Leading as a Warm Demander: How My Values Informed my Career in Education Leadership
By Debbra Lindo, Educator Leadership Council Chair for the EF+Math Program and Superintendent in Residence
Every year during Black History Month, it is not uncommon to look back upon the progress made by prior generations. Much of that progress reflection usually has to do with how much has changed and how different things are now from what they were centuries or decades ago. Activist and children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, for example, enshrined in our collective psyche the expectation of a quality education, especially for those “overlooked” children and that that education begins in the womb and with quality preschools for every child. But, as a Black female educational leader, who is officially an elder in the village now herself, I find it more instructive to consider what has remained the same over the years for those “overlooked” student populations, and ask ourselves why so many of the same problems that I set out to be a part of addressing more than 40 years ago as a classroom teacher persist today?
From my current vantage point as the Chair of the Educator Leadership Council at EF+Math, the flagship program of Advanced Education Research and Development Fund (AERDF), I have the unique opportunity to take the long-range view and offer a perspective that is more than feel-good platitudes related to what it might take to solve some of the stickiest and most persistent problems in education today. In my former lives as a classroom teacher, urban and suburban school site principal, district administrator, Senior Vice President for a software company’s training division, CEO of a national nonprofit, and later, school district superintendent, my focus in the first two decades of my career was always more immediate — ensuring the safety and success of the students and staff within my care; that is, those in my classroom, my school, my community. But, in the last two decades working in the private, public, and the nonprofit sectors, the idea of delivering on the promises of educational innovation for Black and Brown and high-poverty youth took on an entirely different meaning. One that had an urgency at its core, like, getting a much needed product to market fast. The work of EF+Math and AERDF writ-large, is that urgent approach to solving nagging inequities. While the concept of research and development aimed at improving math outcomes for students by building executive function is inherently technical, for me, similar to the values that were instilled in me by my parents — value for academic achievement, love of family/community, and leaning in to end racist and classist practices, the most inspiring aspect of the EF+Math program’s theory of action is grounded in deeply held values — values of inclusion, affirmative development, and excellence.
Like my childhood core values, my commitment to educational excellence and equity has been alloyed with a sustained commitment to shaping a better world. Those three guiding principles propelled me to take bold action and do everything within my power to transform learning environments for students. Here are some reflections and anecdotes that demonstrate the power of leading as a warm-demander.
Create the Conditions for Excellence
When I was a child my parents demanded excellence from me, and in turn, I demanded it of myself and my children, both at home and with the students I served. As a kid, I couldn’t get away with stuff, and I was expected to do my job, which, at that time, was to get good grades and be a productive and contributing member of society. To love children is to see their greatness and to create environments that motivate and encourage them to realize that potential — to wear their crowns. Sometimes the work of creating the conditions for excellence starts with asking the right questions of the right people. At the turn of the century when designing, opening and operating new small high schools, rather than asking the teachers what kind of schools they would like to design for students, I asked my students (the end user), what they hoped to get from their schooling and what kind of environment would make them want to show up and do their best each and every day? One student shared that he wanted his honors and AP courses to be challenging enough for him to be prepared for the rigor of college so as to not drop out or disappoint his parents and community. Another student shared that she wanted to be loved and feel pride, rather than embarrassment in her school and schooling. Whomp! Out of the mouths of babes, I received my marching orders from kids. They wanted a school that connected with their cultures, their backgrounds and their interests. They wanted a school that honored their prior knowledge, one with integration of the arts, technology, science, vervistic learning and the opportunities for our staff to be those warm-demanders that inspired them to do their best. They wanted schools that had the same aspirational goals for them as staff would have for their own children. They wanted schools with processes and procedures that created safe, healthy and rigorous learning environments so all students, even if they fell, could get back up and try again. They wanted to feel capable and valued.
End Racist and Classist Practices
We may not have the power overnight to end systemic racial and economic injustice, but as educators and educational leaders, we do have a measure of power to change what is in front of us each and every day. We can use that power and leadership authority to either reinforce racist and classist practices or to dismantle them brick by brick. When I accepted a principalship in an urban school district after 17 years of being a teacher and administrator in an affluent suburban school district, I witnessed firsthand the stark differences between the level of freedom of expression, exposure and access to creativity, and academic rigor in affluent schools and, the lack thereof, my new students had. It, quite frankly, was alarming. With its antiquated rules, dress codes, desks in rows and lines for walking in the hallways, we were unwittingly building the school-to-prison pipeline that we were hoping to dismantle. The urban schoolhouse was on fire. Bells should have been ringing nonstop each and every day for the injustice and inequity of it all. Through sheer will, my staff and I aligned our core values and mustered every resource and researched the best teaching methods to provide richer, more equitable experiences for my students to help bridge those institutional gaps. No doubt, like the students in more privileged, predominantly affluent white environments, Black and Brown and high-poverty students were deserving of an exceptional education as well. It was time to end the racist and classist practices that sent the message that public schooling was not designed for just an elite few, rather, it had been reimagined to democratize the potential of all who entered its hallowed halls.
Make Room for Family and Community
Something I noticed in the more affluent communities was that there was a seamless connection between school and family. Parents were welcomed and engaged and felt they were true partners in ensuring their student’s academic success. This was different from the perception and oft cold reception parents of color experienced in under-resourced communities and districts. Love of one’s students must extend to the family as well. As Edelman reminds us, “It takes a village.” That cultural capital, I believe, can be capitalized upon when creating spaces and gives ample room for family and community to be part of a transformational effort.
It’s not lost on me, the work of my incredible colleagues at EF+Math and across the AERDF organization that every day is the adaptive work of creating conditions for excellence, ending systemic racist and classist practices that we are intentionally making room for the notion of community. We are paving the way for the dominant cultural norms of the past to be something different .That is, we are leveraging human talent and even inventing new technical approaches to teaching and learning. We are developing and testing evidence-informed approaches to math, literacy, and knowledge-building, focusing on the students who often get designed around or overlooked. I see my own values and guiding principles reflected in inclusive R&D, the idea that we have to bring everyone with a stake in a child’s education to the table from the start to design the best interventions, tools, and solutions. I believe that today more than ever. And because of these new tools and more importantly, the inclusive nature of building them, I am more hopeful than ever that we are building a future where every child has an excellent education.