FEATURE

A Hopeful Case of Teacher Leadership and Confronting Bias in Education

Two Boston teachers created a blueprint for helping educators examine bias. In doing so, they laid a foundation for change.
Illustration by Lily Padula

Randyl Wilkerson and Alison Mann had not even started the conversation before some of their colleagues had questions—and concerns. Where was this coming from? Did something happen? What have I done wrong?

Mann remembers wondering if some colleagues would push back—or worse, revolt. They were being asked to confront lifelong preconceptions. They were being asked to refocus the lens through which they saw their students, their work and their world.

Wilkerson and Mann—who teach sixth grade and kindergarten, respectively—were spearheading an initiative that led to a schoolwide goal for professional development: identifying one’s own biases.

Nestled into a single block of Boston’s Allston neighborhood, Gardner Pilot Academy (GPA) has a strong reputation for equity. The school is rated a Tier 1 institution by Boston Public Schools’ Quality Framework and has won awards for its innovation in environmental education, after-school programs and anti-bias principles, including the Human Rights Campaign’s Seal of Excellence.

But inside GPA, educators would come to recognize that even the best teachers are not immune from bias and that the goal of equity requires looking beyond accolades and numbers. It requires looking within.

“It’ll take a lifetime, and then you still won’t learn everything you needed to learn,” says Erica Herman, the principal at GPA. “That complexity is what makes people really scared.”

Mann and Wilkerson had leaned into the complexity. For educators conditioned to expect PD that delivers concrete classroom practices, the goal inspired trepidation.

“That was a big battle,” Wilkerson says. “To say these are actually proactive, definitive, culture-shifting conversations that we want to have, not prescriptive or shame and blame.”

Some educators doubted that a yearlong PD centered on considering biases could translate into tangible results. Others feared evaluation. Over time, Wilkerson and Mann demonstrated their own thinking about biases to remove some of the hesitancy.

“What we had to reiterate time and again is that thinking is the work,” Wilkerson says, “that thinking about your perceptions and these dialogues that you’re having are work—because now you can replicate these dialogues with your students. You can use it to change your curriculum.”

 

The Audit

The movement began with conversations. Mann and Wilkerson attended Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity, a program of the YWCA. It brought in multiple stakeholders from school and business communities for facilitated discussions about race and bias.

Mann and Wilkerson immediately recognized that other members of the school community needed access to these conversations. But while Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity represented a great opportunity, the six evening meetings were often late. For those who could not find childcare or who worked late hours, opportunities for access were limited. So Mann and Wilkerson considered their options. Instead of leaving with an answer, Wilkerson says, they left the program with a question:

“Why don’t we make it our first goal to figure out what the community needs?”

So, in conjunction with the equity-focused management consulting firm Kingston Bay Group, Mann and Wilkerson developed an audit to get feedback on how the school was doing on the equity front. They solicited the views not just of teachers but also of paraprofessionals, students and families.

“I think what was great about it was that it wasn’t someone coming in and saying what we’re lacking and, ‘Here’s what you need to do instead,’” Mann says. “It was truly from the community: the community asking for our strengths, our challenges and for us to pull together.”

[It's] one of the only opportunities where the community gets to say, explicitly, 'This is what I'm experiencing at the school, this is what I see, this is what I perceive, this is what I feel.'

That community narrative, Wilkerson says, was affirming. “We had a lot of the same wants and needs,” she says. Focusing on audit participants’ stories rather than statistics allowed for a valuable glimpse into the experiences of staff and students alike.

“We decided that it’s OK that the equity audit is qualitative,” Wilkerson says. “Because that’s one of the only opportunities where the community gets to say, explicitly, ‘This is what I’m experiencing at this school, this is what I see, this is what I perceive, this is what I feel.’”

In the audit, participants named the disparities they saw, such as boys of color receiving more IEPs than their classmates. They called for a closer look at policies and curriculum. And a potential starting point came up again and again: Educators, families and paraprofessionals alike wanted spaces where they could talk about racism and bias.

