One Schoolhouse's April 22, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on fostering diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the online space with Gene Batiste, chief diversity office at St. John School in Houston TX and chief catalyst with Gene Batiste Consulting. Gene discusses: the biggest DEIB challenges facing schools in the midst of COVID-19; new boundaries and expectations for learning from home; and, embedding your school's values throughout your crisis response.
BRAD RATHGEBER, Head of School & CEO at One Schoolhouse: So, Gene, first, actually, can you tell us a little bit about your background in this work so that everybody has that sense of it?
GENE BATISTE Ed.D., Chief Diversity Officer at St. John School in Houston TX and Chief Catalyst with Gene Batiste Consulting: Thank you. So I've been involved in these DEIB work or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging almost since birth. Having been born and raised in a military family and living overseas, I had the benefit of going to Department of Defense Schools and being in a multicultural setting. My parents were from Texas and Louisiana, so I would have gone to segregated school. That's where my passion for DEIB began.
In the early 90s, I worked in my first independent school. There, I really began to see the connection between academic learning and the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So I was at St. Mark's School of Texas for nine years as a teacher and as a mid-level administrator of a scholars program and in diversity work. At that time, I was connected with NAIS through some committee work. I presented it to people of Color Conference and after spending a year in St. Louis as an Assistant Head and Director of Upper School, I joined NAIS for 13 years, serving as Vice President for Professional Development first and then for leadership development in equity and justice.
While I was at NAIS and working at the national level on things like the People of Color Conference, on developing and implementing an assessment of inclusivity multiculturalism called AIM, I went back to school and got my doctorate at Penn and started my own consulting work and actually started consulting with the school where I'm currently serving as chief diversity officer here in Houston, Texas. And that's what brought me to where we are.
BRAD: Your background is just amazing. And it's so helpful in helping us think through these challenging times that we have right now. From where you sit, Gene, what are some of the challenges that you've seen just emerge perhaps differently during this time of COVID 19 than you've seen previously?
GENE: I think the first thing that's coming to mind is the very impact of community has been thrown on its ear in the wake of COVID-19. And the other thing I'm thinking about involves all the gains and the progress that schools have made and diversity professionals and school leaders have made in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging either are lost or they are being put on the back burner. And that's for understandable reasons to some extent, because we need to be about still being school and still focusing on teaching and learning in this new way.
I think that as I hear from diversity professionals around the country, some of them are feeling that they're not being consulted or involved in contingency planning, which is very ironic because these very diversity practitioners have been trained in crisis and trauma management. And so that sense of disconnection between the very expertise in how to be community from these individuals and not involving them or consulting them in this process. I'm concerned also and I'm hearing concern about this “getting back to basics” approach to teaching and learning in schools, particularly independent schools.
And then finally, there's a stark impact of socioeconomic and class diversity that is very much apparent in this space with virtual learning, particularly synchronous learning, where teachers and students and other adults in the community are seeing each other in their home space. And so we are seeing very obvious signs of socioeconomic and class diversity in how backgrounds are presented. Some folks are actually camouflaging their real background with a screen or something. That's a reality. One of the blogs I'm following is a teacher is suggesting actually seeing a benefit of a particular comes to culturally responsive teaching, allowing her students to see her in her home space, but not just doing one static background, but actually doing her lessons from different parts of her home so that her students can see her real lived experience.
And then a final challenge, I think, is around assumptions -- just all of the assumptions that are coming will be challenges for our schools. Assuming that you have Wi-Fi connection, assuming that you know you're OK and assuming that students can thrive when they're dealing with trauma and crises and by extension, that adults are OK. And so I think that school leaders and diversity professionals are really going to need to confront the assumptions that are coming to surface because of COVID-19.
BRAD: There is so much to unpack there, Gene. Can we follow up on a couple of things you said in there. The first one is that you're hearing from many DEIB practitioners that they're worried that it's taking a backseat or completely out of the vehicle kind of at this time. What message does this convey about our school values and how might we be able to embed those values more fully into the way we respond to this crisis?
