Leading through a Pandemic
Focusing on building racially equitable schools and the importance of breaking down our own biases while dismantling access barriers for students.
Written by Rachel Chewakin
This spotlight highlights a conversation in November 2020 moderated by PIC team member Rachel Chewakin and Aleia McDaniel, Academic Director at Uplift Summit International Preparatory in Arlington, Texas. The conversation focused on reflections from leading to-and-through the COVID-19 health pandemic and racial unrest in 2020.
As leaders have navigated the unexpected challenges of the health pandemic and racial unrest in our country, Aleia McDaniel, a seasoned school leader with Uplift Education, offers insights on the environments schools provide and the changes needed as we move forward. McDaniel openly reflects, “This pandemic has exposed the gaps many educators already noticed relative to equitable access with our scholars. It has really forced us to reckon with the concept that we can no longer continue business as usual, throwing fixes at the solution, or pretending problems will eventually work themselves out later on.”
“We are now being confronted with the hard and brutal facts that we have students that have a different level of access to basic necessities: food, technology, a quiet space to work, stable home environments, and base level stability. This has also exposed the lack of equity to education and the pedagogy of education relative to how different students navigate school and learning,” McDaniel shares.
Over the last nine months, the pandemic provided what many would name as a necessary and urgent opportunity for educators to redefine what success looks like for students. It also unearths the need to examine the new learning realities for public school students and the agency school leaders have to positively impact those realities.
As defined by McDaniel, success for students on her campus this school year means ensuring, “Students know, without a shadow of a doubt, that we care for them. Not this nebulous idea of ‘we care about you,’ but that they feel personally cared for by an adult, that an adult is checking in on them, and that they are seen and heard during this time.”
And her campus is doing just that by prioritizing student needs. At Uplift Summit Preparatory High School, they have systematized efforts to support the whole child. They use academic counseling to reach and encourage students to reflect on their learning environments and make decisions on what is going to work for them and their families. McDaniel shared that by shifting to first empowering students to make these decisions and then supporting them along the way, “We’re not allowing them to fall through the cracks or fall under the radar in any way, shape, or form.”
Using empathy to lead through change
By leading with empathy, McDaniel and her team made decisions based on the needs of their students and their definition of success for this school year. McDaniel expressed, “Our North Star this year as 100% engagement and 100% aligned instruction. We know we are still going to be okay even if we don’t get every single thing right. We have set these objectives and goals, and as the leader, I aim to be transparent about what I do and do not know. There are so many unknowns, so I know I need to lead with compassion as I make decisions.”
McDaniel expressed, “Encouraged by my time in the PIC program, I urge others to utilize the students and stakeholders on campus. So often as educators, we think we know what’s best for students and teachers while operating out of our own narrow lens of what’s best. And for a lot of us, that narrow lens could have bias attached to it. It’s extremely important to listen to your students about what their experiences are and then use that as a jumpstart.”
McDaniel also reflected that focusing on empathy means listening to and learning from the educators on her team. In order to best serve students, she must be able to support her staff through the process. She shared, “I’ve had teachers who’ve experienced significant health challenges that, while they were not diagnosed as COVID related, were absolutely COVID related in some way. We saw an increase in depression, anxiety, and other health concerns, and that has been really hard on my teachers. I need to continue to give them grace and remind them that it is going to be okay.”
McDaniel continues to seek an understanding for student’s and staff’s needs as she works to design new solutions that push against the status quo.
By leading with her student’s experiences at the forefront of her decision-making, it is also clear McDaniel is convicted to acknowledge and dismantle racial barriers on her campus.
Addressing biases to dismantle systemic racism
She continues to reflect on the introspective work that needs to be done in order to truly lead while dismantling these barriers. She shared, “I encourage all leaders to also do their own work. As a leader, you cannot expect teachers and students to know better if you don’t know better and if you have not done the work. It requires you having difficult and intentional conversations, and learning with your leadership team. You cannot get around it. You cannot assume because, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “I would never do “xyz” that you are free from bias. That in itself is how bias works.”
As a seasoned public school leader, she is convicted about working alongside and encouraging other leaders to also make a change. “Bias are modes of behaviors that have impact in ways that are unintentional and that most individuals are unaware of,” she expressed. “How then can one have awareness of something they are unaware of?”
She continued, “It is important to utilize resources that are there to help expose this [bias] and it takes a willingness from leaders to be vulnerable and to be wrong. This is something that is really hard for Directors and leadership teams. It can be challenging to address the wrongs you may have done in the past. As leaders, it is imperative that we are able to acknowledge biases and make changes rooted in improving our students’ experiences.”
Motivated by the importance in leading with students and equity first, McDaniel offers insight on how other leaders can continue working towards breaking down racial barriers in their school communities. McDaniel shares, “Leaders need to be able to sit with their own biases, be aware of them, and actively study what they are while hearing from the families and scholars they serve.”
She also highlights that designing racially equitable schools means really looking how our public schools are situated within the larger context of this time of social-political crisis as a nation. “As schools, we can’t hide from those things either and it is important to give space for our students to have these conversations. In order for students to have these conversations we have to equip our adults to have these conversations,” McDaniel reflected. “I think we do a disservice when we pretend the outside world doesn’t exist for our students, yet it is extremely uncomfortable for most leaders when considering how to navigate these conversations within our school environments.”
Lastly, she shared her charge for leaders as they continue to navigate the race relations and politics in our country. “I want to remind leaders and myself that we bring people into our schools who come with a multitude of experiences, fears, and feelings. We have to make space for that, as well as acknowledge it and to be mindful of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to have answers, but we have to be intentional about treating all people—including our students, teachers and families--like whole human beings."