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More Than “Being Nice”: Constructive Conversations about Race

To teach most effectively, teachers need to understand a great deal about each of their students: their skill levels, their learning styles, their identities, their personalities, and their interests. In addition, teachers need a deep understanding of themselves and their relationships with their students. 

This understanding is cultural competence, which author and educator Elena Aguilar identifies as “a set of skills and knowledge to understand your own identity and the identities of others, and to navigate difference.” These factors directly affect how well students learn, just as much as a teacher’s instructional methods pedagogy and subject-area expertise. 

Helping faculty develop self-awareness and understanding of each of their students is a key responsibility of administrators and teacher leaders (such as department heads) across the school. Supporting faculty is the focus of the Academic Council, composed of Packer’s academic leaders: division heads, department chairs, grade level coordinators, diversity coordinators, global learning/community engagement coordinators, academic coaches, and deans — 41 people in all, led by Elizabeth Hastings, Academic Dean and Associate Head of School (below).

Elizabeth Hastings

As part of our 2020 Action Plan to support the faculty in developing anti-racist practices, the 2020-21 Academic Council focused on equity coaching. Rooted in Elena Aguilar’s work, equity coaching is a teacher-training protocol based on the belief that inequities are often unconsciously created — and even invisible to those who create them.

Why Coaching? 

The first step in the Council’s training this year was to develop the skills and self-awareness necessary to talk constructively and candidly about race, equity, and power in their own lives and in their interactions with colleagues and students. Through group workshops, a close reading of Elena Aguilar’s text, and a discussion with the author herself, the Council focused on understanding the role of emotions and personal experience in professional spaces, and developing the ability to recognize inequities in the classroom. The coaching framework offers reflective questions to use in discussions about teaching with colleagues.

As Head of School Jen Weyburn explains, coaching is a key component of professional development at Packer. “Coaching is about inquiry: not telling teachers what to do, but empowering them to identify their own strengths and areas for growth. Coaching helps faculty reflect on their practice and develop new skills to serve students. It makes a significant difference for our students’ learning. ” 

Equity-coaching practices are the key to establishing and sustaining a truly inclusive school. “It’s more than just coaching people to be nice,” says Elizabeth. “It has to do with how we talk about race, how we have conversations about pedagogy and curriculum — even how we interact in the hallways.” 

“Typically, you coach on someone’s observable behaviors. But with coaching for equity, we ask, What are the underlying beliefs that are driving these outcomes?

In many ways, adults’ experiences and identities shape their underlying beliefs, sometimes creating unconscious bias that can influence teaching style, curriculum, and assessments. 

“Take classroom management, for example. Traditionally, teacher-training programs some of us attended had rigid guidelines about ‘appropriate classroom behavior’ that reflected a narrow set of norms. Now we recognize that those norms are not what make a good student. We understand that kids need to be in their bodies and be comfortable in who they are.” 

New Kinds of Conversations

Overt conversations about race were once considered taboo in predominantly white spaces. Today, however, it’s no longer acceptable for people committed to equity, inclusion, and justice not to examine how their identity influences their perspectives and position in the world. Not acknowledging how one’s race influences one’s perspectives is not only naive, but “problematic,” says Elizabeth, who is white. 

She rejects the reductive nature of recent controversies about anti-racist education on social media and in the public discourse. “What we really want for Packer is for people to be curious and kind. That's what all good coaching is: you don’t assume; you lead with curiosity and kindness.

“We can argue the right and wrongs of everything. We can pull scholarly articles. We can do a lot of research” — and we do, says Elizabeth. Our faculty are “very, very thoughtful” in developing curriculum. 

“But at the end of the day, we need to come together and have these conversations as a school [and figure out] what we can agree on. And we need the kids’ voices in these conversations.” 

She invokes the Change Committee, a group of Upper School students who convened in June 2020 to ask for greater input in making Packer’s curriculum — what we teach and how we teach it — more inclusive. It was “powerful” to hear “the kids giving us insight about how the curriculum is landing with them.” 

Going forward, she says, expanding faculty-student dialogue will help us assess our progress toward anti-racist curricula and teaching practices. Packer’s internal professional development program — Teacher Growth Tuesdays — will continue to focus on building consensus on how to make our curricula more inclusive.

Building on a year of intensive learning, the Council’s 41 academic leaders will apply equity coaching strategies across the school with all faculty, staff, and students. They’re eager to make more space for constructive dialogue about how we embrace our differences at Packer — leading with curiosity and kindness. 

Karin Storm Wood is the Communications Director at Packer.

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