MOVING BEYOND BEING NICE: TEACHING AND LEARNING ABOUT
SOCIAL JUSTICE IN A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP PROGRAM
Joanne M. Marshall
Iowa State University
Educators tend to be nice people. So do Midwesterners. A classroom full of
Midwestern educators, therefore, is bound to be full of good-hearted, salt-of-the-
earth types, genuinely concerned about the well being of children and dismayed
about inequity. However, this dismay is distinct from a deep understanding of social
justice and equity issues, especially as those issues relate to race and ethnicity.
Students from a predominantly White state at a predominantly White institution,
working and living within predominantly White communities, have limited experience
engaging with people of color. This lack of experience has at least two consequences.
First, students tend to define "diversity" simply as non-White racial and ethnic
identity, failing to recognize their own White racial identity, and failing to recognize
other diversity such as social class, religion, ability/disability, or sexual orientation.
And second, students are reluctant to talk about racial identity, viewing such
discussion as awkward lest they be perceived as racist, as well as somehow impolite.
While other scholars (Banks, 1999; Delpit, 1988; Haymes, 1995; Helms, 1990;
Howard, 1999; Ryan, 2003; Sleeter, 1995; Tatum, 1994; Young & Laible, 2000)
have written extensively about White racial identity and the importance of engaging
White students in discussions about it, fewer have addressed the awkwardness of
students viewing such discussions as "not nice," particularly within Midwestern
culture, where niceness is so highly valued. The work of Meadows and Lee (2002),
which specifically notes the interplay between conversations about race and the
"hidden value" of niceness in Midwestern culture is a notable exception.
Classroom challenges in an educational leadership program with
predominantly White students include: a lack of experience, ingrained niceness,
maintaining a mutual teacher-student respect in the classroom, and violating the
norms of niceness with uncomfortable discussions about culture and inequity. It is
not nice, for example, to ask students to reflect critically upon how inequity and
injustice occur and is perpetuated in their schools and in their hometowns. It also is
not nice to point out the benefits of White privilege and the ways in which Whiteness
is not culturally neutral. However, we agree with many others in our field (Anderson,
1990; Brown, 2004b; Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2005; Grogan & Andrews,
2002; Marshall, 2004; Pounder, Reitzug, & Young, 2002; Ryan, 2003; Scheurich &
Skrla, 2003; Shields, 2004b; Theoharis, 2004; Wallace, 2000; Young & Laible, 2000)
that critical inquiry and classroom conversations about it are vital for the preparation
of future school leaders so that they work actively against inequity.
We face the additional challenge of asking students to reflect on and discuss
these issues without coercing them (Sleeter, 1995) to try to please us through their
discussion or assignments to say what they think we want to hear for the sake of
their grade. Thus we strive to create a climate that allows space for saying what they
truly believe while encouraging them to question those beliefs more thoroughly. We
offer the following strategies as examples, which have seemed to work, though we
wish to note that our teaching and thinking continues to be in progress.
Context: Social Justice in a Foundations Course
The stated mission of our principal preparation program is "to prepare
reflective leaders who promote high quality schools that result in high levels of
learning for every child." We interpret the notion of "for every child" as consistent
with other definitions of social justice, which presume working for inclusiveness
against traditional school structures that have privileged some groups at the expense
of others. Thus, a course that examines leadership for social justice must include the
history and contemporary realities of issues such as race, class, gender, sexual
orientation, religion, language, and disability. As Scheurich and McKenzie (2006)
point out, social justice is "not simply the function of some small group or of a recent
time," but "began on the shoulders of others" (p. 10). Our course identifies some of
who those "others" have been.
While the authors agree with Marshall (2004) that social justice should not be
limited to discussion in one discrete course in a preparation program, it is logical to
address social justice issues in our program's required foundations course, which
requires that students reflect upon history and theoretical perspectives of schooling
within the context of their own cultural identity. We apply Tozer's (1993) framework
of what a foundations course should be: Foundations refers "to the cultural
phenomena that underlie any society's educational ideas and practices" as well as to
"the interdisciplinary field of study that was developed expressly to engage school
practitioners in the study of those cultural phenomena" (p. 8). Its purpose is to
assist educational leaders "in constructing meaning more adequately in their practice
as educational decision-makers," with the result that the course should "engage
students in studying the cultural dimensions of educational problems about which
[they] may be called upon to make decisions in practice" (p. 8-9). While Tozer's
framework is aimed at using social foundations to prepare teachers, we believe it is
equally applicable to preparing school leaders, as is a justification of teaching social
foundations in an accountability climate as explained by scholars such as Butin
(2005) and Bredo (2005).
Our foundations course is the second course that our preservice
administrators take, after an introductory leadership course. Thus, it literally lays a
historical, social, and political foundation for future courses in the principal
preparation program, engaging students with question such as: What are your
cultural values? How do individual and collective cultural values shape schooling?
How have American schools evolved historically? Two additional shaping questions
are: How do these cultural forces impact my school life? and How am I as a future
administrator going to respond to them? For a sample syllabus, see the course
website at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jmars/556sp6/home.html. This
foundation is not meant to be a single course on social justice leadership but an early
introduction and infusion of critical social justice issues during the beginning of the
preparation program. These issues and concepts are designed to be built upon and
strengthened throughout the program. For example, another course requires
students to make home visits to families unlike their own, and another requires an
equity audit such as described in Leadership for Equity and Excellence (Scheurich &
Skrla, 2003). The foundations course provides some introduction to why these
activities might be worthwhile.
