Four Questions Teacher Leaders Must Ask Themselves

August 24, 2017

Last year Teach to Lead invited me to give the keynote speech at the summit on inclusion, equity, and opportunity.  A partnership between, National Board, ASCD, and the U.S. Department of Education, Teach to Lead hosts Teacher Leadership Summits to help spotlight and advance the groundbreaking, teacher-led work that is happening in states, districts, and schools across the country.

The teams from numerous parts of this country reminded me—as I’ve been reminded every year since I started teaching twenty-one years ago—that there is one universal truth that must always guide us: there are no simple solutions.  But there are solutions.  And we must remain committed to finding solutions that are best for students and manageable for us. To help the teams move their work on inclusion, equity, and opportunity forward, I asked them to consider four questions.

1. “How will you consistently listen to the people affected by your efforts?”

A couple of years ago, out of nowhere, Chicago Public Schools leaders decided to change our neighborhood high school which was open to every student in the attendance boundary to a Selective-Enrollment high school.  Now, students have to test in.

In their infinite wisdom, CPS leaders did not consult the principal, the staff, or families.  There were many injustices with this decision.

When the news of this decision got to education reporters, we were big news.  I did not see any of the news stories until my student Diana came in to my classroom a few minutes before her lunch period ended.

So there I was eating my sandwich at my desk.  And Diana comes in an announces, “Did you hear Salazar?  We’re poor.  We’re all poor.”

I’m munchin’ on my lunch and mumble, “What are you talking about?”

“The newspaper!  The newspaper called all of us poor.”

So I looked up the news and, yes, there it was.  In the photo caption, the Chicago Sun-Times labeled our students as “poor.

I could have easily authored an opinion piece on my blog about this from my perspective.  But I saw this as an opportunity for my students to explain the effect words can have on readers.

So we did what we always do in writing class—we wrote.

Here’s what some of them wrote:

Carlos said, “I am deeply offended because we are rich in our development and in our academic achievements.  Critics are judging material things we don’t have.  But what makes us rich is our potential to survive.”

Tianny boldly said, “I don’t like somebody saying my mom is poor when she works her ass off to put food on the table.  Granted, we don’t have a lot but we have enough food for every day and new clothes.”

The reporter responded with a comment to the post.  She never apologized or recognized the insulting effect of the word “poor” on the people she wrote about. And the caption didn’t change.

But here’s what did change: students saw that a reporter from a major city newspaper—a person in power—heard them, read what they wrote, that lots of people did.

They could not control the Chicago Sun-Times.  They could not control the way others saw them—but they could defend and re-discover the way they see themselves.

And this helped us bond during the fifth week of school.  Students saw that I listened.  They realized that I saw value in what they had to say.  They continued to be honest with me.  Here’s feedback I got from a student in that same class at the end of semester 1:

2. How will you solidify professional relationships with those affected by your work?

We work in a data-obsessed culture where numbers and percentages matter over everything else.

When outsiders visit our schools, wouldn’t it be great if the first questions they asked were, “Do students feel safe in your classrooms?  Do students share their ideas confidently?”

But they don’t.  Immediately, they want to know about GPAs and ACT scores and AP  scores and suspension rates.

And the next time they visit, they say, they want to see the data improve.  So we spend hours and hours looking at data asking “How do we change the data?”

It becomes a numbers game.

So I wonder: What would happen if the questions were less about deep dives into data and more about diving deeper into the professional relationships with students and staff?

It is these deeper professional relationships with the people affected by our work that makes the data move.

With stronger professional relationships in schools, attendance rates would increase because students would know their presence mattered.

Grades would improve because students would know someone believes they can do more challenging work.

Suspension rates would decrease because students would have someone in the building they could go to if they felt unsafe or angry at the world.

The demographics in our higher level classes would diversify because students would being to believe in themselves academically.

In our work, relationships are primary; the data are secondary.

But I want you to hear this from someone else.  I’d like to share my student’s essay. Manny is a junior in my AP English Language class.  And he wrote a personal essay about another teacher who helped him find the confidence to take more challenging class. Click here to listen.

3. How will you maximize on the strengths of the people affected by your work?

I tell my students there is no “pobrecito syndrome” in my classes.  Syndicated columinist Esther Cepeda wrote in 2013 that Pobrecito syndrome is when “educators come up with misguided policies to go easy on groups of underperforming students, perpetuating the worst kind of disrespect — that of lowered expectations — on whole categories of children who are assumed to be less capable.”

So much of our work is helping the people who are affected by our work realize the strength they already possess.

To remind us of this young generation’s resilience, I’ll share an essay by my student Christian, another junior in my class who found the strength to save himself and his father.  Click here to listen.

4. “What crude realities must those affected by your work confront?”

While we recognize our students have the power to transcend, we must also recognize that they, that we, are not invincible.  The elections results make us see a new vicious reality that many of our students will have to confront.  In so many ways, racism, sexism, and so many forms of dehumanization have become normalized.

We hear stories of high-achieving, low-income minority students getting full rides to prestigious schools only to find when they get there that . . . their academic life is harder than they thought.  The skepticism cuts.  These students must maneuver in world where they are not longer the ones who are always praised.  No one told them that inclusion, equity, and opportunity are difficult concepts for some people to accept.

Because good teaching remains hidden, non-educators continue to believe that 21st century teaching continues to be nothing more than sitting students in rows, directing them to open workbooks, reprimanding them for talking, and grading worksheet after work sheet.

I challenge every oversimplification of the complex challenges we’re working to address today.  My blood boils when an insensitive colleague tells a struggling student, “You just have to work harder.”

Or when and educational leader says “all a young man who is disconnected from society needs is hope.”

No.  It’s not that simple.

This is why part of our work also has to include helping students prepare to confront—but not tolerate—the ugly realities of trying to lead a better life.

So I’ll share one more essay by a student that shows us the complexities of our students’ realities.  This is Safeer.  He came to the U.S as child and had to confront the ugly realities of searching for a better life.  Click here to listen.

These four questions don’t have easy answers.  But they are important for us because there are many correct answers.

May we contribute even more meaningfully to communities where our students can feel included, where they can find more opportunities, and where they will know there can be greater equity in our world.

Ray Salazar, NBCT

Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools since 1995. He is a National Board Certified Teacher. His blog, The White Rhino, tied for second place in EWA's Community Members Best  Blog category in 2012. National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio aired his essays and the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Schools of Thought Blog published his editorials. Salazar earned a bachelor's degree in English/Secondary Education and master's degree in writing, with distinction, from DePaul University.  Visit his blog The White Rhino at Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay Contact: