The Courageous Pause: Reflections on Leading for Equity

Last month we gathered teams of educators from around the country to participate in the 12th annual Leading for Equity Institute (LFE), and we are preparing to host another sold-out Institute next week. LFE is a three-day residential retreat held in Sonoma, California at the Westerbeke Ranch Retreat Center.  Once again, we were privileged to work with a remarkable group of people committed to making a difference in the lives of children, particularly for those children furthest from opportunity.

Painting by Wendy Westerbeke

Painting by Wendy Westerbeke

I am always pleased that we can host this particular learning opportunity for people fighting to create equitable schools where children have the chance to grow their unique gifts and talents. Our intention and hope for LFE participants is always the same: provide a space for educators to slow down, reflect, learn and struggle together – and perhaps do some healing from the distress one carries when taking leadership for educational equity. The poem that follows beautifully captures the spirit of the invitation we extend to people attending LFE:


what I want for you?
a pause
the thing you are too busy for
is – forgive me – what I think
you just might need

I only sense this
because there have been
so many times
I’ve kept going myself
despite deep weariness
despite a broken heart
despite the tiny voice inside
crying, ‘this is not my life’

What I want for you?
the courageous pause
that changes

- Ann Betz & Jacek Skrzpczynski
Coaching the Spirit: poems of transformation

Over the years, we have made a number of adjustments to the curriculum and the learning arc of LFE. However, the key elements for creating a powerful experiential learning space remain the same. The elements include the following:

1) LFE extends the invitation for people to be part of a “learning community” willing to struggle, learn and grow together.

2) LFE helps people understand the need to “shift the discourse” from dominant ways of seeing, framing, and engaging the work of education that maintain existing practices and serve to produce social inequality – to ways of seeing and engaging that challenge the status quo by naming the uncomfortable realities and unequal conditions while pushing for deeper inquiry.

3) LFE provides common language to explore the phenomena of systemic oppression at the individual, institutional and structural levels. There is still a great deal of confusion and ambiguity about the different forms of oppression and how they manifest in our daily lives. We help educators make connections to their work (personally and professionally) at all levels of the educational system.

4) LFE explicitly makes the connection that equity work is both cognitively challenging and emotional demanding. People must build their emotional and social intelligence to help heal from the effects of oppression so they may think intelligently about the strategic actions that can make a difference in the lives of children and their families living in urban and poor communities of color.

5) LFE provides support to teams grappling with their own equity challenges back in own local context. This is space where new insights and next steps will often emerge.

Our next LFE Institute is March 20-23, 2014. This Institute is already full and speaks to the on-going need for folks to take a momentary time-out for the renewal and healing necessary to lead for equity. We are honored to host such a space.

We also occasionally offer customized Leading for Equity Institutes for organizations and communities to support teams to deepen their commitment, relationships, and efficacy while developing strategies toward equity goals.

Posted in Changing the Discourse, Conferences & Events, Constructivist Listening, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, racial equity, Relationships | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Brother’s Keeper: Do we have the will to make a way?

I was honored to provide a guest post on the Huffington Post blog of Eric Cooper, Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, in response to President Obama’s recent My Brother’s Keeper initiative. You can read an excerpt below, and find the full blog post at

For our young men of color, do we have the will to make a way?

I applaud President Obama’s new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” but an important conversation is missing from the announcement and from the initiative itself. While it is necessary to encourage boys to work harder, that alone will not solve the problem. The reason so many boys and young men of color continue to fail remains unexplored. Read the full post.

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Instructional Coaching | Beyond Best Practices

“Coaching is becoming popular, in part, because many educational leaders recognize the old form of professional development, built around traditional in-service sessions for teachers, simply doesn’t affect student achievement” (Knight 2006).

Instructional coaching alone doesn’t necessarily support teachers to be more successful with their most struggling students. Just as great teaching requires more than content knowledge, instructional coaching for equity requires more than pedagogical expertise. To support a teacher to learn and grow, we need to really know and understand them.

What is this teacher excited about? What do they care about? What motivates them? How are they thinking about their work? What are their beliefs and assumptions about their role as teacher?

As their coach, we have to take the time to build a trusting relationship where we know the real answers to these questions. Many teachers are assigned an instructional coach and view it as a punitive measure. By taking the time to observe, assess, and validate their experience and expertise, we show that we are authentically invested in their success.

