As educators prepare for the start of the 2020–21 school year, we are facing unprecedented challenges as we seek opportunities to innovate, collaborate, and implement necessary changes to do what is best for our students. Here’s something you need to know. The combined effects of the murders of Amaud Abrey in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus, the recession, massive job loss, and overall feelings of isolation have forced people to become more aware of race, equity, inclusion, or a lack thereof. It’s been interesting to witness history repeat. I also wonder, why now? And now what? As we grapple with the coronavirus and racial unrest, I have been reflecting on my experience as a Black administrator who has led three majority-white schools.
I am a Black man. I am well-liked, accepted, and appreciated. I process information; I am soft-spoken and thoughtful. I care deeply about school culture and climate, and I have a knack for connecting with various people. I have several mentors, Black and white, male and female, who believe in me and saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. These mentors, combined with hard work, have opened doors to leadership positions in two majority-white middle- to upper-middle-class communities in Ohio. The death of George Floyd has forced me to take my role even more seriously. The spotlight on racial injustice and equity is shining bright, so there is greater awareness.
To my white administrator colleagues, I need you to understand what it’s like for administrators like me, especially right now. I am angry, frustrated, anxious, and at times, depleted. I am confused about what to tell you when you ask for help or ideas about how to respond to the racial unrest. Why? Because this repeated history is simply exhausting.
About a week following the murder, I was in a Zoom meeting with other building administrators when one asked, “Dwight, what can I do? How are you doing?” As I responded to his genuine questions, out of nowhere, I was overcome with emotion. I tried to choke down the lump in my throat, but the more I fought it, the more powerful my feelings became. Through tears of pain, anger, and quite frankly fatigue, I shared stories and experiences that I thought were stored away. Everyone sat stunned, and listened. All it took was simply asking how I was doing. Have you asked your Black colleagues how they are doing? How often? Are you willing to listen?
To my Black administrators, I want you to know I see you, I understand how you feel, and I know what you have been through and are going through. You may feel isolated, misunderstood, or confused about how you should respond. Seize this moment to make a more significant impact. Be the beacon of light of which so many are searching. Use your voice, share your story, and stand proud in who you are. As a Black administrator in majority-white schools, I have learned:
1. I am the “first” for many. I have been the first Black teacher, colleague, or school leader that many of my students, teachers, and colleagues have ever had, and that carries a lot of responsibility. When I became principal at Gahanna Lincoln High School, a middle-class suburb in Columbus, OH, the first week I was in the office, an older Black lady who lived in the community entered the main office. As I sat at my desk, I heard her ask my administrative assistant if she could speak with me, which caused me to look up. When my secretary and I locked eyes, I nodded to her that our guest could come in. I got up from behind my desk and greeted her at my door. She had such an endearing smile. As I stuck out my right hand, she softly took my hand in both of her hands, and I noticed tears welling up in her eyes. Before I could ask what was wrong, she said, “It is such a pleasure to meet you. You don’t know how big this is for you to be our principal. I have been in this community my entire life, and to see you here is wonderful. God bless you and know many people are so happy for you.” I gave her a warm embrace, thanked her for taking the time to visit me, and she left. It was hard to hold back my tears, and immediately I felt the enormity of what was happening. I took for granted the historical significance of my becoming the principal. I was the first for many, including her. As a successful Black professional man, I also carry additional burdens. My free time isn’t always like white administrators. It’s even harder at times to recharge my batteries.
2. I debunk stereotypes. Any principal position includes power, influence, and responsibility. A part of my duty as a Black administrator in a majority-white school is debunking stereotypes and bias about Black men in general. I recognize that how I present myself in my appearance, speech, communication, body language, and presence send a powerful message, and others are watching. This goes for all school leaders, but it’s even more important as a Black man. I had a college professor named Dr. Welker, who challenged me to improve my annunciation. He kindly pointed out that I cannot afford to slur my words. He took it upon himself to coach me through it and suggested I practice in front of the mirror. His lessons remain at the forefront of my mind every day, and I am thankful that he spoke up to remove a potential barrier to employment. This goes for all school leaders, but it’s even more important as a Black man.
