Research Insights: Heads’ Perspectives on Equity Practices
Christopher Gerard Lemieux
In the past year, the Black Lives Matter protests and Asian hate incidents, coupled with pandemic exhaustion, fueled discussions on equity at institutions across the country. Independent schools have been experiencing a major shift in their focus on equity, which has led to changes—many of which have been long avoided. Many schools are playing catch up, and critical to this work are culturally competent and responsive leaders.
Research about equity in independent schools has often focused primarily on diversity leaders’ experiences and perspectives. To build on that research and delve more deeply, I sought to understand the perspective and experience of heads of school. In spring 2021, I conducted interviews with 11 heads, mostly leaders at coed day schools in Southern California. This phenomenographic study, “Educational Equity in Independent Schools,” examined how heads of school described their equity practices, the barriers they encountered, and the leadership behaviors that affect educational equity. Participants were not required to identify their race; however, many identified themselves as white and only three participants identified as a person of color.
From these conversations, I’ve identified five conclusions about what’s necessary to achieve diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence in independent schools.
1. Equity change starts with the head of school. Participants repeatedly described how growth, development, and moving forward in their schoolwide equity practices results in a changed system through a changed culture. It became clear that they were simultaneously depicting changes in themselves as a leader, who then impacted the transformation of their community. Heads of school were more focused on transforming themselves in order to transform others and the culture of the school. The transformation of individuals was the imperative, not the schoolwide equity practice adopted.
Although boards do have final say, ultimately, heads of school steer the direction of their institution—they are the true captain of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) ship. One participant declared that none of their work would have been possible without the support of the board—and they acknowledged they almost failed to mention that, further bolstering the power of the head. Another participant also demonstrated the sovereignty of why certain equity practices were adopted by stating: “Because I felt strongly about them.”
As such, independent school leaders seeking to adopt an equitable vision and create a path to an equitable school must transform their own beliefs, practices, and behaviors if they expect the same outcomes from the community.
2. Leading DEI takes time, innovation, and problem-solving. Participants suggested that the change systems and cultures that are so often in place are designed for individual transformation rather than systems transformation. The practices and policies participants adopted at their schools were designed to educate and create understanding and were most valuable in creating new opportunities for constituencies to think differently.
But thinking differently is an arduous process. Although transformational leaders work to challenge others’ beliefs, it’s never easy to be challenged and hear you’ve been wrong. The heads in this study described how many constituencies at their schools had their personal beliefs challenged by others in the community, which resulted in a grief process. Understanding that grief process, these heads were innovative and creative in their problem-solving approach and worked to overcome mostly interpersonal barriers, using situational questioning and helping constituents see through alternative lenses. They took a deliberate windows-and-mirrors approach to their programming and atmosphere to create an inclusive environment, one that was authentic and in which the community could feel a sense of belonging.
3. DEI should be focused on learning for everyone. Independent schools don’t exist just for the growth and learning of students; they are also learning communities for parents, faculty and staff members, board members, alumni, extended family members, and even community members not associated with the school. The heads in this study adopted this conviction and continuously proclaimed having a growth mindset, and they used it as the lens for their work. Even though these heads worked to foster a diverse learner’s growth mindset in everyone, they also recognized participation in the schoolwide equity practices would vary among constituencies.
Participants discussed the interpersonal and interconnected cultures of their schools and how systems thinking—looking at the school in a holistic way—is necessary to better institutionalize the work. A systems thinking approach acknowledges that every schoolwide practice, budget, facility, policy, program, drive, structure, and facet of the school is connected to the school culture.
The heads in the study also stressed that the humans in the school community matter the most, and thus that’s where they invest their time and funding. They focus on interpersonal relationships—before structures and finances—because they understand that individual growth drives the success of the schoolwide equity practices, not vice versa.
4. Schoolwide equity barriers should be viewed as opportunities. Heads in this study consistently suggested that their personal outlook mattered considerably more than whatever barrier they faced. They described their positive outlooks, acknowledging that it’s not what you do but how you do it and how you view it. For example, many of the participants described their school community as privileged. One participant suggested that having a positive outlook about this—not believing in an esoteric privilege but rather the privilege of living in the community—promoted gratitude instead of guilt and raised awareness among school constituencies to give back to those who were less privileged.
“When it comes to resistance,” one participant said, “it is always going to be there; you need to be aware of it.” And though they will always respond and do something to overcome it, it’s their positive outlook that matters most. Many heads may not have wanted to deal with direct opposition, but one participant suggested that is where growth is, because at least conversations can occur.
5. Transformational leadership is necessary to address equity practices. Two of the most critical behaviors leaders need to display—that the heads in this study demonstrated—are believing in the work and explicitly voicing their beliefs.
All the heads in this study believed in schoolwide equity practices that benefited everyone because it was the right thing to do and they shared their beliefs and the aligned vision of the school for all constituencies to hear. They also led courageous dialogue, were present and involved, and modeled expected behaviors.
Understanding that cultural change would not occur if the school and its constituents were not willing to address issues of class, race, gender, and tensions necessary to sustain diversity, these heads consistently pushed individuals slightly beyond, or further, than their comfort level to induce growth. They also recognized that they were not always the most knowledgeable person in the room, and sometimes community members would challenge their comfort level, meaning they had to be the learner, too. These heads admitted when they were wrong and even apologized for others when they did not have to. Most important, they inspired individuals’ consciousness-raising and capacity for change.
Given these conclusions, current and future heads who are dedicated to creating diverse, inclusive, and culturally competent communities must:
- Start the transformation within themselves. They need to raise their own understanding and capacity for change prior to trying to raise the consciousness of others.
- Adopt a distributive leadership model. The quicker leaders adopt an authentic distributive leadership style, the quicker schools will realize success as more school community members will be given opportunities to transform.
- Recognize that DEI work is human transformation. The opportunity to transform community members is relational work. Heads must foster a supportive learning environment that allows for failure and where people feel safe, valued, listened to, and will be appropriately challenged without being ostracized.
- Base DEI practices in continuous improvement cycles. Listen and gather feedback, implement practices, and evaluate their effectiveness to create effective feedback loops, identify perceived needs, and brainstorm their next plan of action.
- Systematically formalize all DEI practices. At some point, after continuous DEI improvement cycles, the culture will be nearing full integration, and it’s important to remember that cultural change will not be successful if the people are not transformed and fully integrated themselves.
The heads of school in this study shared their processes and practices regarding educational equity, but they were not specifically asked about their endgame. Diving deeper into the endgame is necessary for future researchers in independent schools. We need a clearer picture of what achieving educational equity in independent schools truly means. Is it when the school’s diversity matches the community’s diversity? The state’s? The country’s? Or is reaching diversity operationally defined by the institution or community? Does every single multicultural, multiracial, inclusive group have to be represented? Is that something that is truly achievable or is that a glass ceiling? Future researchers seeking to further equity in independent schools could start by finding the answers to those questions.
Future research is encouraged to examine successfully integrated independent schools. This would allow questions to be geared toward systems thinking of school culture and climate rather than the individual practices that this study sought.