Recently I had the honor of conducting an all-day professional development training on diversity and cultural competency for about 100 educators in the Houston Independent Schools District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and the 7th largest school district in the nation. There were teachers from Thomas Middle School, led by the dynamic and powerful Khalilah Campbell and teachers from Sugar Grove Academy where “Failure is not an option, option, OPTION” for any child. Sugar Grove is lead by the fiery Lynett Hookfin. I say “fiery” because one of the stories that Ms. Campbell shared that demonstrated Ms. Hookfin’s love and fearlessness in working with students would put “Crazy Joe” from “Lean On Me” to shame! The entire day was just a reminder of why I love doing work in Texas, but there were two things that stood out throughout the day.
The first thing that really impressed me was the way in which these teachers enthusiastically engaged in conversations and exercises on the issue of creating culturally competent schools, particularly for struggling black and Hispanic males. While it is obvious that everyone may not have agreed with every single word I said (which leads to great conversation), they were willing to engage in deep reflection on the challenges their students face in schools, as well as the challenges they face as teachers too. Some staff even became emotional as they were asked to recount issues of discrimination or racism that they may have experienced in order to better understand the challenges their students may face in feeling marginalized. This portion of the day helped me realize that these educators are truly passionate about taking all of their students to the next level. As much as I hate to say it, I have been in sessions where the commitment to every child was not evident so this was truly a refresher!
The second thing that I really loved was that the teachers at these two great schools were willing to share their own success stories. Sometimes during my travels, I find that some schools (or even some teachers within the same school) want to guard their secrets to success in order to keep them looking better than other schools or other teachers in their districts. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin made it very clear to their staff that every child everywhere matters and that we are all in this together. Because of that, I often felt like I was only working with one school and there were no competing interests that were sabotaging the process. This mindset is key for school districts working to improve success for all students and not a select few but this has to start from the leadership of the school.
Being willing to explore your own history of challenges you faced growing up with discrimination (or witnessing it) and being able to share success strategies with your colleagues are among the many steps needed towards building a culturally competent school. If your school or district does not engage in critical self-reflection, delving into issues of cultural competency will just be treated like any other subject that a teacher is not passionate about teaching but does anyway because she is told to. We need to go deeper as educators committed to a solid future for all students and not the chosen few. Sharing successful strategies with your colleagues helps kill the notion of us fighting for pieces of a small pie because by default, we’ll be making a bigger pie for all to comfortably eat off of.
This was my fourth year doing work with HISD. I am very confident that with great leaders like Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin, Thomas Middle School and Sugar Grove Academy will be able to meet their bold goals. Their efforts and, more importantly, their passion are contagious and make the job of their staff who are committed to this work very easy. All our students ask for are caring teachers and a caring community where they believe their culture and history matter. I commend all schools and school leaders who are on a mission to create that community because failure really isn’t an option, option, OPTION!