How do we cultivate resilience in an inequitable system?

How do we cultivate resilience in an inequitable system?

What does it mean to cultivate resilience to an inequitable system?

By Sarah Young


Published in The Learning Professional, June 2023

This is the most exhausted and frustrated I’ve been as an educator, ever.” – Countless teachers and administrators during the COVID pandemic.


“I don’t want to be resilient. I want school systems designed with humans in mind that don’t demand my resilience. I want educators to experience community, care, support, and compensation.” – Dr. Tracy Edwards, educator


 As an instructional coach and leader, I would be wealthy if I had a dollar for each time I heard an educator describe physical and emotional exhaustion due to systemic breakdowns during COVID. And now in the third year of the COVID pandemic, I would be still collecting. As a white person it’s clear that COVID’S impact is intensified in Bipoc (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities suffering under “savage inequalities” (Kozol, J. 1991) of resources and funding. Struggling under massive staffing shortages and intensified student needs, all educators need resilience practices more than ever (Young, S. 2022). Yet, what does it mean to ask people to be resilient to a dehumanizing, and inequitable system that doesn’t value educators with adequate funding, resources, or respect? How do we balance self-care and demands for change? And who gets to decide what is appropriate emotional expression for addressing the dire situations we find ourselves in?

During the pandemic years I’ve had the opportunity to coach teachers and leaders like Sheila, an African-American principal in a charter urban high school in Northern California serving primarily Brown and Black students. What follows is drawn from composite coaching conversations with Sheila and others in similar situations.

“How is it going this week, Sheila?” I asked.

“I’ve had it!”

I listened, intent on staying open to what she had to say without trying to fix it. The expression, I’ve had it is also heard regularly in pandemic coaching. I’m grateful when people expressing this sentiment are still here to talk it through with me, and have not joined the legions who have left. I flip through my mental frame for addressing resilience gaps (Resilient people foster joy, purpose, and learning; listen deeply and are listened to; practice self-care; focus on sphere of influence and concern; maintain strong community bonds).

Unsure, I wait for Sheila’s lead.

“Sarah,” Sheila continued, “I’m so tired, and I’ve had two migraines this week. I thought the first year and a half of Covid was the worst thing ever, having to jump start distance learning with no preparation and many of our families without even access to wifi. Then the second year we came back in person, half my staff was sick or out half the time, same with the students. And the students… we knew they’d be behind academically, but they were socially regressed, traumatized even. Pre-pandemic I had four mental health counselors. Now, year 3, I have one. We’ve lost staff at every level and I’m not finding replacements. Kids can’t all make it to school because there aren’t enough bus drivers. I have no math teachers, no Special Ed teachers, no one even on a wait-list to hire. I have no substitute teachers. When staff are sick I substitute myself and do my principal work at night. I have kids learning geometry on a multiple- choice computer program where no teachers interact with them at all – and my kids need engaged teachers as much or more than anyone.  It makes no sense! I care about these kids so much, I feel completely ineffective.”

“Yes.” I said, taking a deep breath to find my own stability, “This is hard.”  I wanted to ask her to breathe with me, to attend to emotion, to even return to the joy and purpose that brought her to this work to begin with. Nurturing resilience could help reduce her migraines and prevent Shiela from considering quitting at winter break. Yet how to offer hope without falling into shallow platitudes of what is now known as ‘toxic positivity (Psychology Today,  2022).

“Sheila, you say you feel ineffective. The effectiveness gap is not in you. The gap is in the system. Your school wasn’t adequately resourced before Covid, and now you have way fewer people serving students with greater economic, academic, and mental health needs than before.”  I paused and waited.

“Yes! I don’t know how much more I could do even if I were to stop sleeping altogether and work around the clock.”

“You can’t. This is so much bigger than any one person can fix. It’s an untenable situation and it will take a lot of us working together to find channels for change. And I’d love to see you rested and pain free before trying to extend your influence even further.”

