Industry Has an Important Role in Teaching for Racial Equity
By Ross Romano
What does it look like for each of us — independent of our role or stature within the education ecosystem — to meaningfully contribute to gains in educational equity?
Recently, I’ve been working with the authors of Teaching for Racial Equity: Becoming Interrupters, published by Stenhouse, to generate new and necessary conversations with educators about their critical work. Many of us across the U.S. have made significant progress in our understanding of the causes and damages of systemic biases, but there’s still a long way to go with respect to scaling that knowledge and pairing it with the requisite actions to achieve our equity goals. In closely reading this book and considering educators’ battles against systemic inequities in general, another thought occurred:
It’s essential that the rest of the K-12 industry — EdTech companies and publishers, conferences and speakers, everything from SEL to PBL — takes part in this explicit learning, as well.
Supporting Students — But Also Our “Teammates”
I’m a firm believer that we’re all on the same team, with the same core mission. Those who work inside schools share the same fundamental objectives with the vendors who support them — they got into this business to make a difference for students.
When it comes to improving racial equity in education, it’s abundantly clear that now is a time for industry to step up. A recent Education Week survey shows that nearly a third of educators are afraid to discuss race and other controversial topics for fear of consequences. The political climate and negative discourse around schools makes these fears justified in many communities. This illustrates the importance of industry partners committing to equity work internally to ensure resources provided by districts are up to the task, even in areas where teachers feel restricted.
Some Concepts for Companies to Consider
Drawing from some of the key concepts and practical approaches presented in Teaching for Racial Equity and translating them slightly to speak to our product and resource provider teams, you can see how they align (the themes are inspired by the book, but the ideas for applying them to the industry side of K-12 are mine):
- Critical humility, through which we remain open to understanding the limits presented by our individual worldview or ideology, is a necessary step for doing work that makes an impact — As companies, the value of our work is determined by how effectively it addresses the pain points of those we serve. We ultimately serve students and interrupting inequity requires an honest accounting of our blind spots and true commitment to learning what students need.
- Learning about what works for real teachers provides ideas and inspiration for our own work — What lesson design is best in a particular school environment? What did teachers try that we never thought about? In the book, educator examples illustrate how better engagement and equitable outcomes are in reach when even an individual teacher fully embraces the work. Companies also have the benefit of speaking with current and prospective clients to learn more and more about designing resources to make a difference.
- Collaborative teams are powerful — Through open, honest, and vulnerable discussions with colleagues, we learn much more about them and ourselves. We fill in gaps in our perspective and figure out approaches we’d otherwise have no chance of grasping. Equity isn’t a one-time fix. You must “keep your legs moving.” Consistent reflection and seeking of others’ perspectives helps us keep up.
Sustained Efforts Make an Impact
The Soundtrap for Education team, part of Soundtrap by Spotify, has long stood out to me as a group that sets an example for what this can look like. I chatted with Serena Robinett, a former teacher who’s now an Education Specialist with the team, to learn more about their approach.
An important point she made: the learning is never a one-off. The team has worked with consultants on bias training, and they’ve also participated in cross-departmental discussions, for example, but the key is designing series so it’s not a “one and done.” “Some of those conversations are happening pretty much all the time,” says Robinett.
In any type of organization, engagement begets engagement. And a strong culture can really spark that engagement. Robinett explains that, when she was teaching, it was more of a “small, mighty few” teachers who participated in book clubs and other informal learning around racial equity, but at Soundtrap it’s “a lot of people who care about this work, who are intentional about this work, and who really make sure that things are done the right way.” This illustrates the opportunity companies have to create a strong culture of intentionality and ongoing professional learning about topics that are often difficult to accomplish directly in schools.
Students Benefit — And So Do Companies
The importance of committing to racial equity more explicitly is evident in its alignment to our shared industry mission, but also has clear advantages for companies. Here are just a few of the ways it can benefit all parties:
- Attract new talent — The younger generations entering the workforce are socially-conscious. They want to see that you’re living out a meaningful mission. Further, it’s no secret that many educators are leaving their jobs in schools due to stress, problems with leadership, or otherwise feeling they’re unable to succeed at helping students in their school environment. Companies have an opportunity to benefit from that expertise and talent by appealing to educators’ motivation to make a difference.
- Create better resources — One way this is achieved is in the formal teams we put together to increase cultural relevance in instructional materials. This is a critical part of ensuring that educators can help each of their students learn. It also can include indirect resources, such as podcasts and blog posts that enhance teachers’ understanding of cultural concepts, or could even be supplemental materials created by a cross-functional team. For example, Robinett shares that the Soundtrap for Education team, collaborating with a variety of voices around the organization, has created “Culture Capsules” that help educators deliver lessons and activities around students’ identities. And the individuals who contribute to their creation feel that their identities are seen, as well.
- Be a better partner to schools — As referenced earlier, many educators feel restricted from discussing tough topics. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want their students to receive an equitable education. By taking the lead, companies can help them overcome some of those challenges. Further, others may just feel less informed than they’d like to be; but knowing that they’re collaborating with an expert partner gives them the confidence to proceed as they learn from your approach.
- Strengthen the system — We don’t have the power as individuals to change everything that needs changing in the education system. But the more of us who are taking responsibility for the urgent areas of transformation, the stronger the overall system will become.
Once you commit to these powerful efforts, of course, communicating them to schools and educators is the necessary next step. How are you supporting districts’ needs with respect to equity and how are you telling your story? I’d love to hear from you.
Ross Romano is CEO of September Strategies, a consulting firm helping K-12 companies and nonprofits make the right moves to go from vision to decision. Ross is an experienced organizational leader and strategic advisor frequently sought after for thought leadership strategy and content development, team and talent evaluation, business development and marketing strategy, and audience-specific messaging platforms. He frequently writes about human-centered, empathic leadership and storytelling principles for company leaders and founders. Connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.