The job of a school leader can be an isolating one-now more so than ever. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals-Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki-take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.
Have a question? Send it in to AskAPrincipal@educationweek.org and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.
-Courtesy of Sharif El-Mekki
This year has been hard on my staff. Some people have lost close family members, and everyone is under the strain of adjusting to our "new normal" of hybrid teaching. Do you have any ideas for keeping up teacher morale? The caveat is that I don't have a flexible budget right now, so care packages aren't an option.
Sharif El-Mekki: Yes. This has been a challenging year for all of us-students, their families, and school staff. When it comes to situations like the pandemic, we are not removed from the realities and hardships our students face. To support my staff, I would focus on highlighting self-care practices. There are a variety of simple ways that we can practice self-care, including using meditation apps, reflecting on what brings us bliss, considering ways to support each other as members of a community. Often, it is helpful to ask staff, "How can I be most helpful?"
I have found that staff are at their best mentally and emotionally when they feel supported and prepared. Please do not ignore professional learning experiences that help your staff to develop and keep up with the changing times and context.
Be sure to share wins, big and small. When we focus on what is going wrong, or when we are constantly in improvement mode, we may lose sight about the things that are actually going well, the things we already have improved on, and the growth that students have made.
I also suggest spotlighting a teacher or two during every staff meeting to share a few pics and share what brings them joy. My staff used to really enjoy that-I think because it taps into our humanity and positivity. There are a lot of fun team-building exercises that can be done virtually and there are ways to recognize individuals virtually without a price tag, such as ecards and virtual Kudo Boards.
I lead an almost totally white school and I want my students to learn and be exposed to history of Black and brown students. Do you have any suggestions for how to open them up to the experiences of people of color in America without making them shut down or feel like it doesn't concern them, especially as many of them may be getting that message at home? And how can we have these conversations without making our very few students of color the "spokespeople" for their race?
El-Mekki: Being able to engage white students about race, class, and privilege without them shutting down is really important. My friend Ali Michael has done some incredible work around this area, and her website has good resources. Kiara Butler founded Diversity Talks, and the feedback from students who have participated has been incredible. It is important that students of color have agency. Support their self-determination by allowing them to speak for themselves. Often, white students or their teachers want to avoid the personal work it takes to reflect on how race, class, and privilege show up in their own lives. You can begin with discussing identity, that is something that everyone can take a part in, as everyone has an identity-even when that comes as a shock to white people.
I have also used sites like Facing History and Ourselves and I have turned to Teaching Tolerance and the Zinn Education Project as great ways to understand race and the history of race in our country. The Aspen Institute's Better Arguments project for middle and high schools is another resource to support civil discourse and exploration.
Regardless of our race, if we live in America, we are bound by our shared history. If I were a teacher with a predominantly white student body, I would dive into this learning through analyzing the layers of our country's history. We were built "by the people" for the pursuit of well-being "for the people." Perhaps, taking that fundamental pillar of our country and dissecting how this belief has played out over the course of our history would open the door to discussing how inequity and racism continue, even if they look different today.
When students are taught to interrogate their own biases, they become more empathetic and understanding of another's plights and contributions. You can model how to question whose stories and voices are missing or muted. Once students start asking those questions themselves, they will naturally look for the missing voices and stories and analyze whose voices dominate and drown out.
My school has always had a pretty unofficial, common-sense social-media policy for staff. Given the current corrosive political climate and the rise of "cancel culture," I'm starting to think we need to get more specific about our social-media use, but I'm not sure where to draw the line between encouraging my staff to participate in democracy and avoiding anything so partisan that families of different political ideologies would feel attacked or uncomfortable if they saw it. What are your thoughts?
El-Mekki: I think there should be a clear separation of personal belief and public service. We must prevent any situation that would make the people we serve-our students and families-feel uncomfortable, ostracized, targeted, or lied to because of their race, religion, or political beliefs. To start, there is no neutrality in racism and oppression. There should be no safe harbor for messages on social media that are racist, oppressive, or champion racist ideologies. Amplification of racism protects racism and harms students and communities. You should make it abundantly clear that that is wholly unacceptable.
To start, teachers and staff shouldn't blur the professional lines by friending students and their families on social media. In addition, members of the school staff and community represent a larger entity. Any action that would compromise the reputation of the larger entity shouldn't be done. There is a time and place for everything. When personal beliefs compromise the values of the inclusivity, then it's not the right time or place. As a principal, it would be challenging to tell staff what to post on their own personal time, on their own social-media pages. You can, however, remind them that private posts are often pretty public and that they should assume their audience includes supervisors, colleagues, and the families of their students.
Sometimes personal posts can reach the students we serve. The best way to teach without blurring the line of indoctrination is being able to share various perspectives, including our own, and supporting students in reaching conclusions. However, there should also be a clear and consistent expectation that personal beliefs that attack, belittle, and denigrate groups of people will not be tolerated by staff or anyone else. I hope you will continue to encourage staff to model optimal levels of behavior on social media and allow freedom of speech and belief. Best wishes. Please keep us posted in how it is going.
Sharif El-Mekki has served as a teacher and administrator in three schools in west Philadelphia across his 27-year career. He has also helped to launch efforts like The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice, Philly's 7th Ward blog, 8 Black Hands podcast, and the Center for Black Educator Development.