When I was principal at New Albany High School, in New Albany, OH, an affluent Columbus suburb, I had an experience where I lost my temper. It was toward the end of my last year there, and I got extremely upset about how a situation with students was handled. I intervened, as asked, and in turn, I took my anger out on the students. And it was ugly. I then showed my emotions when I returned to the main office area, which shocked all who were present. After I calmed down, I knew I had shattered many of the principles I spoke about and tried to model every day to the students, the teachers who witnessed my behavior, and my administrative assistant. Luckily, we had a close enough relationship where she shared her concerns. I remember her saying, “Dwight, you can’t do that! That was really bad. You can’t do that…” I knew what she meant, even though she used different words. I can’t afford to lose my temper like that. Ever.
3. I am a doorway for others. Since I am the first, I am also opening up the possibility for others who look like me to get a leadership position—or not. Each day, I carry the enormous responsibility of knowing that my performance is a litmus test for others, which may lead to a job opportunity or rejection. For example, if I royally screw up as a school leader, others may think twice about hiring someone who looks like me. However, if a white male leader messes up, there will not be a second thought about interviewing or hiring someone who looks like him. This disparity may exist for any marginalized leader, and bringing it to light may start a conversation about implicit bias in hiring practices.
4. I am a spokesperson. Whether I agree with it or not, I recognize that in some cases, I am a spokesman for the Black community. This is not fair, but it is a fact. And it is more prevalent today than ever due to the racial unrest in our nation. We typically associate and have close friendships with others who look like us. Thus, when protests took place all over the country and there was an awakening to the racial inequities, I was the only Black person some knew with whom they could talk. I took it as a sign that people felt safe expressing themselves, asking questions, or seeking understanding. Admittedly, it was a little overwhelming because by no means do I, or any person, have all the answers, but it was also nice to know those who reached out trusted me to be honest with them. I have also had experiences where educators asked me about Black behavior as a way to gain understanding. I offer my perspective, offer advice when asked, and ask questions. However, I get it wrong sometimes, because being Black is not monolithic. Being Black is a nuanced, diverse, living, and breathing culture. The sooner we understand that, the better educators we will be for our students, and each other.
5. I am a role model. NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once said, “I am not a role model.” I know I am a role model, and I embrace it. I know students are watching, especially my students of color, and in particular my Black male students. I take this role seriously and seek opportunities to connect with them often. However, I make it a natural process—not a formalized mentoring program, but day-to-day interactions: saying hello, getting to know them, asking questions about family and interests, and just being there. Many open up about their fears, concerns, frustrations, hopes, and dreams. When I started my new role last year, I immediately connected with three Black male students through an opportunity to change behavior. It was one day in the first week of school, and the narrative I heard about these young men wasn’t great. When we got to my office, I began my monologue with an intense tone, expecting blowback. However, they sat and respectfully listened. My body language softened as I looked into their eyes. They looked defeated, and it was only the first week of school. I quickly pivoted, pulled up a chair, and asked, “Fellas, what’s going on? Tell me how you are doing?” An hour later, I heard their stories. They felt like they had a bullseye on their backs. We unpacked why they felt that way, and I asked them to let me know what they needed from me. They needed someone they could relate to at school; a connection. My office became a safe space for them. When they felt disrespected by a comment or gesture, they came to my office to talk it through before reacting. In my 18 years as an administrator, I have been accused of being too hard on Black males while also being accused of being too easy on Black males. I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t, so I do it anyway.
As a Black administrator in majority-white schools, I know that I have changed perspectives and created opportunities for students, staff, colleagues, and families. During a time such as this, educators are hungry for knowledge about what to do, how to do it, and whom to talk to. If you are seeking answers, start by doing the work on yourself. Learn to identify your biases, triggers, and pay attention to how you approach your students and staff. Ask yourself, “How is my behavior influencing the school climate and culture?” Take advantage of this moment to become comfortable with uncomfortable self-reflection; engage in courageous conversations about race, equity, and inclusion; and do the work to develop personal skills to effectively lead in such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
Dwight Carter is assistant director of the Eastland Career Center in Groveport, OH, and the 2013 NASSP Digital Principal. Follow him on Twitter (@Dwight_Carter).