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Setting the Stage for Equity

September 22, 2015 / by Jennifer Tiggs

Teachers laugh together and smile. Children wave at new faces. When someone new walks into our elementary school building, they immediately notice a difference -- a feeling unlike most other schools. A number of factors play into this: the physical space of a renovated old Detroit school building that was given a completely updated look inside; a lengthy hiring process for potential staff members; but the most important of these is the people who actually join our team and become members of our family.

Growing into a family certainly doesn't happen overnight, but I've been amazed at how quickly our staff takes on this mindset. Even where there is staff turnover, by our third week of summer professional development (yes, I said it -- three weeks of PD!), it's hard to differentiate who is who among new staff and those returning.

I attribute the family-like atmosphere to the intentional time that we spend together in our Summer Institute, which is our back-to-school PD. Though there are teachers who might cringe at the idea of giving up three weeks of their summer, we have found this to work well for us. During the Summer Institute, we not only introduce curriculum and resources, but we spend time in adult morning meetings that allow us to get to know one another, set norms together, and create a true community.

Photo credit is Lisa Kreinbring, Henry Ford Learning Institute’s  Director of External Relations 

Photo credit is Lisa Kreinbring, Henry Ford Learning Institute’s Director of External Relations[/caption]

While the beginning of our Summer Institute was centered around the exciting things about teaching -- the curriculum, setting up learning studios (that's what classrooms are called here), and getting to know students -- in week two, we began having tough conversations among both our district’s leadership team and our entire district's staff.

This year we have a partnership with NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools (Metro Center) to examine equity in our schools and what role race plays for us and our students. To do that type of work, to be willing to talk about race, we had to be open to feeling tension. That requires an incredible amount of trust. This type of trust does not happen immediately or even in the two weeks prior, but it's a place where we can start to build to that point. While not everyone is fully comfortable with addressing equity, we have people who are willing to explore it because it’s what we do for our scholars, and it will make us better.

This year, we're asking teachers to not simply push academics, but to reflect on the words and actions they take in school that might impede a student’s willingness to engage in learning. Our use of Teaching Channel Teams is in its infancy stage, but we have defined our problem of practice for the year. How can we improve our individual teaching goals while focusing on equitable instruction and partnerships with families? Our use of Teams contributes greatly toward building collegiality in our building, because we've set up our professional learning community (PLC) such that teachers are observing one another at least twice a month. They will record themselves teaching, using Teaching Channel's Recorder app weekly, and will receive face-to-face and online feedback in their Teams group from coaches and in their grade-level PLC meetings. Since common planning time is woven into the fabric of our school, we're hoping that starting with low-risk sharing of video will build toward higher level risk-taking and sharing -- both in small groups of staff members and in district-wide conversations -- that will continually revisit equity.

We're working toward building a community of lifelong learners. To become a lifelong learner here, we have to first build relationships among ourselves. This way, when we need to tackle tough issues like equity, it’s easier. We've been telling our teachers to worry about curriculum second and to build positive culture in their learning studios first. The same truth exists for the adults in our building. Here, we need to take the time to build relationships beforehand. Consequently, when someone like you comes to visit, that same feeling of, “ooh, something is different about this place and I like it,” will remain.

Topics: Professional Learning, Equity

Jennifer Tiggs

Written by Jennifer Tiggs

Jennifer Tiggs is an instructional coach at Henry Ford Academy Elementary School in Detroit, MI. Jennifer has 13 years of experience in elementary and middle school classrooms and school leadership. She is a self-proclaimed learning enthusiast and lover of innovation in education.

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