Racing Against Time: 5 Principles for Effective, Equity-Centered Leadership

by Leona Christy, CEO at Catalyst:Ed

“Taking care of our students right now is our biggest priority, and it requires time, consistency, and intentionality. And yet carving out and keeping that time will be incredibly difficult. That is the central source of tension for us right now.” – School System Leader

As schools and system leaders emerge from an unprecedented year and get ready to embark on what promises to be yet another one, the tension and anxiety surrounding them are palpable. There is so much that needs to be done—schools need to re-engage students who are disengaged with the education system and the learning process; meet the health and wellbeing needs of students and staff; offer intensive and differentiated supports to students so they stay on track for graduation, and so much more—all while still grappling with the uncertainties and challenges of a continuing pandemic. And while funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund have the potential to not just meet these needs but also bring about deeper, more transformational change, the work is complex and time still remains a massive constraint

So what can leaders do if they aspire to make some real changes? How might they meet multiple priorities – all of which seem urgent and important – in a given amount of time? And how can they center historically marginalized groups, especially BIPOC students, families, and educators? As I listen to our community of leaders and providers, I hear them come back to five principles that can help us navigate this moment. 

  1. Take care of your people: While there has been a well-justified focus on students’ social and emotional health, teachers and administrators (especially those who identify as people of color) are suffering as well. This is likely to impact not just their health and wellbeing, but also their ability to show up for their students, families, and each other. The leaders we spoke with rely on simple, yet powerful strategies like regular check-ins to help people feel seen and heard, downtime and space to allow people to heal, and moments of joy and community to create authentic bonds. Some schools are going even further and offering peer support programs, counseling, and therapy. For instance, the I3 Academy has partnered with a local university to offer counseling to teachers and families. Helpful resources include the personal self-care assessment, the self-care circle, and the Compassion Resilience Toolkit.
  2. Recommit yourself to equity: Faced with the daily stresses of leading during a time of uncertainty and pain, leaders can set aside their values in order to make quick, easy decisions. It is hence even more important that leaders reground themselves on their commitment to be leaders for equity. In particular, leaders can start by being open and transparent about decisions and how they are made, ensuring that a true diversity of voices and perspectives are represented and heard during the decision making process, and reflecting on any intended or unintended consequences for people from marginalized communities.
  3. Set your true north: Even as they triage to meet the immediate needs of their community, leaders are also hearing the call to reimagine a system that never worked for far too many students and families anyway. These leaders are engaging their students, families, and educators in envisioning a new equity-centered vision and key priorities. Establishing this framework can clarify the collective “why”, provide structure and coherence to the change efforts, help students and families know they’re being heard, guide resource allocation, and help your team make the right decisions as they navigate day-to-day challenges. For instance, Baltimore Public Schools identified “Reconnect, Restore, and Reimagine” as their guiding goals after an extensive stakeholder engagement process. InspireNola has ​​launched a Recovery Task Force aimed at creating the architecture of a new normal for their students and families. 
  4. Build on your strengths and lessons learned: The pandemic forced many schools and systems to innovate and set up quick solutions to address urgent needs. Now, rather than starting from scratch, we see schools reflecting on the innovations and assets that worked for them – for instance, structures to communicate and engage with families during the pandemic, ways to give students ownership over their learning, partnerships with community organizations, or alternate measures of student success – and explore how these might be formalized moving forward. For example, six districts are working with CRPE and TNTP to build on practices that emerged during the pandemic.
  5. Get connected, get help: While the task ahead is tremendous, you don’t have to go it alone or reinvent the wheel. There is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that is already there in the sector, and tapping into this in effective and efficient ways can help you and your team augment your capacity, get exposed to new ideas, and learn from others’ mistakes. For instance, the school and system leaders who worked with providers from the Catalyst:Ed network have shared how much they appreciated having expert partners who helped them fill critical knowledge and capacity gaps as they navigated school closure and re-opening. 

A call to action for the sector: Finally, it is important for the rest of us to recognize that the pandemic has also been incredibly hard for leaders. Our conversations with Black and Latinx school leaders, in particular, have underscored for us the stress that the pandemic and the associated challenges have placed on them, and the impact of the stress on their mental health and capacity to show up for their teams. While many of these leaders are used to finding ways to move themselves and their teams forward through the toughest circumstances, we need to acknowledge that we are asking more of them now than ever before and offer them the support, space, and grace that we ask them to extend to their teams.


Catalyst:Ed is currently supporting leaders as they figure out how to chart their path to recovery and reinvention, and we encourage you to get in touch. We’re also hosting an SEL and family engagement circle for equity-focused leaders and providers. Learn more here.

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