Sheila’s frustration was not unique. There was a larger conversation taking place in the world of education, often led by Bipoc educators, about how to attend to self-care while still challenging a system that has been profoundly under-resourced for a long time. Lack of adequate resources is amplified by our schools being served by a predominantly female workforce that is expected to have no personal boundaries with time, energy, intelligence, and effort.

“We aren’t the only ones having this conversation.” I pulled up an article entitled, “YES. Teachers don’t need to be resilient; schools need to be more human,” (Gorelik, 2022) elaborating on a viral Twitter quote by educator, Dr. Tracy Edwards:

Sat through a webinar on teacher resilience and was asked to share my thoughts. My answer: I don’t want to be resilient. I want school systems designed with humans in mind that don’t demand my resilience. I want educators to experience community, care, support, and compensation.


“Yes, that’s right!” Sheila exclaimed. “Only, where will I find time to fight for adequate resources for my students and compensation for me? No one is going to just give it to me or they would have by now! And who else can fight?  My colleagues are as tired as I am. And now we have white families and financially resourced Bipoc families leaving our schools faster than before. Who’s left with money and positional power to advocate? And before you answer that I’ve got to sub for a missing teacher. And I’ve got a migraine.”

I had to think more about Sheila’s questions and my own role in all this. As a white leader in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) work for adults, I’d thought cultivating resilience was universally understood to be a good thing under any conditions. There was no question Sheila needed rest and health to function, yet how to present it without making her the problem?  As a third point document, I emailed her the Gorelik article, highlighting and staring the call to action:

What teachers need now, more than ever, is the feeling that their work matters, that who they are matters. The way to do that is to invest in teachers emotionally, physically, and professionally. We want to feel as critically important to the system as the students we are charged with teaching.

Among the bullet points Gorelik lists:

  • Listen to teachers and invite feedback
  • Treat teachers like professional adults
  • Give teachers time to rest and recover
  • Start thinking about teachers as professional capital (Gorelik, K. 2022)


“Let me know if any part of this helpful,” I noted at the bottom.

Sheila missed our next meeting, home with another migraine. I worried our conversation had caused her more stress and she might return more discouraged. Instead she was more animated.

“I really appreciated that article. I know it was written for teachers, but it applies to principals too. Nobody is going to give me time to rest and recover. I just have to take it. So I spent a couple of days at home and unplugged, let my brand new Assistant Principal take over and crossed my fingers. He did good enough. I feel much better!”

I was relieved. Sheila was way ahead of me.

“I got some rest and I deserved it!” she said chuckling.  “And I did some thinking and made phone calls to a few administrator friends. This is the third COVID year and we still don’t have any substitutes. If a teacher gets sick or needs time off there is no one to cover but us. Forget even thinking about teachers leaving for professional development.”

“Yet in the wealthier district up the hill they have  way more subs because they pay them twice as much. Besides the money, the subs want to go to the white schools up on the hill because think it’s “easier” to work up there! I talked to some of the flat land principals and we’re going to the board to demand they seek outside funding to supplement our sub pay to attract substitute teachers to the Bipoc schools where we need them desperately. This is one of the wealthiest counties in the country! We can demand our board go to bat to get funders from the business world to step up. Everyone faces similar challenges, but the wealthier schools that serve economically privileged kids are buying their way out. Everyone loves the word “equity,” so here’s a chance to do something about it!”

“What do you think?” Sheila asked, smiling as she turned her computer to show a draft of the principal’s demands.

“I think it’s brilliant!” I said, grinning back. I really did. Here was a concrete action plan on the ubiquitous sub crisis from an equity-focused lens. Collective resilience in action. “Let me take a look.”

Sheila’s document was signed by principals from the flatland schools that served predominantly Black and Brown children. The demands were clear and yet there was something about the tone of the narrative that made me uneasy.

“Sheila, these are excellent points and the call to action to seek outside funding from local business is clear. Yet there’s something about the way it sounds…” Sheila leaned back in her chair and narrowed her eyes.

“Something about the… what?”

