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Where the Leaders Are

May 06, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

The first three days of May were the major days of action for the “We Need Diverse Books” online campaign, which called for greater diversity of authors and characters in books, especially those aimed at children and young adults. Representation matters, and children get their first lessons in what to expect from society from the culture around them, including books (and let’s not forget the movies based on some of those books). It was a rallying cry that quickly gained support from many teachers, illustrating the many sources of leadership in addressing educational equity.

Sure, we have the usual suspects: state and local policymakers, the occasional high profile principal, the philanthropists hoping to turn their money into systemic change. These are the folks with significant institutional power to effect change. They’re the ones who can, when they put their minds to it, create a nationwide set of standards that doesn’t raise flags until it’s well into implementation. They’re the ones who can set accountability policies that pressure districts, schools, and teachers to narrow curriculum and instruction in order to match standardized tests.

But they are not the only sources of leadership in today’s educational universe.

Educators and their unions can also provide leadership, especially when they align their power and goals with those of their communities. We’ve seen this in Saint Paul, where the teachers’ union has started a teacher-family home visit program and run an innovative, successful campaign that used the collective bargaining process to achieve community priorities. We’ve seen it in Anoka-Hennepin, where teachers and their union put their power and support behind community activists challenging the district’s misguided bullying policy. We’ve seen it in Rochester, where teachers and their union collaborated with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Project to help teachers get better at identifying and responding to the effects of deployment on military servicemembers’ families.

Many of the cases above involve teachers working closely with families, who are another key source of leadership in education. Whether it’s tried and true forms of involvement like the PTA or newer actions like opting out of standardized testing, families that work together can build power and compel change. The more schools, districts, and the state can encourage and invite family participation (beyond check-ins like conferences), the more empowered families will be to direct and support meaningful improvements. Schools and districts should welcome families that are empowered to lead, not just empowered to leave.

Bring enough families and their neighbors together and you’ve got a community. Again, teacher leadership grows stronger when its joined with community leadership. Community activists and organizations have a long, proud history of engaging on a variety of issues, and education is no different.

And, of course, there are students themselves. Students across the country have shown an interest in organizing and getting involved to improve their educational experience. Whether it’s marching against over-testing, demanding funding equity, or otherwise earning a seat at the table, student activism is another source of leadership in education. It’s also one that should be allowed and encouraged to develop independently without being co-opted or reduced to tokenism.

Whether it’s “We Need Diverse Books” or the Saint Paul Federation of Teacher’s community-centered bargaining campaign, we see leaders from all of these groups -- teachers, families, communities, and students -- coming together to create change. What’s especially uplifting is the extent to which many of these efforts are organized around a positive goal. “We Need Diverse Books” has encouraged the creation of model lists of existing books that teachers, librarians, families, and children can turn to. SPFT was advocating for several concrete proposals. There’s romance in the huge protest march, but that romance means more when it leads to productive change.

In education, as in pretty much all things, diversity is strength. The more voices that join together, the more powerful they become. The more backgrounds, experiences, and cultures at a table, the more likely the participants will be to arrive at a goal or an idea that’s better for everyone. Especially as our society grows increasingly diverse, we need to ensure our education system is responsive to diverse voices and encourages its educators, families, communities, and students to treat diversity as a source of strength.

We need diverse books, diverse teachers, diverse schools, and diverse voices. We need diverse leaders.

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