GENE: What is that age-old adage from Maya Angelou, “when people show you who they really are, believe them.” I think diversity professionals and school leaders that are passionate about DEIB are wondering if the words that are very impactful in our statements of community and inclusion or in DEIB are simply words. Now is the time where we take a look at those words and we try to engage with them again.
I think that this idea of extending grace and leniency is very important. We recognize as diversity professionals that schools need to run in this new and present reality for us. Diversity professionals need to be mindful that school leaders are trying to see how schools are going to survive when it comes to tuition. I know that Jeff Shields is doing a session next week on this.
Once a rhythm is in place for that, then we need to come back to looking at our statements, looking at our commitments and principles to DEIB and make sure that those are actionable and not just flowery speech.
BRAD: Are you finding concerns with kids in impacted socioeconomic terms, older siblings taking care of little ones while parents need to work? Thus those kids' difficulty in managing synchronous learning opportunities at schools.
GENE: Right. Particularly synchronous learning that I am hearing about because, parents are either working in the home or if they're not, if they're essential, particularly we're seeing that here in Houston with our medical staff, our medical parents as well. That is a concern. Again, grace and leniency really needs to be in place here. I know that a number of schools are modifying not just their expectations for learning, but also they're modifying their school schedules so that it's not an 8-5 or 8-3, but it's perhaps only a 9-1 or they're doing 30 minute classes and providing an opportunity for modifications as needed given the home circumstance. This is what the core of culturally responsive teaching is all about, where you set up a trusting relationship with your students, where you're mindful of their lived experience, what they're bringing to your virtual classroom, and making adjustments as necessary.
BRAD: Any ideas about honoring transition's traditions and farewells, particularly in this space?
GENE: Yeah, whether it's graduating from kindergarten, going from middle to upper school, or graduating high school, schools are asking: “how do you do that in a virtual space?” I'm hearing some very innovative ways of doing this. First, just honoring the difficulty of honoring those rites of passage and those transitions, I think is key throughout all of this. My core message is communication and transparency are going to be so important and then finding novel ways. I heard one example a few weeks ago in a Zoom conference that the Glasgow Group sponsored about a school that is honoring their graduating seniors with “graduation in a box.” They're including their cap and gown and the diploma, a letter of congratulations from the head, some confetti or noise maker, and putting it in a box and just shipping it to every graduating senior. Just, you know, just as one example. While not the same as face to face can be, it is a short term kind of solution. But I think it's also important to realize we're simply postponing these important transitions. We may do them later rather than cancelling them outright.
BRAD: So, Gene, I also want to follow up on something that you said earlier, because it relates to a topic that we've discussed in these webinars previously, and that is that schools should think really inclusively and expansively around the talents that they have in the building. So a previous example was understanding that an athletic director is almost always somebody who is amazing at operations, and can help leaders think through some of your operations on campus a little bit differently. You talked about DEIB practitioners as having a really interesting, expansive set of competencies that leaders might not necessarily initially gravitate towards. Can you expand a little bit on that?
GENE: I think that because DEIB professionals are working with classroom teachers on curriculum. They're working with your division heads and with your associate head or your head of school when it comes to hiring and retention. They're asking those key questions about culturally responsive teaching and they're asking those key questions and offering resources for cultural competency, which is going to be another very important thing to promote during this time of COVID-19. And so I think just making sure that you include their voices and it may not necessarily be the answers they have, but the questions that they ask that can help in managing and thriving within this new reality.
BRAD: Do you have any suggestions for teachers or administrators on how to connect, reach, support students, and families who aren't responsive or who are disengaging in this distance learning environment?
GENE: I'm reading and hearing a lot about that happening, particularly in the public school sector. I haven't heard about it quite so much with independent schools, though, that that's not to say it's not happening. I would recommend that we be proactive and that we consider every avenue, including using email, using text. But if you need to get in your car and do a drive by in a little bit of a honk on your horn to say hi; that kind of face-to-face kind of connection may be important. I've heard from both my undergraduate school as well as a former school where I taught from their advancement office just reaching out to say we don't want any money. We just want to connect to let you know that we're concerned about you. Every avenue that you already use to communicate, continue with those but also consider a new way, including a drive by to let those that are disengaging or are reticent to engage that you're still there.
