and topics into department meetings, co-curricular programming, HR functions, and partnerships. Provide as many different kinds and modes of DEI-related professional development opportunities as you can, meeting people where they are in terms of their mindset, identity, bandwidth, and learning preferences. And don’t let setbacks, criticism, or tough moments prevent you from maintaining focus long-term. This work will never be easy, but it will always be important.