Gardner Pilot Academy had committed to equity and anti-bias PD years ago. But often, the success of each initiative was determined by the varying availability of funding and outside facilitators.

“Sometimes initiatives come and go in a school and it’s a hot ticket for a year or two, and then it doesn’t remain,” Principal Herman explains. “I think the work of becoming an anti-racist institution is a long-term vision. It’s not a one- or two-year or three-year goal; it is a continual, never-ending goal.”

Working toward that goal meant starting with a story.

 

The Power of Narrative

Describing what the Gardner Pilot Academy PD on bias looks like, Alison Mann says, “It’s very much about narrative.”

In conversations facilitated by Wilkerson and Mann, teachers discussed current events through the lens of the seven forms of bias described by researchers Myra and David Sadker: invisibility, stereotyping, imbalance/selectivity, unreality, fragmentation/isolation, linguistic bias and cosmetic bias. Wilkerson and Mann used them to frame the way media portray a story or people, then connected those narratives to the experiences of students at GPA.

“And so we can start to unpack the bias that’s often associated with terms that our children are referred to, as in ‘immigrant,’ or ‘first-generation’ or ‘black,’” Wilkerson explains.

For example, Wilkerson and Mann facilitated a discussion about people migrating from Central and South America to the U.S. border—people who, at the time, were often referred to as “the migrant caravan” by media and politicians. Educators read news accounts that flattened the experiences of those immigrating. After cohort and whole-staff discussions, they were assigned more humanizing texts for the following session. These texts often re-centered and empowered those with oppressed identities by having them tell their own stories. In this case, educators got to read and watch individual, first-person narratives of people seeking asylum or migrating.

Unpacking narratives in this way helped illustrate the importance of understanding the contexts of history and systemic inequality, as well as the importance of uplifting individual voices rather than telling a single story.

The PD covered many topics in its first year. Mann says the discussions were often exercises in perspective building. “It’s about who the narrative is told by, who gets to tell whose narrative,” she says. “It’s the concept of making people have multiple perspectives and not just relying on the one.”

Herman has seen how unpacking this power of narrative has led to a broadened perspective among the staff.

“To see our staff talking about really difficult topics,” Herman says, “in ways that are really challenging to engage in, challenging to see, but understanding why they are the way that they are—and then being able to incorporate that into practice—is really powerful.”

 

The Power of Leading From Within

Mann and Wilkerson are quick to stress that they engage in these discussions along with their colleagues—not from a podium or pulpit.

“We are facilitators, not experts,” Mann explains. “So we’re learning too, which is helping us to find the tools to help push [the] learning along.”

It’s not just a common goal that builds trust between the facilitators and teachers at GPA. It’s a common context. Mann says that context separates this experience from past work with outside facilitators.

“Because we’re in the community with everybody, we have a pulse on what’s happening in the school,” she says.

Of course, many outside PD programs prove beneficial. But they sometimes fall short in adapting to the educators in the room, who have specific needs and ideas.

“Sometimes, outside expertise also comes with its own agenda or its limited engagement and not a full understanding of the context in which teachers and students and communities are working,” explains Paul Tritter, the director of professional learning at the Boston Teachers Union. “So, to have the leadership of the project being taken by teachers is, one, going to make it more effective, and, two, it’s empowering for the teachers themselves.”

This practice aligns with what Herman says is a new commitment to internally driven PD at GPA.

“How does a leader support leaders?” she asks. “Sometimes, it’s getting out of the way. Sometimes, it’s allowing people to really take their ideas and go and learn from those and take risks.”

Illustration of a diverse set of hands holding up a stylized building.

The Power of Demonstrating Thinking

When Mann and Wilkerson had each small cohort of teachers create conversational norms, several themes emerged: to speak and listen from the heart, to embrace discomfort and to be open to change.

Mann and Wilkerson model those norms by showing their own vulnerability. They say they have cried at times. Wilkerson remembers sharing her initial ignorance about the experiences of people seeking refuge from south of the U.S. border. She explains that she had to seek out knowledge about those experiences to build understanding and become a more empathetic person.