Engaging a teacher in this reflection does more than set the stage for a positive coaching relationship – it demonstrates a new kind of relationship that is possible between teacher and student – which can translate into powerful new relationships in the teacher’s classroom. Building trusting relationships with the teachers we coach also helps us to productively challenge our teachers to examine their own biases and mental models.


Uncover Mental Models

To effectively shift a teacher’s practice, the instructional coach must assess the teacher’s mental models – the underlying beliefs and values she holds about her students. Without addressing these beliefs and values, the teacher will always default to teaching practices that align with that belief.

“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” - Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Shifting a teacher’s practice usually won’t happen without productively challenging their thinking, assumptions, and interpretations of their current classroom reality.

Why do you think this particular student/these students are not responding? How are you feeling about it, and how is that shaping your decisions? What other possibilities are you open to considering? What more might you learn?

Good Decisions Trump Best Practices

Many teachers do need support in implementing instructional “best practices.” But best practices are just one part of their toolkit, and pushing popular teaching strategies doesn’t result in achieving equity in the classroom. Instead of focusing on best practices, begin with supporting teachers to learn about and from their students. How can we help teachers implement formative assessment practices (from assessing how the student is experiencing the teacher or class to assessing the student’s thinking about a particular task) to make better instructional decisions?

The most critical practice for raising student achievement is instructional decision-making – accurately determining the next skill that the student must master in order to progress and how to teach it in a way that helps the student learn it. It is this insight that helps create more equitable outcomes for struggling students.

What is working? With all of your students or just some? Why? How do you know?

Learn how to develop these skills and more at the National Equity Project’s  Instructional Coaching for Equity seminar on March 7, 2014 in Oakland, CA. Register today.

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

Posted in Bias, Effective Teaching, Equity Pedagogy, Instructional Coaching, Relationships, school coaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Facilitator As Host: Host Your Next Meeting

The holiday season has passed and by now we’re all fully back in work mode.  But there’s no reason you can’t keep that warm, welcoming feeling alive throughout the year, even at your school or workplace. Your meetings may not always feel like a party, but facilitators can learn a lot from great hosts.

“Leaders-as-hosts know that people willingly support those things they’ve played a part in creating—that you can’t expect people to ‘buy-in’ to plans and projects developed elsewhere. Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work.”
- Margaret Wheatley, Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host

Hosts help people connect.

As the host of a party, it’s your job to introduce your guests to one another. Facilitators should intentionally build opportunities for people from different backgrounds to connect with one another, especially when participants don’t already know each other.  You know that hilarious inside joke you and your friends can’t stop riffing on?  As host, it’s your job to explain the backstory to new acquaintances who aren’t in on the joke.  As a facilitator, you should make the extra effort to make new members feel welcome and comfortable. Encourage questions, spell out acronyms and explain jargon.

Hosts can read a room.

A host should be constantly reading the room to anticipate people’s needs.  Is the music too loud? Are people cold? Does the guacamole need a refill? As a facilitator, you should also keep tabs on your teammates’ needs.  When it seems like people need a break they do.

Hosts also read the dynamics of the room; supporting positive dynamics, and attending to potential tensions. At a party, you might strategically guide your Uncle Rudy away from his ex-wife and her new partner.  In a meeting, attending to negative dynamics is not about avoiding conflict or shutting people down.  Instead, you might offer a structure or process to help the team navigate through a negative dynamic.  Being aware of social threats and triggers can help you be prepared to quickly react in the moment in a way that allows all members to feel valued and supported.

Hosts get ready before their guests show up.

Facilitator as Host

As best as you are able, try to set up your meeting in a comfortable, aesthetically pleasing environment.  Think about what time of day it is (i.e. before or after lunch), where people may be coming from, and how long they’ve been sitting and listening.  Try and provide some time for people to take care of their own needs so they can be fully present and engaged.

Energizing music, drinks and snacks can do wonders for your group dynamic.

Hosts let the party happen.

At the end of the day, all any host or facilitator can really do is set the conditions for a good experience, but ultimately it’s the people that end up making the party or meeting positive or not.  Facilitators should be thoughtful about how to set the right conditions for people to have a positive experience, be fully engaged – so they’ll look forward to the next opportunity they’ll have to spend time together.



The National Equity Project is hosting a new series of learning seminars this spring! Click the links for more information and to register.