“The tone,” I said. Sheila rolled her chair back a few inches and her smile faded. I knew my tone comment sounded bad, but I thought if I could just explain it better she would know what I meant. “It sounds maybe… too demanding for this board. If you calm it down a little you might better keep them with you, no?”

“Really?” Sheila drew out the word.  “Are you really going to sit there and be one more white woman telling me my tone as a black woman is too demanding or angry?”

Much as it pained me to be included in this behavior I knew what Shelia was referring to.  Another leader I had coached described a support group she led for African-American women leaders and coaches, wherein every single woman in the group had at best been reprimanded and at worst lost jobs for being told they “came across too angry”. Another African-American instructional coach had been called out for being intimidating to a young, white teacher before she and the teacher had met even once. My work with white colleagues allowed me to witness many examples of white people assuming Bipoc colleagues were angry instead of considering first if they were speaking with passion and emphasis about issues that affected them deeply. I could see white fragility in everyone. Everyone except maybe myself.

Sheila sounds like she’s angry at me. I heard the voice in my head.  Remember, this does not mean that she is. Let yourself be uncomfortable, it won’t hurt. // Yes, but I want Sheila and her colleagues to be successful.  I know how uptight the white men and women on the school board can be.// What makes you think you know the best form of expression for a group of Bipoc educators?  Why not ask how they’d like you to support them? Why not use your white privilege to keep the school board from discrediting the message because of perceived tone?

“Why can’t our righteous anger or our passion be part of our collective resilience?”  Sheila asked.

I reflected on a powerful quote that I’d been offered in a critique of a previous article of mine on adult SEL during the Covid crisis.

The Black and Latinx communities navigate through our lives with a multitude of emotions, which can range from fear and anxiety to anguish and anger as a result of the injustices we experience economically, medically, educationally, criminally, and in many other areas of life. We are conditioned to manage these feelings in order to effectively function in society. These emotions are critical in order to fuel us to speak truth to power as we advocate for equity while causing “good trouble.” We boldly acknowledge them and wear them as a badge of honor, not as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of perseverance and strength. – (Walters, K, 2020)

As a white leader in early SEL work I’d often promoted the need to self-monitor and regulate emotion as an essential feature of leading for resilience. My intention was to support educators to have choice about reactivity, reduce stress, and to model the same skills for students. However, by doing so with a “color evasive” lens (Walters, K. 2020) the impact was sometimes dismissive or silencing of legitimate anger, frustration, or powerful expression.

“You’re right, Shelia. It’s not your job to take the passion and righteous anger out of the message. And it is my job to advocate with other white people in power like the board, for the message to be heard.”

“Yes, it’s not simply on us to “calm down,” to make change you all have to listen better as well. But you know what?” Sheila chuckled again. “Since we wrote this set of demands about outside funding for substitutes, I haven’t had a single headache!”

The project to find funding for substitutes is still a work in process. I’m continuing to revise my understanding of resilience. Resilience does not merely imply individuals bounding back from adversity. It means learning from adversity and moving forward as complete, whole human beings, that can join in collective resilience. And collective resilience demands respect for diversity of expression that is not defined by one particular cultural norm.

I still believe cultivating self-care, finding purpose, joy, focusing on sphere of influence, are more vital than ever to keeping dedicated educators healthy, energized and committed to the profession.  More than ever, I see the needs of educator’s reflected in Audre Lorde’s often quoted statement:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde


It’s not an either/or, but a both/and that school leaders like Sheila need self-care and support from inside and outside the world of education for the critical work we do. We need to be able to soothe the assault of constant stress on our nervous systems, while not hiding behind resilience in denial of conditions causing that stress.  And, we need acceptance of a wide range of emotional expression to addressing the injustices that underly our work.

Those educators that continue to educate with skill and care in the midst of phenomenally challenging conditions, with inadequate support and no additional financial compensation deserve our greatest respect and gratitude. Those who gave it their best and decided to move on also demonstrated resilience and deserve respect and gratitude. For those of us who remain, we get to continue the conversation and find resilience practices that uphold us personally and allow us to join in collective resilience as a force for change. And for those outside of education, we need you to make the education of all our youth your fight as well, by helping ensure that all educators can thrive in conditions that do not demand extraordinary resilience.




