What Leaves and What Remains
A few years ago there was a blizzard and I had to shovel the driveway. Shoveling is one of those activities that does not reward initial energy or intention; you reap the rewards from endurance. And a pretty wide shovel.
So shovel away I did. I felt like I had expended so much energy in the beginning, yet when I looked up — there was so much more to do. A few hours later, the work was done. Or so I thought. Overnight, there was an unexpected second blast and in the morning, a fresh two feet of well-packed snow awaited me. Equity work can feel like this sometimes. Dense, well-packed snow ready for you to shovel again, the day after you just cleared a path. The snow won’t ever stop falling, so that is not the point of this post, but rather, what happens if we clear the wrong path?
The Path Paved with Likes
The driveway I shoveled was wide enough for two cars and long enough for each car to back out easily into the main road. When snow fell hard, it covered both cars completely as well as the walkway from my front door. While the task was clear — clean off the driveway, walkway and both cars, shortcuts could be had.
Committing to educational justice for all students, especially black and brown ones, is deeper than a tweet and more exacting than even attending a conference. However, how many times have we done both and considered that enough. Or perhaps read a book and implemented strategies from it. If the task is the full liberation of black and brown students — which should be clear to all who care — anything less of a deep commitment is a non-commitment. Shortcuts are being taken.
Sometimes when I saw the enormity of the snow that I had to shovel, I would ‘do it in parts.’ I usually shoveled the walkway from my front door and just under and around one car. This was enough to get me out and back.
How do we know if we are doing enough for just us to ‘get out and back’?
- We clearly see the task — underperformance of black and brown students in an academic or discipline category — and we look for the quickest way to get the smallest progress. And then stop there. We attend the conference, but we never change our daily influences. We read the book, but we never read other works on the topic to continue to deepen our knowledge.
- We do not consult with those impacted by our leadership decisions about what they need to perform their job well (teachers) or learn content that matters to them in an oppression-free environment (students). We simply never put weight on their words.
- We settle for good enough for now.
- We focus on doing versus learning and doing.
- We believe in ourselves so much that we are unwilling to endure public scrutiny of our ideas, delegate strategic oversight to those doing the change or (when evident) move aside so that those with the competence and ideas to achieve the task do it instead of us. Our actions communicate that ‘solutions are only great if they come from or are influenced by us.’
Snow only gets shoveled if we shovel it.
Now, in defense of my partial shoveling, I had a strategy. (Don’t laugh). The reason why I would sort of, kind of, clear off the walkway from our door and then enough around one car so that I could get necessary items for the house was so that I could depend on the sun to melt away the rest. For the most part, it worked.
But what happens when there is no sun? What happens when the work we leave to be done by someone or a group of people never gets done. Never melts away? In that case, the snow never goes away and the snow continues to build. It is my contention that because we have defined commitment to the work in terms of tweet, attendance and words instead of building on those first steps — the snow continues to build all around us. And we continue to shovel just enough for ourselves to be free. I have had to learn to stop doing this. I am still learning that for all of us to be free, we have to care enough to free ourselves first and make ways with and for others.
If the path is clear for us, but the snow builds everywhere else, how far are we really traveling? We have to clear the whole path. When the sun is shining and when it isn’t. Anything less is self-deception.
The Path of Deeper Work
When I actually committed to clearing the path for both cars as well as the walkway, it was an extremely challenging lift. I had to take multiple breaks and had to contend with my own mind telling me that completion was not possible. That progress would never come in the daylight. That nighttime would only bring frostbite. That no one would really appreciate it anyway. That taking breaks was for people who could not handle the task. I had to fight all of these lies — while doing the shoveling. Over several hours. This is the deep work.
We engage in this deep work within the education system when we focus on the following actions:
- Collaboration, not just at the finished product/initiative level, but when we define the problem and explore its root causes. Do we involve students, their community and teachers into the problem-defining part of the work or just the problem already defined and sign this form to indicate agreement part of the work? Your answer matters.
