A Roadmap to Help Men of Color Thrive as Leaders at Their Schools and Districts

How 2 district leaders are cultivating the next generation through mentorship and support in Atlanta and L.A. — and how your district can, too.

Wardell Hunter and Marco Nava

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What students see is what they become. As school system officials, we want all young people to become leaders who make a positive difference in the world, no matter their next steps in life. One of the best ways to achieve this goal is by ensuring that students have access to educators who look like them and serve as real-life role models of the diverse, inclusive leadership the world needs.

On this point, we are failing as a nation. Though more than half of all public school students are children of color, only 1 in 5 teachers and principals share the same racial or ethnic background. At the district level, 9 out of 10 superintendents are white.

Much has been written about the need to diversify the pipeline of future educators. Less discussed — and arguably even more important — is the reality that educators of color are thinking about leaving their jobs, or education altogether. They desperately need help, right here, right now.

Run-of-the-mill support won’t cut it. Faced with discrimination, microaggressions, unwritten rules and unspoken expectations, leaders of color need guidance and tools specific to their experiences navigating the schools as people of color. When leaders of color thrive, so do teachers of color and students of color.

We are fortunate to have access to this type of support, regularly meeting with more than a dozen other men of color who work as school and district leaders through Men of Color in Educational Leadership.

For us, coming together in community with a group of guys who get what we’re going through has been life-changing. We love our jobs, but sometimes they don’t love us back. This can be exhausting and demoralizing. Dedicated space just for us affords us the chance to reflect on our experiences and to exhale, regroup and re-energize our leadership. This experience is not the norm. 

These discussions are anchored in the Resilient, Representative Leadership framework, a flexible roadmap to help educators of color navigate leadership journeys. The research-backed tool articulates 10 essential competencies — knowledge, skills, mindsets, dispositions and behaviors — that interviews with more than 300 education leaders of color across the country revealed are most critical to their success. This resource is focused specifically on fostering resilience among educators of color and reinforcing steady, confident leadership in the face of many distinct challenges.

How can districts tailor similar development and support for educators of color?

In Atlanta, I (Dr. Hunter) lead many Black and Latino Male Leadership initiative courses. For each essential competency, I’ve identified and created aligned professional development opportunities that enable our guys to unpack key concepts, pause and reflect on their responses to various scenarios, and get real practice being both proactive and reactive to a range of leadership dilemmas. Eighteen aspiring leaders come together once or twice a month for these sessions, which take place at the district office during the week and at the Georgia State University Principals Center on weekends. Leadership coaches also provide 1:1 virtual support.

As one example, take the Executive Stance competency. Mastering that just-right balance between confidence and humility is crucial when helping families feel secure in the face of a crisis or when asking staff to lean into new ways of working together. Being assertive without coming across as “aggressive” looks different for a man of color than it does for, say, a white woman. The goal is to empower team members to lead in ways that are true to their identities and will be received well by their communities. All leaders — especially those of color — need opportunities to practice to get their unique Executive Stance just right. The Atlanta Public Schools leadership team wants principals across the district hitting home runs when they’re on the job, and the best way to make that happen is by giving leaders as many at-bats as possible with all the curveballs we know are coming their way.

In Los Angeles, I (Dr. Nava) offer professional development to educators of color in alignment with the district strategic plan’s focus on cultivating a diverse, well-supported workforce. The district is unusual in that it runs a two-year principal induction program in house — the Los Angeles Administrative Services Credential program, which is approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Participants serve in administrative roles, complete assignments at their schools and receive 40 hours of leadership coaching each year .Since 2016, 600 educators have participated in the program.

Men of color make up about 20% of the program’s participants, and many are responsible for managing athletics or school discipline. These are important functions for a school, but an educator who doesn’t have instructional leadership experience will not be prepared for the principalship. Through the program, I help aspiring leaders of color share their professional goals with their principals and advocate for opportunities to observe and practice instructional leadership. For example, a participant might request to assist the principal in executing a data review session with the math department and to shadow the principal before, during and after a subsequent classroom observation to more deeply understand the planning protocols and the coaching and feedback process.

If a principal is unable to provide on-site learning, I ensure that aspiring leaders gain meaningful experience elsewhere, such as by mentoring novice teachers or leading district-run training sessions. I pair this real-world practice with coaching, where I teach, model and dig into the essential competencies in ways that reflect each leader’s personal and professional goals. 

Overall, we both prioritize pushing leaders of color to engage in purposeful self-reflection around the essential leadership competencies. Having a conversation with oneself — by writing in a journal or reflecting aloud — can be really hard, especially when thinking about a mistake or misstep. But doing it surrounded by others who’ve been there and can help illuminate often-overlooked strengths feels safer. 

Most importantly, this work has reaffirmed for each of us a deep commitment to cultivating the next generation of leaders for American schools and society by promoting a more diverse and inclusive vision of extraordinary leadership. Our students deserve nothing less.

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