Edwards, Tracy “I don’t want teachers to be resilient…”  Twitter, March 22, 2022


Gorelik, Kimberly, Yes Teachers don’t need to be resilient; Schools need to be more human, We are teachers, March 4, 2022



Kozol, Jonathan, Savage Inequalities – Children in America’s Schools, Crown Press, NY., 1991.


Psychology Today Staff, “Toxic Positivity,” Psychology Today, March 30, 3022.

Walters, Kimberly, M.Ed, ‘Bipoc educators and SEL,”. Personal Correspondence. Walters Educational Group LLC, 2020


Young, Sarah, “Practices for Individual and Collective Resilience,” based on the work of Elena Aguilar, November, 2022

Bio: Sarah Young a former teacher and instructional coach, currently working as a consultant and coach to schools, districts and teacher/administrator support programs, with a focus on listening and communication skills, culturally responsive coaching, and adult resilience.










Lead with cultural responsiveness during crisis and beyond

Lead with cultural responsiveness during crisis and beyond

In the unprecedented crisis we’re all facing, educators need culturally responsive competencies more than ever. In situations of urgency, it’s human nature to default to old patterns and drop hard-won awareness practices. We can keep that from happening, and through this crisis become even more effective as culturally responsive practitioners.

Who we are as individuals and as members of racial, class, gender, age, and other social groups influences how we experience and act in the face of the current crisis. Applying a culturally responsive lens helps us focus on how to respond compassionately, respectfully, and effectively to one another across differences.

It may seem contradictory, but the first step in culturally responsive practice is creating emotional stability in ourselves. When we support others from a base of unexamined fear or grief, it’s difficult to meet people where they are, let alone connect across different lived experiences of age, race, class, gender, or cultural groups of any kind. When we establish our own stability first, we have more emotional energy for others, as well as a clearer sense of our own social perspective.

”It may seem contradictory, but the first step in culturally responsive practice is creating emotional stability in ourselves.” Click To Tweet

The next essential step is listening. Especially while we are physically separated from one another, listening builds relational trust, broadens our understanding of the challenges, and allows expert voices from diverse communities to emerge, giving us a much stronger base for problem-solving.

Starting with self-care

Right now, coaches, school leaders, and teachers are expected to be leading others, while at the same time many of us are anxious, afraid, or grieving ourselves. We’re expected to take charge, have answers and solutions, and be there for more vulnerable people, while we may be struggling to care for our own families and friends. We?re leading a mass experiment, teaching students online with no advance notice and little preparation.

Fears can be rational, but they shouldn’t drive us. While the phrase “putting on our own oxygen masks first,” is overused, we need to practice this life-saving action even at the same time as we respond to the urgent needs to make sure students are safe and fed and to launch online teaching. Neuroscience tells us that when stressed, we’re in a state of physically pumping the stress hormone, cortisol, into our veins. We can take steps to reduce cortisol. The trick is to observe emotions, name them and allow them to move through us, rather than letting them drive our actions.

If I don’t know I?m anxious, I may believe that the solution to the disquiet inside of me is to work harder or tell the people around me what to do with more force and emphasis. But if I can notice my fears and needs, I have many more choices on how to proceed. Cultivating calm instead of anxiety leads to resilience, improved thinking capacity, and increased immunity. The simplest term for noticing and naming emotions is mindfulness.

Here’s an example of how mindfulness can help. My own fears in the last few weeks have taken very physical forms: knots in the stomach and headaches. To help manage them, I have a stretching and meditation practice every morning, before I begin my work or look at the news. When I can, I take walks in nature and look for signs of spring. I talk to friends and we listen to each other. All of this helped me support my teenage daughter, who was painfully disappointed about the many losses she is experiencing due to the shelter-in-place order. Because I took time to first talk about all my own disappointments with another adult, I was able to be more clear and focused to hear hers. The same principle applies to providing similar support to a whole class of students or school of colleagues ? at that scale, we need mindfulness and self-care strategies even more.