Leading for Equity Institute: January 30- February 2 & March 20-23, 2014

Facilitating Group Dynamics for Effective Teams: February 7, 2014

Instructional Coaching for Equity: March 7, 2014

Designing Meetings for Learning & Collaboration: April 4, 2014

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

Posted in Conferences & Events, Facilitative Leadership, Meeting Design, National Equity Project | Tagged | Leave a comment

Make the Most of Your Meeting Agenda

Make space for stories.

Provide space for people to share what brought them to this work, their personal history and background, and what’s happening in their lives outside of work.  People bring their whole self to meetings – whether we like it or not. Providing space for stories can help people feel seen, validated, and connected to each other.  This is particularly important for people who have felt invisible or are not part of the dominant culture.

People need to feel a sense of belonging and connection, to each other and to their work, no matter who they are or how they’re positioned in your team or organization.  Create a space where people’s story is validated and incorporated, not dismissed or ignored. Providing structured time for sharing can help your team get to the practical work faster.

One way to incorporate stories is to build space at the beginning of your agenda for a meaningful check-in. Ask people how they are, what they care about in their work, what’s inspiring them lately.  We have an activity that we do to open many of our Institutes called Diversity Rounds (adapted from the National School Reform Faculty). It’s a quick and easy protocol to both break the ice and get people talking and reflecting on what brought them to their work together. We also do this as a staff from time to time – I always learn something new about my colleagues, even people I’ve worked with for years.  Some sample questions:

 1.)  Where are you from? How do you think that has influenced who you are?

2.)  What type of student were you in high school? How do you think that shapes you as an educator and leader?

3.)  What college-going generation are you in your family? What opportunity did that afford you?

As with any check-in, it’s up to the individual as to how deep they want to go, but it is a powerful way to get people connected, fully present, and conscious of the diversity of experience and beliefs in the group.

Make space for emotion.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much. Helen Keller CC

Discussing issues of equity will be accompanied by strong emotions. Plan for it. It’s important to access people’s passions and excitement, but also acknowledge and create a safe space for people to surface their emotions and feelings. We experience this regularly as we work with and for students and families that have been continually underserved by their schools and districts. People need the opportunity to release that distress to be able to do their best thinking and work with others.

Developing agreements at the outset about how you will work together when strong emotions come up is a valuable way to keep your group on track when strong emotions inevitably surface.  Encourage people to stay open and explore their emotions, instead of suppressing or bottling them up.  Structures like constructivist listening protocols can help people process powerful emotions in a productive and supportive manner. These structures give everyone the experience of being authentically listened to, and the opportunity to truly listen to someone else.

Use your imagination.

Try to open up new ways of thinking and operating, before you narrow your focus into what needs to be done. The challenges we’re facing today have never been solved, so we need to be open to new perspectives and ways of working together.

Use images, analogies, and metaphors that access your team’s hopes—what you hope to be true about your work together, and what you hope to accomplish. Ask open-ended questions that encourage alternate perspectives to the status quo. Try to activate positive emotions like authenticity, joy, power, and passion. But remember – the subconscious is at work and is shaped by individual experience.  Metaphors are not universally positive or negative. Check out the Frameworks Institute for some great resources on using metaphors for education and social justice.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein

Make it an experience.

When you’re planning your meeting, think about how you want people to experience the meeting. Consider the physical space – does it have a cramped, institutional feel, or is it open and light? Even if you’re assigned a less-than-ideal meeting space, are there ways you could set up the room that encourage openness, reflection, and collaboration?

What time of day is it? Have people eaten? Have you built in ample break time in your agenda?  It’s important for people to feel like their needs are being tended to so they can fully participate. Providing movement and breaks for people to check their email, use the bathroom, or just take a mental vacation helps them be more present in the time you’re working together.

But end on a practical note.

Make sure you end your meeting with some practical application, something that gives people a sense of accomplishment. Leaving with a sense of momentum helps people feel more productive about the work they’re doing together. Try and close the meeting with some clarity about where you are in relation to your objectives, what helped the team get there, and what’s next.  Encourage reflection and appreciation for team member’s contributions to the collective work.

And seek feedback.

Ask people how they think the meeting went, what they’d like to see more of at the next meeting.  This helps people take collective ownership of the work they are doing together, and hopefully makes them look forward to coming together again.

Designing effective and equitable meetings is both an art and a science. The National Equity Project offers a range of professional learning opportunities for helping you make the most of your meetings and agendas. Find out about upcoming learning events here.