And saying that out loud, she says, can help others recognize their own biases, embrace the feelings that recognition evokes and move on toward improvement.

“I don’t cry on purpose, but it was still a model to say it’s OK to feel through this,” Wilkerson says.

Since then, growth has manifested in a number of ways. Wilkerson and Mann note that people became more comfortable sharing out. Disagreements that may once have caused fragility or hurt in the person receiving pushback became constructive.

“It’s hard work,” Mann says. But she stresses the endgame: “If I held a bias and didn’t know, and discover it, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad teacher. It’s about doing the work to uncover I’m holding that bias.”

Creating space to do that work was a necessary step if the goal was to one day have these conversations about bias inform changes in classroom practice.

“We’re getting to that place of action in the curriculum next year,” Wilkerson says. “But this is such an important foundation so that we’re ready to receive that and not be hurt.”

 

Beyond the Teacher’s Lounge

A more inclusive conversation will also build on that foundation. Mann, Wilkerson and Boston Public Schools Community Field Coordinator Nicolasa Lopez have been awarded a grant from the Teacher Leadership Fund, supported by BPS and the Boston Teachers Union. It will help build the community’s capacity to do this work in tandem with educators and students. As with the audit, Mann and Wilkerson are measuring success by how far this can go beyond them.

That means sharing the power to facilitate—and seeing their experience and thinking encoded into practice.

This school year, $15,000 from the grant will help expand the work to learning communities of paraprofessionals, schoolwide staff, students and family members. Each group will have the opportunity to engage in conversations about bias from their perspectives—and all facilitators from each group will be paid, including students.

For Paul Tritter, this is a perfect application of the Teacher Leadership Fund, created to support teacher-led projects that empower marginalized students.

“You can’t do any great school improvement work—and especially anti-racist work—without involving all of the community,” he says. “In schools where you have black and brown communities who often feel disenfranchised in the schools, to engage the families, to engage the students, to engage paraprofessionals and teachers … it’s going to be empowering for everyone.”

“It’s not a hierarchy,” Mann emphasizes. “We are doing this together.”

Flattening the traditional hierarchy of PD and school decisions meant reckoning with who holds the power in a school like Gardner Pilot Academy. During the equity audit, participants noted that teachers were more likely to be white, while paraprofessionals were more likely to be people of color.

“To not provide that place of voice would kind of be reifying that power difference,” Wilkerson says, “because then, they’re not participating in a conversation that affects them and implicates them as well.”

This becomes particularly important when considering the student population of GPA: More than 80 percent are students of color, more than half face economic disadvantage and more than half learned a first language other than English. Given the diverse range of individual stories among students, Wilkerson and Mann think it’s important that they, too, have a say in how their school serves them.

“I don’t understand how we can talk about being bias-free and not include the people we’re serving,” Mann says.

 

The Outcomes

When Wilkerson and Mann committed to a qualitative equity audit, they understood that the lived experiences of staff members, students and families remained undervalued, given the systemic privileging of quantitative data. But they also knew their project would be met with a call to see outcomes, to see how the PD changes test scores or narrows opportunity gaps.

“When I do an assessment, I can see if the student needs growth in reading or math,” Mann explains. “But this is not something you’re going to see change in right away—or is even quantifiable. It’s qualitative, and that can feel scary when we’re not, as a profession, measured that way.”

“Quantitative data is often silencing because it’s that big number,” Wilkerson says. “Just like caravan is a big word that doesn’t actually narrate for you the experience of any of the people that are involved in the process.”

The conversations at GPA have illustrated the importance of lifting up these individual stories. And if thinking is the work, rethinking is the outcome. Rethinking biases. Rethinking curriculum. Rethinking the stories educators tell and to whom they grant agency to shape their own stories. Rethinking how they reached those conclusions and what it means for their practice going forward.

“Which is what we teach kids,” Wilkerson says. “We want them to demonstrate their thinking.

“Why can’t we?”

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.