Moving from self-care to cultural responsiveness

This awareness of ourselves and our current states sets the stage for us to be aware of and responsive to others? perspectives and needs. It is more important than ever that we do this work with a culturally responsive lens. Those of us from a dominant culture always need to remember to monitor our assumptions and beliefs about the capabilities and choices of both students and colleagues from multiple cultures and social identity groups. All of us will need to put extra thought and attention into noticing our perspective and judgments, now that we have little-to-no in-person contact with anyone outside of our family pod.

”All of us will need to put extra thought and attention into noticing our perspective and judgments, now that we have little-to-no in-person contact with anyone outside of our family pod.” Click To Tweet

Not only our students but our adult colleagues may lack equal access to resources or technology. Struggles with social distancing may look different across cultural, linguistic, class, or race lines. And anxieties are shaped by both our personal experiences as well as those of our communities.

To help broaden our understanding of what others are experiencing, we can and should continue asking ourselves questions like these: ?How does my own social identity help or limit my being able to support the people I work with? What assumptions am I making about families? or colleagues? lives and needs right now? What might I be missing? As a white person, how am I listening to and learning from people of color now? As a man, how am I listening to women? How am I balancing the giving of information with attention to social and emotional needs?

As we are all still adjusting to the new rules, agreements, and systems, we can start with listening. Many of us in leadership roles are now giving directives, and we all (whether leaders or not) are often compelled to tell others what they should or should not be doing. Yet, even in times of crisis, people from a dominant culture telling people from a non-dominant culture what to do is hard to separate from histories of oppression and injustice. Our social identity in combination with our role identity, plus our tone, impacts how we are heard.

I was recently in an online meeting where the program administrator, a white, middle-class man leading a group of multi-racial participants made an effort to set firm boundaries about social distancing and not mixing ?germ pods.? He publicly commented towards one of the participants, ?You delivered the Chromebook to the student?s house? You definitely should not be doing that!? While the leader had valid information to convey, he skipped the vital first step of empathic listening to the intention behind the teacher?s actions. Equally significant, he did not self-monitor his tone, which was heard by many as shaming and patronizing, and was triggering for people of color and women who often experience white men in positions of power asserting that their way is the ?right way.? When I asked a few people later what they took away from the meeting, one said, “I didn’t need someone else to tell me I?m bad at a time like this. Another said, “He doesn’t understand or care about our situation.” At least one had resolved ?not to let him know what I?m doing next time.

When we are aware and notice ourselves judging others (for example, thinking This teacher/colleague/family/child is doing something wrong), we have an opportunity to return to culturally responsive practice. We can ask ourselves again what we might be missing, even with adults we think we know well. Then we can ask others what we?re missing and what their needs are. In our urgency to address many demands, it may feel like there is no time to listen now. But there is.

”When we are aware and notice ourselves judging others, we have an opportunity to return to culturally responsive practice.” Click To Tweet

Essential practices in times of crisis

I hear many people struggling to figure out the most important priorities in working with teachers and colleagues now. The practices suggested below are derived from my experience as a coach, consultant, and leader. They apply to coaching and other professional relationships. Their sequence is important.

In the spirit of cultural responsiveness, I acknowledge that there is no one right approach for everyone, and my approach as a white, middle-class woman will not fit every situation. But I hope the tips offer inspiration and build on what you already know from past practice.

  1. First, acknowledge your own fears and anxieties, tend to them, and put them aside before entering into a coaching or leadership situation
  2. Listen to those you are aiming to support.
  3. Keep listening, perhaps for an agreed-upon amount of time, without interrupting, or jumping in to fix anything.
  4. Paraphrase and verbalize what you heard to the other person, to make sure you really understand the person?s individual situation and needs.
  5. Ask yourself, what might I be missing?
  6. Express empathy for the person’s specific situation and feelings.
  7. Help guide the person towards identifying what he or she can and can’t control, and what he or she most needs.
  8. Assure the person you are coaching/leading that he or she is not alone, and share what you can and cannot do to support him or her, asserting healthy boundaries.
  9. Identify a key area within the person’s locus of control, and help him or her identify specific goals to accomplish with specific timelines (e.g. My teaching goal between now and Friday is to set up student rules and protocols for using the Zoom platform, or My self-care goal is to stop, step outside, and breathe for ten minutes, three times a day.)
  10. Help them to identify all relevant public health expectations and educational system changes, and to solve any challenges in meeting those expectations.