- We drill deep enough to find the actual root cause of the problem instead of labeling the reaction to it as the focus of our initiatives. Is the solution, as Paul Gorski says, trauma-informed instruction or the actual elimination of the school-based trauma altogether? Are students disruptive or are they simply refusing to be colonized into a curriculum or school environment that systematically erases them? Maybe it’s both. But the deep work, the deep shoveling, happens when we name the root cause. Then,
- We consider our contribution to this root cause and commit to learning. It is true that what will save teaching is teaching, but it might also be true that what will revive learning in our schools is a revival of learning in our leaders. When we invest in this learning, we begin to see how our habits have interfered with our conscious intentions. Just like you cannot out-exercise a bad diet, you cannot out-implement bad habits. I can not claim to lead a school system if I am not leading by learning (and dismantling) the system; I can not claim to lead a school building if I am not leading by learning about the teachers, students and history of the school building; and I can not claim to lead a classroom if I am not leading by learning the content, curriculum and students within that classroom. So, attend the conference. Read the book. Tweet the reflection. Then, implement and do the activities. Then learn some more. All of it matters.
- Bone-deep commitment is also evident when we judge our work not on intent, but on sustainable impact. We can no longer applaud modest gains and still believe we are doing a good job. We have to courageously ask — what are we really building here? What quality of students are we really graduating from our schools at increasingly high rates? What type of support are we actually giving teachers to perform an almost-impossible job, well? This is important because what we question and then commit to transforming is actually what remains. It is the structure that out-lives all of the hires and fires that we do. What policies, practices and procedures — both hidden and explicit- are our changes really cementing in place? The combination of policies, practices and procedures forms either a system of oppression or a system of liberation. And we own it, even when we leave and it remains.
- Finally, transformation of a person and ultimately the work of the people supported by that person cannot happen outside of accountability. This is not the accountability that a system necessarily places on top of its leaders (or teachers) but the only type of accountability that is authentic and has the potential to make a difference — chosen accountability that is welcomed by the leader and comprised of those directly impacted by the leaders’ decisions. This type of accountability can take many forms, but the principles of it have to include a way for subordinates to have weighted feedback on their leader without fear of retribution and transparency in decision-making rationale on the part of the leader. Additionally, there must be consequences for leaders who preside over several years of low student achievement as well as those leaders who continue to create harm and fear on the part of the teachers they are charged with supporting. Education is about policies, procedures and practices — but it is mostly about PEOPLE. We cannot genuinely eliminate harm for our students if harm is consistently happening to the teachers and leaders of those students. When that consistently occurs, the best personnel leave and the oppressive personnel remain.
A Lifetime of Losses or a Legacy of Gains?
The path we choose could contribute to a lifetime of losses for students, their parents and the professionals who support justice for all of them. If we choose a snow-cleared path paved with public affirmation, private absolution and persistent promises, we will continue to make clear paths only for ourselves. The snow around us — decades of underachievement, communities that are reflections of years of under-service and a general belief that ‘this is the best it will ever get’ — will build and build. It will stack, compress and all of the students who we say we love, the professionals that serve them and the initiatives we think we are implementing will collapse under the weight. We must clear the right path, the full path so that what (and who) needs to leave is lifted out of these systems and what remains are the people and policies that will ensure educational equity.
Therefore, the path we must commit to is one of real progress. The path we must commit to must begin with us. Internal before the external. Private devotion before public practice. Self-accountability before subordinate accountability. Self-learning before systemic change. Internal integrity as we build true collaboration.
Each day that we commit to this work brings stress and isolation to the point where we don’t even realize our personal impact. Not just on those around us today, but for the thousands of students that we serve. But, persist and shovel we must. Even if it feels like we are the only ones shoveling. There are children behind that effort. The children of those children are behind that effort. Whole societies are built behind that effort. At some point, our efforts will form the memories of the teachers we hired and the students we served. What will their memories tell them? How will their memories of what we did or did not do, inform their ideas about justice? About hope? About love? Even when they leave us, the memories of what we actually built for them and with will remain.
Those few times that I actually cleared all of the snow around both cars, it made such a difference. My wife and I could get out easily, and the house just looked better. It looked cared for. I even (only once) began to shovel the sidewalk. You can even walk further when you clear the right paths! Ultimately, I still could have helped shovel other driveways in the neighborhood and perhaps I will in the future. What was most important, was that I cleared my own path first. Because once you have shoveled the snow, what remains is even more crucial to address — you still have ice to thaw.