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

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Three Keys to Effective and Equitable Meetings

1.) Effective meetings emphasize purpose and identity.

The purpose of any meeting should be more than getting through a list of items together.  If it were that simple, an email could probably do the trick. (If you’re calling a meeting for a task where an email could suffice – just send the email! You’re giving meetings a bad rap.)

Too often the question of why these people need to come together for this purpose is not clearly worked out in advance. For meetings to be effective, participants must be clear about the purpose of their time and work together, feel connected to the value of that purpose, and understand their role in working toward it.

As a meeting facilitator or convener, it’s essential to:

    • Give people opportunities to share what they care about
    • Help people make connections between their values and interests to what they’re doing there together
    • Connect people to one another so they gain a sense of belonging, community, and being on a team together
    • Invite everyone’s contribution, with an understanding that those contributions may look different.

Instead of just asking people to come to a meeting, invite people to be a part of a meaningful and collaborative experience that they will want to be part of again.

2.) Effective meetings encourage meaningful collaboration.

Most meetings involve people being told things, getting tasks assigned or clarified, followed by going off and completing work on their own. Each subsequent meeting becomes a report-back on individual accomplishments (or lack there-of). People tend to dread these meetings as they reinforce the feeling of being a cog in the machine.

Real collaboration and critical reflection are essential for adult learning. Facilitators need to design meeting agendas with ample opportunities for shared reflection, asking questions like:

    • How are things going?
    • Why do we think this is and what do we want to do about it?
    • How can we support each other to accomplish our work as a team?

Meetings should also allow for constructive disagreement and differing perspectives. Collaborative meetings create a welcoming space where people come together to share knowledge and their experiences, to engage in dialogue and get constructive feedback, make new meaning together and expand their thinking. The goal is that people leave feeling like they’ve contributed meaningfully to collective work and come away with some learning or new ideas they can use.


3.) Effective meetings shift power dynamics.

Most adults taking part in a meeting are keenly aware of who has control of the meeting, who has a voice at the meeting, and who makes decisions. Too often the dynamics people experience reinforce a sense of powerlessness or pointlessness – “it doesn’t matter what I say, they’re going to do whatever they want anyway.”

Facilitating powerful and equitable meetings requires paying careful attention to dynamics with an awareness of historical patterns of power and participation based on race, gender, class, age and role.

Disagreements can shut down a group with unbalanced power dynamics, because those with the power are perceived to automatically “win” while those without power feel devalued – again. Groups who are supported to experience balanced power dynamics are able to work through conflicts by helping each other see differing perspectives in ways that lead to doing better work together and achieving great results.

Learn how to put these keys in action to design better meetings and agendas at  an upcoming professional learning event.

This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.

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From the Mouths of Coaches

Last week we hosted leaders and educators from across the country at our annual Coaching for Equity Institute in Oakland, CA.  Here are some of the powerful reflections participants had to share after our three days together:

“I enjoyed connecting with educators across the country to talk and explore the most important work of schools – EQUITY. I left with new ways to ensure that equity will be infused into coaching conversations across my district.” - Troy Boddy, Director of Equity, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

“The Coaching for Equity Institute expanded my thinking and repertoire of coaching skills to support and engage other leaders in our district’s equity work. I am excited to go back and begin integrating the content with our existing framework, structures, and processes.”-  Arronza LaBatt, Executive Assistant, Office of School Support and Improvement, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

“I appreciate how the National Equity Project surfaces critical issues of inequity in education and community.  The Coaching for Equity Institute empowers particupants with skills and strategies to gracefully disrupt patterns of inequity in schools and systems.” - Travis Campbell, Director K-12 Student and School Success, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

“The coaching role play activities were a phenomenal experience. I truly appreciate the feedback I received and even more so because it came from an unbiased party. I now have a more focused platform on which to base my own professional development to ultimately and effectively do the work that cannot go undone one second longer… Teaching so that ALL students learn.” - Patrice Turner, Director of Math Intervention, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

“If you want to think, be pushed, be inspired, and do so in the company of other folks with our kids in the forefront of their minds – then the National Equity Project is for you!” - Ivy Martinez, Director, Impact & Diversity, Teach for America

There’s still time to register for our August Coaching for Equity Institute, but it’s filling up fast. Visit for more information and to register today.

Coaching for Equity

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