In following these practices and this sequence, we are not only building relational trust, but we are modeling for teachers and leaders how to take the same approach with their students. Ultimately, we want teachers to ask themselves the same questions about their students that we are asking about them: What is working for my students? What do I know about their situations, and what might I be missing? How does my social identity support or limit my understanding of what others are going through? What support do I need in order to provide quality education to all under these extreme circumstances? What would need to change in the system for me to get that support?

Coaching and leading for equity during the crisis

The months we will spend in this crisis will profoundly exacerbate existing inequities and academic gaps between privileged and non-privileged students. We must stay alert to academic practices that may widen the gap even more. At the same time, just as we are learning that there are benefits to our global environment and air quality from the COVID-19 crisis, we should be alert to the possibility that the crisis will reveal some educational solutions that promote more access and academic success for all students. Being aware of ourselves, others, and the vitality within our different points of view is key to developing practices that will provide the full range of students with an engaging, rigorous, and responsive education.

Many of us, without realizing it, have been preparing for this crisis all along. Here is an opportunity as school leaders, coaches, and teachers to pull out everything we?ve learned about coaching practice, effective communication, resilience, self-care, and cultural responsiveness, and apply it. The crisis is affirming for us that we are all connected. It is a time like no other, and we can hope to come out of it having strengthened our skills, our vision, and even better prepared for the long road ahead.

Sarah Young ( works as a consultant supporting teacher effectiveness for educational equity. As a coach and workshop facilitator, she has a special focus on culturally responsive practice, coaching and communication skills, and adult social and emotional learning.


Culturally responsive coaching is more than just good coaching

Culturally responsive coaching is more than just good coaching

A white colleague recently asked me, “Sarah, why do we need culturally responsive coaching?” Isn’t it just good coaching to be responsive to everyone?

I had to give some thought to how I framed my response. The crux of the answer is, “No, it’s more complex than that,” as is the answer to the parallel question about serving diverse learners: “Isn’t it all just good teaching?” But I had to find the right words to explain this to my colleague and the others with whom I work as a culturally responsive coach.

It’s true that effective coaching is always responsive and based in listening deeply to each individual. However, what’s different for me as a culturally responsive coach is that I regularly set an intention to reflect on the role of social identity; the differences between myself, the teacher, or students; and the social political context in which the teacher is working. Before I open my mouth, I engage in self-talk: What do I think I know, and what might I be missing? How does my cultural lens give me insight, and how does it limit my understanding?

I want the teachers I support to learn about the diverse cultures and world-views of their students, examine unconscious biases, consider gaps in how they understand student behavior, make curriculum relevant and engaging, and raise rigor while cultivating a safe classroom environment. In a parallel process, I strive to model those same skills in working with the teacher.

Culturally responsive adult-to-adult relationships are foundational to forming school community where all adults and all students are able to thrive professionally, academically, and as whole beings. Click To Tweet

Often, the challenges teachers present to me are framed as neutral when they are, in fact, related to social context, culture, or race. Teachers often fail to recognize the assumptions that underlie comments like:

  • The curriculum is too hard for these students
  • The students are too noisy
  • They won’t do homework
  • They just don?t have skills based on their home life, or
  • These parents don?t value education.

In these situations, I push myself to move beyond color-blind or politically neutral coaching, to raise questions that help the teacher consider his or her perceptions of student behavior, engagement, or markers of intelligence and how those perceptions are influenced by identity and social location.

I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to respond to teacher frustration or desperation by guiding them toward a quick-fix instructional solution. But this would be a disservice to the teachers and, more importantly, to students.

