School leadership can be lonely and isolating. Your colleagues are other administrators who are also busy so you do not want to burden them with your questions or fears. Often, leadership meetings are full of logistics with little time to network much less be in collaboration with peers.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, the superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) identified twenty schools that historically or persistently underserved Black students as indicated on proficiency metrics of standardized tests (California School Dashboard, 2018). The district labeled the schools and activated a process for addressing the identified deficiencies through a mandate.
Over the course of two years, I worked side-by-side with four middle school leaders from the SFUSD as activist co-researchers. With the goal of addressing the district mandate and assisting these leaders in improving academic and social-emotional outcomes for Black students, we engaged in an imaginative, collaborative PAR project focused on social justice change (hunter et al., 2013). Our imaginations were activated as we engaged in personal narratives. We shared stories about our journey lines to leadership and opened up about our vulnerabilities in leading schools. Three cycles of inquiry over eighteen months afforded us time to determine how an equity-centered professional learning community (EC-PLC) could fully engage in creative dialogue to address the substantial challenges that Students of Color faced in the four middle schools.
Our imaginations were activated as we engaged in personal narratives.
Before we began our first cycle of inquiry we spent informal time together that I refer to as a pre-cycle. This pre-cycle is what grounded us as a network that eventually pushed us towards transformative social justice leadership (Shields, 2010). The school leaders appreciated the care taken to establish and maintain our professional learning space and coaching relationship. In my research I call this theme, “Pedagogy of Care.” I believe the principles from Pedagogy of Care provided an environment where the school leaders could begin to be their authentic selves and engage in imaginative leading; the ability to lead outside of the traditional ways of schooling. They became open to being in solidarity with underrepresented student and family groups.
Features of Pedagogy of Care
- Resources are often limited in the education setting, especially for leadership professional development. In the study, two resources contributed to the pedagogy of care in our work together: time and food. A school leader’s time is one of the most valuable resources, and there is never enough of it (Theoharis, 2009). Their commitment was evident by how they made time in their schedules to attend professional learning together. As busy school leaders, they prioritized the administrative network and communicated how much they valued the time to be with colleagues grappling with similar issues. Eating together was an important ritual, a time to break barriers across differences and lessen the formality of the professional relationship. Starting with our first meeting, both snacks during EC-PLC time and sharing a communal dinner afterward were the norm.
- The physical environment to engage in the EC-PLC work was a priority for the team. Initially, we met at the end of the school day so there would be limited interruptions. In the first cycle, we met both at a school site and at my house. The school leaders requested to meet in a location different from a school site mid-cycle, so we decided to permanently change the meeting location to my house. Changing the location provided an unexpected level of comfort and safety where authentic, engaging discussions could exist through storytelling and connection. The shift in space gave us the ability to expand our imaginations beyond what the walls of traditional school allows.
- An important part of my work with the school leaders was to learn their school context in order to support them in the district mandate and their leadership development. In what I termed, inclusive pedagogy, our coaching time provided invaluable opportunities for me to build trust with each leader and with other members of the school community, to help me understand the context of their school situations, and to reflect with them on their leadership decisions. The trust that developed affirmed a caring relationship and supported their comfort in engaging their imagination and inviting others to envision with them.
- As part of the culture of caring that I was trying to cultivate with the school leaders, I consistently provided wellness checks. I would regularly stop by their offices unscheduled to say hello and see how they were doing. Many of the casual conversations led to more in-depth conversations where school leaders exchanged personal stories and feelings, including anxieties. I assisted each leader, as needed, on such tasks as guiding their response to a district office, developing an agenda, supporting classroom walkthroughs, or attending a meeting with them.
Imaginative leaders do not work in silos. They need a network of like-minded colleagues and must experience a pedagogy of care in order to move away from transactional leadership towards more social justice transformative leadership. Time, space, safety, and trust enable us to connect, engage our imaginations, and share our stories in ways that cultivate a brave space for us to be vulnerable and more confident to take risks in our decision making (Arao & Clemens, 2013)
Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Stylus Publishing.
California School Dashboard. (2018). SFUSD [Academic performance and academic engagement] https://www.caschooldashboard.org/reports/38684780000000/2018
hunter, L., Emerald, E., & Martin, G. (2013). Participatory activist research in the globalized world. Springer.
Shields, C. M. (2010). Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse
contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(4), 558-589.
Theoharis, G. (2009). The school leaders our children deserve: Seven keys to equity, social justice, and school reform. Teachers College Press.