BRAD: I've heard of that, too, I've heard of teachers taking their homeroom list to just doing drive bys around neighborhoods and saying hi to kids through their windows. Are there resources that you found particularly helpful to share with families to help them navigate this time at home.
GENE: Yeah, a lot of great stuff. I know that NPR and public TV have a lot of great resources. Scholastic is offering a lot of great resources as well. For those that are particularly concerned about diversity, equity, inclusion and blogging or social justice, Teaching Tolerance offers a lot of great resources that can be modified and used by families as well as by educators for keeping that culturally responsive space in mind. NAIS has extensive resources they make available on their website. I would recommend that diversity practitioners and leaders seek out the Zoom and Google conferences that are available because they too are curating resources. NAIS is doing it, the Glasgow Group is doing it as well. And I'm noticing that more and more state and regional associations are responding. I think utilizing the expertise of others in the field through virtual meetups is a very present and very helpful resource.
BRAD: It is wonderful to see, Gene, how the whole community is trying to come together and starting to maybe figure that out. Are we getting to the place or where we're starting to figure a new reality out?
GENE: I hope so. I think that, again, as schools are getting into a rhythm of synchronous and asynchronous learning, they are trying to rethink community. One tool that I would recommend for diversity practitioners and school leaders is to use something from organizational development called reconstructing questions. I use this a lot in my consulting work too, take your statement on community and inclusion or take your principles around DEIB and ask four questions:
1. What are we doing now that we can do more of that promotes DEIB in our school given this new reality?
2. What are we doing now that we should do less of what we are doing?
3. What aren't we doing that we should be doing?
4. What are we doing that we need to stop doing in order to, you know, not just maintain but thrive in community and inclusion in DEIB with this new space?
Using these for reconstructing questions that have served me and served the schools I serve very well and reimagining and rethinking a number of important things, including your DEIB work.
BRAD: You know, that's a nice transition, that leads us to a question from a participant “What we need to be thinking about as DEIB professionals going into the fall of 2020?” I know that a lot of schools that I've been working with, Gene, have started to shift from “OK. We can get through this year” to “What the heck is the fall going to look like that?” That shifting conversation seems to be happening right now.
GENE: One thing is to think now about the new ways that diversity professionals and school leaders that are passionate about these DEIB will do their own professional development this summer. I'm seeing that a number of organizations and institutions are moving to virtual PD for DEIB. Seek those out and continue with your own development in this area. I know that in my own case we have community inclusion associates at St. John's and we're going to have a spring retreat virtually.
And part of that is going to be to start our planning for 2021. Those faculty forums and those other ways we're going to involve our faculty associates in doing professional elements. Start working on your calendar now, realizing that you want some flexibility to it. Make sure that your PD is in place and make sure that you're thinking strategically now about plans. Do this in a co-creative way.
This is an opportunity in a virtual space to involve school leaders, to involve students and to involve parents in reimagining DEIB work and how to deliver it. What a way to get buy-in from your community if you say, we really want to rethink what we are going to do in DEIB come join us and be part of this effort!
BRAD: Are any other things that we should really be thinking about as academic leaders in our schools, particularly, I guess, focus towards not just completing this school year, but understanding that we may be in a very different environment heading into this fall?
GENE: I think that in teaching and learning and even simply being in a school, understanding the crisis and trauma created is very, very important. We haven't talked about social emotional learning, but there is a strong link between striving to be a school and the impact of social emotional learning for students and making sure that you have SEL in place not only to finish off this year, but for next year as well.
Adults in the school community need as much grace and leniency during this time as we are affording affording students. Use this time to collaborate with other schools, use NAIS, use Glasgrow Group, reach out to others that you know and share your ideas and share your struggles with DEIB and COVID-19. One of the good things we are going to get out of this is that we’ll be collaborating more and see a level of interdependence moving forward.
I think that's basically it. I'm always available to answer questions beyond this. I'm just so grateful that One Schoolhouse is realizing the importance of this conversation for school leaders.
BRAD: Gene, we all appreciate the expertise that you bring to this conversation and the care and thoughtfulness that you bring to everything that you do. So thank you so much for joining today and for offering your guidance for academic leaders.
GENE: My pleasure. Thanks so much, Brad.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)