In a parallel process, I also ask myself about my own perceptions. I reflect on what I think I know about the teacher. I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class, Jewish woman. In what ways are my and the teachers? identities similar or different? What might I need to learn more about the person I’m coaching? What do I know about my own triggers, and how they might surface in conversation?

As a white coach, how do I make it safe enough for teachers of color to share their struggles with me? How do I support white teachers to look beyond the lens of “whiteness” as they look at behavior and academic skills of racially diverse students and families?

”As a white coach, how do I make it safe enough for teachers of color to share their struggles with me?” Click To Tweet

Naming identity

While I question myself about many kinds of differences between me and the adults I serve, race is the hardest and takes the most practice. For example, I recently prepared to observe Sally, a new, young, white teacher from a white suburban community working in racially diverse urban area.

Sally had asked me to collect data on a “certain group” of kids that often “call-out to disrupt the lesson.” I observed three African American boys who did regularly call-out without raising hands, yet my data showed the comments were relevant and on topic.

My first coaching step was to share the data and then model naming the influence of “whiteness” on my interpretations.

As a white observer of students of color, I always ask myself what I think I know, and what I might be missing, I said to Sally. “I know that having grown up in a segregated, white, middle-class community can affect my interpretations. I have a lot of influences that prime me to see loud, spontaneous behavior in kids of color as disruptive or threatening, where I might see the same behavior in white kids as merely exuberant. In this case, I have to ask myself, are the comments intending to disrupt, or could this be a learning strategy? The data I recorded shows the call-outs relate to what you’re teaching.?

Sally read over my notes and nodded thoughtfully. “Why are they calling out then” she asks. “Why can’t they wait for me to call on them like the other students do?”

I responded:  It’s interesting. I’ve been reading and talking to other people who know more about different cultural learning styles than I do. From my own white perspective, I’m coming to understand how various nonwhite communities encourage a highly verbal learning style, where the audience is expected to interact out loud as they learn. I’m curious to see how the boys? exuberance to respond might be channeled into a different sort of participation structure where call-outs are welcomed and encouraged, and you still feel in charge as a teacher.?

“What do you think that would look like?” Sally asked, looking perplexed, but still open. Now Sally and I had an entry point to a culturally responsive coaching conversation.

Radical humility

When I work with teachers of color, my self-talk questions are both similar and different from the ones I used with Sally. My starting place is radical humility, as I ask myself what I think I know and what I might be missing. Race is the topic I’ve been least prepared to talk about in my teacher training, coach training, or life experience.

One year I was assigned to coach Ted, an African American teacher about 20 years older than me. Ted related well to his students, but the curriculum he used in his alternative high school classes was built entirely around rote worksheets, which were not engaging the students or helping their comprehension.

Ted’s school was one where most students had been pushed out of mainstream settings. I felt some urgency to see them engaged with curriculum that supported critical thinking and drew on their rich life experiences.

As a teacher and professional learning leader for the California Writing Project, I figured I was just the right person to jump in and demonstrate to Ted how much more his students were capable of when they engaged in writing process lessons. Ted responded politely to my offering but was surprisingly distracted when I came in to model lessons, even though the kids were more engaged than I had seen them previously.

Ted then began to withdraw, missing our appointments and not following up on my gently offered suggestions for follow-up lessons. At one point, after I called him at home to reschedule a missed meeting, he got frustrated with me and asked to have me replaced as his coach.

I was confused by the request seemed abrupt. At the same time, I was relieved. I considered Ted to be a resistant teacher, or one who was just not up to doing the extra work involved in a more engaging curriculum.

However, my supervisor insisted I try to work it out with Ted, starting with an apology. Reluctantly, I agreed.

“Ted, I?m sorry I called you on a Sunday,” I said as I sat down at the desk across from him. “I didn’t understand. I’m used to teachers working on Sundays. Including me.”

“Do you want to understand?” he asked. His tone was calmer, and he looked at me directly. Did I want to understand? The question was uncomfortable. “Had I come here to learn something or to defend myself?

