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Orchestrating Productive Discussions About Race

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
“Learning to Lead for Racial Equity” by Gislaine Ngounou and Nancy Gutierrez in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2017 (Vol. 99, #3, p. 37-41),; Ngounou can be reached at
In this Kappan article, Gislaine Ngounou (Phi Delta Kappa International) and Nancy Gutierrez (New York City Leadership Academy) say that to undo racial inequities in schools, educators need to engage in difficult conversations about how race affects:
- Discipline practices;
- Which students are placed in basic and advanced classes;
- Which teachers are assigned to which students;
- Which parents are seen as “engaged.”
One-shot PD experiences won’t work, nor will lectures on racial bias, PowerPoint presentations of data and research, or making social justice one more initiative. “Rather,” say Ngounou and Gutierrez, “conversations about these issues have to be frequent, ongoing, and handled with great care and skill.”
It’s easy for school leaders to overestimate their own skill at leading these kinds of discussions, to underestimate the amount of time it will take to dig into issues of racial inequity, and to naively assume that everyone is equally ready to engage. “Not that school and district leaders can afford to wait for just the right moment to dive into a discussion about race and equity,” say Ngounou and Gutierrez; “if that were the case, the discussion might never begin.” But timing and preparation are important, and so is sensitivity to the emotions, beliefs, and experiences of their colleagues. Four guiding principles:
• There needs to be a systems-thinking approach. These issues aren’t an add-on, a box to be checked off. Inequity affects every part of the organization and people’s work, and discussions need to involve teachers, administrators, non-teaching staff, parents, students, community leaders, and others.
• There has to be a willingness to experience discomfort. “It’s important to create and maintain a supportive learning environment,” say Ngounou and Gutierrez, “while at the same time pushing people to confront truths and realities that may make them feel uncomfortable.” People need skilled facilitators to help them “find their entry points into the conversation, to examine their own actions and reactions, to acknowledge that they have been shaped by their own experiences, and to look for concrete ways in which they can have positive influences on their students and colleagues.”
• Personal stories are important. Leaders and their colleagues need to explore how race (and awareness of race) has shaped their lives, including their experiences in schools. It also helps to discuss books, articles, and films that relate to the challenges educators and students face in school.
• Don’t expect closure. An initial discussion will do little more than pry open the “worry box” – a mix of feelings, fears, and goals behind current practices. Much more time is required to make significant progress. “Questions about race, equity, and schooling reach people at a level that is deeply personal, emotional, and moral,” conclude Ngounou and Gutierrez, “and they need to be able to work through what they have uncovered.” There may never be a tidy resolution, but having these conversations is “non-negotiable.”

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