Equity Leadership – Engaging in the Conversations

By: Irfan Toor  •  February 25, 2022  •  (4 min read)

The past few weeks have added layers of tensions to the work of school leaders. There is of course the ongoing additional work imposed by the pandemic, the constantly changing restrictions and responses. Between unwrapping RATs and managing the last minute staff shortages, there is little time for school leaders to focus on anything non-operational.

In early February, there was an occupation of some of our major cities, especially Ottawa. What started as a trucker's convoy responding to the legislation that imposed vaccine requirements for those crossing the border, soon turned into what seemed to be a push-back related to any impact of the pandemic related restrictions. But it also went much deeper than that. From white supremacist and racist symbols being displayed to the strong anti-government tone and an underwhelming initial response by police and security forces, Canadian society was impacted in so many ways across the whole country, and even around the world. And, all of this was happening during Black History Month. So instead of being able to focus attention on the celebration of Black excellence, society was constantly distracted by individuals claiming levels of oppression matching anything ever seen in history. The co-opting of messages such as "Every Child Matters" with negative symbols of historical hate was truly offensive and disappointing. 

So, as school leaders, how do we respond to the events going on in society?

They can't just be ignored and school is often a place where movements in society are acknowledged, discussed and the impacts are often magnified. Consider how events such as Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope, the Olympics, the legacy of Residential Schools, the murder of George Floyd, and the ongoing climate crisis have become mainstays of conversations and actions in schools over the last few decades. At some point, each of those was considered risky or as causing discomfort or fear. 

In many places, we discuss CRRP – culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. Many schools and school boards have been working to implement this framework into classrooms. I've always emphasized that this is not 'multicultural education', the responsiveness and relevance are not just about "who" is in the classroom, but "when" is the learning happening. It is important to include what is important to students. Lesson planning and design need to be responsive to time – "when are we learning and what is going on at that time?" The world is not the same place as it was in the 1950's, 70's, 90's or even the first 20 years of this century so our educational systems shouldn't only reflect those periods of time and we shouldn't be ignoring what is happening at the given time. One of the foundations of the CRRP framework is the "socio-conscious educator".

Educators and school leaders need to be aware of the critical issues in society, but that doesn't mean they need to be experts in every situation.

Anti-oppressive pedagogy involves asking questions, the de-centering of the educator and providing opportunities to share perspectives rather than requiring the educator to be the holder of the knowledge. Which brings us back to the tensions. Those conversations are risky – who will complain, who will be offended, who will be hurt? Am I capable of holding space so that learning can happen without students being harmed?

One thing that is guaranteed is that the absence of the conversation reinforces the status quo. I've referred to that as "oppression through lack of action". The systems that reinforce privilege for some and marginalization for others are deep and long lasting and won't be changed overnight. The work to counteract that is hard, it is ongoing and it starts with ourselves. There isn't one "how" and there isn't a list of actions that make it all better. There isn't one PD session that will make you an expert. It starts with your own self-reflection and your own learning. Most importantly, it starts with your recognition and unlearning of the systems and patterns that you have been immersed in and most likely reinforced at some point. That might be why the "how" seems so hard, its about examining ourselves. 

As an educator and a school leader, you want all your students to feel safe and to experience success. To do that, you need to be willing to question, name and interrupt patterns of oppression that exists within the school system; you need to be willing to take on the heavy lifting and leading of the equity work in your school. It is important that staff and school communities hear and see the commitments of school leaders. The good thing is, you don't have to engage in that work completely on your own. There are great opportunities for personal reflection and learning through all sort of learning, including through the OPC, and through the strong network of principals and vice-principals and other educators across the province. Engage in conversations with your colleagues, your students and your communities. Learn from them, learn with them and through the relationships you form with them. As I said in the previous blog, equity work is "heart work" as much as it is hard work.