“Yes,” I said, hesitating. “I may need help to understand.”

Ted chuckled. “True. You haven? t tried too hard.”

It became clear that he had a perception of me not trying too hard as a mentor. Ironically, that was how I had seen him as a teacher.

“I have a big life outside of this job, and Sundays are important to me.”

“Oh yes, you must have church on Sundays,” I replied.

“Don’t put me in a box, little lady. Black people don?t do any one thing the same. Do you want to ?figure me out,? or do you want to understand?”

“I do want to understand,” I said, uneasy that I still wasn’t getting it right. “I know someone like me might be missing a few things.” “Someone like me? was the closest I could come at that point to saying “white person.” I had not yet learned to use the muscle of naming whiteness. But I did want to make a bridge.

“On Sunday mornings, I do a radio show. It’s a mix of my faith, Baha’i, and my own experiences and spiritual path. On Sunday afternoon, I meet with other black Baha’is.?

“Really” My undisguised astonishment was yet another flag of my white ignorance.

“I thought you’d be surprised. People often are. So I brought you something I wrote.? Ted handed me a pamphlet he had written about using principles of the Baha’i faith to reach out to black teenage boys.

“You’re a writer?” I stammered. “Why didn’t you mention that when I talked about teaching the kids writing?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“No, I guess I didn’t.”

Did Ted think I assumed he couldn’t have had professional writing experience because he is black? And, most difficult to ask myself, was it in any way true that that was my assumption? I hadn’t checked for his prior knowledge, even though that?s a basic practice in preparing teachers to use any new strategy. Had I even considered the possibility that he would know as much about writing as I did? Would I have asked different questions of a white person 20 years my senior?

I skimmed Ted’s pamphlet. It was thought-provoking, clearly organized, with a distinctive writer’s voice.

“Why didn’t you tell me about your writing skills?” I asked.

“You didn’t ask,” he repeated. “You just jumped right in like you knew it all.”

“That’s true. I thought you only knew how to teach from worksheets. Why did you use so many worksheets when you know so much about how to write?”

“I was trying to do well with what they gave me to use. That’s what I thought the job was.?

I wasn’t wrong about the need to move on from the worksheets, but I had been wrong about his motivation for using them. I had jumped in with the “best” way to teach without expressing curiosity about what Ted knew.

And I hadn’t considered that Ted viewed our interactions through the lens of his own life experience, in which he had frequently received the message that the “white way” of teaching was presumed to be best by the majority of “white” teachers, school leaders, and other authorities he had worked with “and studied under,” and the myriad books about education that are written by white authors.

I felt embarrassed, especially because, as a former bilingual teacher, I had worked with many students and families from backgrounds different from my own. Now I wondered: What else had I missed?

“Do you ever share any of your journalistic work with your students?” I asked.

“No.” Ted smiled and looked directly at me. “Do you think I should?” It was a genuine question.

I paused to take a breath. This was the first time in months of working with him that Ted had asked for my opinion on any teaching strategy. “Absolutely! I think the students would love it.”

Ted nodded and jotted down a few notes. I breathed out a deep sigh. It was only now that we had begun a culturally responsive conversation and could begin the work of mentoring.

Cultivating awareness

With both Ted and Sally, the process of culturally responsive coaching began not with inquiry-based coaching questions, but with engaging in an internal process of self-talk, reflection, humility, naming race and social identity, and cultivating genuine curiosity. When coaches and teachers cultivate our awareness, we are better positioned to identify the variety of strategies that will support diverse students with rigorous curriculum in a respectful, safe classroom environment.

Engaging in this process with one another allow us to model and reflect on how to engage in culturally responsive practice with students and families. Culturally responsive adult-to-adult relationships are foundational to forming school community where all adults and all students are able to thrive professionally, academically, and as whole beings.

Sarah Young works as a consultant supporting teacher effectiveness for educational equity. She works as a coach and workshop facilitator with a special focus on culturally responsive practice, coaching skills, and adult social and emotional learning.

© 2021 Sarah Young Consulting | Developed by Melody Sharp