Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 1 – 2020-21
Making equity discussions an ongoing effort — not a checklist
Spenser Phelan
Assistant Principal, Skyline High School, Issaquah SD
Evaluation Criteria: Closing the Gap

We all know the all-too common eye roll at the beginning of a staff meeting when an administrator mentions a new set of letters, connected to a [well-intentioned and legitimate] zeitgeist educational issue. It is easy to appreciate the irony of the work that school administrators must do: address a one-word concept with concrete work attached while also organically inviting conversation around a complicated topic like equity.
Not Just “One More Thing on the Plate”
Initiative fatigue is real and understandable. Yet everything, from the biggest state or district initiative down to individual lesson planning, should be viewed through the lens of equity, rather than viewing equity as the initiative itself — every decision from the district level, down to day-to-day classroom instructional decisions, should be made through an equity lens.
Equity is not another thing on the plate, it IS the plate.
This work begins at my school as it often does — by offering a survey to staff about where we should focus our work, as we are outraged and empowered to respond to current events around Black Lives Matter. The feedback is genuinely helpful, productive, thoughtful, and actionable. The following are not direct quotes, but a collection of themes from across all feedback. Yet so many of the actions are contradictory:
“We should do a book study on ________ text.”
“We should stop book studies, because they are philosophical in nature, and we need action.” “Let’s better utilize student voice in creating materials in celebration of different cultural heritage months.”
“Cultural heritage months are reductive, and limit celebrations of culture to only one month per year.”
“The problem is systemic racism, and we can’t actually take meaningful action until society deals with its ills. Issues like underrepresentation of People of Color in the teaching profession need to be addressed before we can do anything else.”
“Especially now, we need to be brave enough to make racial equity our focus, rather than discussing other issues like gender equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion.”
“We need to be intersectional in our understanding of race and other minoritized groups.”
The benefits of a thoughtful and dedicated school staff are that great ideas sometimes conflict, and there is no correct way to resolve the conflicts without leaning into the discomfort and imperfection of the work.

Start Somewhere

My favorite folks in this work share that equity is not a project or an initiative but rather a lens through which to view everything. Our work is to see equity as an embedded personality trait of staff and students. An authentic move should not end with a one-time event or an article to read; it should only start there. Take these examples of activities that spark ongoing conversation and sharing:
  • Assessments of personal biases
  • Book studies
  • Annual student-created cultural celebrations
  • Student and parent panels
  • Assess whether purchased resources are truly transformational or if it is simply a way to check a box with $$$ (both academic and Social-Emotional/Equity curriculum).
  • Create a regular agenda item at meetings when policies are discussed to consider barriers to access that the policy creates.
This is not a “to-do” list. Accomplishing everything that you could do for equitable practices in a school year would be exhausting. What activities would be the highest leverage for the population you serve?
In my own view, none of the activities listed previously are inherently just checkboxes. Done authentically and intentionally, they are all powerful. Done quickly and without context though, the work becomes visibly like an item crossed off someone’s list.
The benefits of a thoughtful and dedicated school staff are that great ideas sometimes conflict, and there is no correct way to resolve the conflicts without leaning into the discomfort and imperfection of the work.
Lean into Discomfort
The real discomfort of the equity lens should not be that it will take more time or tangible resources. The real resource we tap into is our sense of comfort and familiarity. Traditions often favor the oppressor, so reassessing the procedures we are comfortable with is the most disrupting, but worthwhile, part of the process. Take, for instance, the Student Equity Panel recently hosted in my home building. We asked students in a one-on-one session with the School Board:
  • Describe your experience with microaggressions at school. (How often do they occur and in what form?)
  • What do you want staff to know about microaggressions and how can they possibly support the students facing it, hearing it, or saying it?
  • How much of your school day do you get to be fully yourself (all of your identities — racial, gender, sexual orientation)?
  • What is one thing the staff is doing that makes you feel very supported?
  • What is one thing the staff could do to improve the school culture and climate?
This group of eight students answered the same questions in front of the entire staff, undoubtedly addressing specific, uncomfortable situations that happened in some of those teachers’ classes. Also, the experience moves from being one discrete event (Think: “Check”) to an ongoing set of shared experiences that make everyone involved feel their voice is valued. Next step: why not expand this to a presentation to parents or the entire community? Lean into the discomfort; don’t hide the work away just because the answers are uncomfortable.
Here are some lessons learned from the Student Panel advice to adults:
  • The teacher should address microaggressions in the classroom in a visible way without shaming the aggressor.
  • Teachers building relationships is the biggest indicator for students feeling like they are welcome/belong in the school or classroom. If you see something, say something.
  • Remember the dignity and humanity of victim and aggressor, with an eye for restoring justice for the victim.
While it was still uncomfortable for me to listen as students I work with daily shared with my boss’, boss’, bosses some of the challenges they face as students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and differently-abled students, I also realized that it was a very sheltered risk. Why not share with the entire staff or with the next person presenting on an equity topic in the building to give them context about your ongoing work?
These activities spark cognitive dissonance, because there is no correct path through the dilemma of educational inequity. The best advice I can give from experiences in the work is to be uncomfortable and know that activities, events, and surveys are not the sole answer. The emotional struggle and bravery of keeping an open mind, interrogating our own privileges, and continuously engaging with the idea that we can be better is the most authentic way we can create change.
For your consideration: Which systems already in place support an embedded equity lens and what do we address next? Examples:
  • Danielson/Marzano/CEL 5D evaluation language around student voice
  • Grading practices
  • Curriculum adoption
  • Alternative School options
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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 1 – 2020-21