Framing the Discussion: The First Class
After the usual opening-class introductions of people and materials,
discussion opens with the role of schools: What do we think schools should do?
(Sample responses: educate children, promote citizenship, help kids get jobs). How
do we know if we've been successful as educators? (Sample responses: tests,
community involvement, election participation). As the course continues, we refer
back to themes generated from this introductory discussion - e.g., How does
desegregation relate to that list we generated during the first class about what
schools should do? or How do the people in this particular situation define what
schools should do? How do those conceptions differ from other people's
conceptions? What could you as a school leader do to help minimize those
The instructor writes the word school on the board or overhead and asks,
"What forces impact schools?" This question generates a list of about 30 items, some
of which are linked (e.g., families-* involvement, income, education, race). (For two
helpful frameworks of how schools are impacted by culture, see Hallinger &
Leithwood, 1996). The next question is, "Which of these forces, as an administrator,
can you control?" Silence. The eventual response of "none" leads to a mini-lecture on
why this course is required:
• Schools are social institutions: both contributors to societal norms and
influenced by societal norms
• It is important to understand how we got here and where we might go
• Future administrators need to know how to work with forces beyond our
Follow-up readings for the next class include historical readings from Lessons of a
Century (Education Week, 2000). We also view the first episode ("The Common
School, 1770-1890") in PBS's video series, School: The Story of American Public
Education (Mondale, 2001). Finally, this first class concludes with an overview of the
concept of social justice including definitions (e.g., distributive justice) and a
rationale from educational leadership literature (e.g., Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 1997;
Ayers, Hunt, & Quinn, 1998; Brown, 2004b; Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2005;
Dantley & Tillman, 2006; Marshall, 2004; Marshall & Oliva, 2006; Scheurich & Skrla,
2003). From definitions, we move to a framework for doing, including a four-item
pedagogy of justice cycle (experience, understand, imagine, create) developed by
Hartnett (2001), and what we call a critical-questioning framework. We ask students
to apply these questions to situations they encounter:
• What is going on here?
• What are key assumptions?
• Who is in charge? Who is not in charge?
• Who is being heard? Who is not being heard?
• Why? How did we get here? and What can I do about it?
We ask students to describe tensions they have seen between equity
(fairness) and equality (sameness). We discuss: What is just? What is socially just?
For the following week, we assign two readings about the moral purpose of schooling
and leadership. The first is Goodlad's "Teaching What We Hold Sacred" (2003/2004)
and students are asked to consider two questions: What do schools hold sacred? and
What should schools hold sacred? The second is Fullan's "Moral Purpose Writ Large"
(2002), with the guiding questions of What does "moral purpose" mean? and What
kind of moral purpose would you like your school to have? What obstacles occur
when implementing such a moral purpose? We briefly touch on other leadership
literature such as Sergiovanni's Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School
Improvement (1992), Dantley and Tillman's "Social Justice and Moral Transformative
Leadership" (2006), and Shields'"Creating a Community of Difference" (2004a).
Practicing Reflective Analysis
Brown (2004b) suggests reflective analysis journals as one way in which to
make "the invisible thoughts invisible" (p. 100). Instructors require students to post
short weekly reflections on an online discussion forum (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT).
Students may respond to readings, to each other, or to situations occurring in their
schools. Because this reflective analysis is semi-public online, students have the
opportunity to start conversations that can be continued in class, and we as
instructors have the opportunity to prepare some more in-depth questions to foster
In addition, we require a weekly written reflection for the eyes of the
instructor only. This offers both a second round of thinking about the various
potentially uncomfortable and complex topics (e.g., desegregation, gender equity,
sexuality) and a chance to enter into a private conversation about these topics
without the public scrutiny of classmates/colleagues. As others who have used this
technique have demonstrated (Brown, 2004a, 2005a; Milner, 2003; Nagda, Gurin, &
Lopez, 2003), both of these reflection opportunities can be productive and important
in deepening student's thinking about social justice.
Social Construction of Family/Diversity
One of the key aspects of preparing future leaders for social justice in a
largely White, homogeneous leadership preparation program, is to ground discussion
in the social construction of family and family diversity. This provides an entry point
for examining an array of aspects of difference: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality,
poverty, religion, disability, and language.
We discuss the concept of family by discussing social construction. The
instructor first places a map of the world on a slide. The map does not have country
boundaries but has the continents marked in different colors. The map is displayed
"upside down." Students are invited to brainstorm what they see. Responses include,
"North America is in the middle," "Upside down," "Seven continents are marked."
Students are then asked to interrogate the map construction with questions like:
Why is the largest and most populated continent split on two sides of the map?,
What would it look like if Australia were in the middle?, and If space is three-
dimensional, how is this upside down?
After this discussion, definitions of social construction are provided (Cox,
2004; Gergen & Gergen, 2003; Singleton, 2002-2003; Wikipedia, 2005) and
discussed. Students identify and discuss how social construction fits with the
topics/issues of the class. This activity provides a concrete introduction into
understanding social construction.
At this point, the class moves into discussing families - working with and
understanding diverse families. The topic is introduced with a short clip from the TV
show Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch. Students discuss the image of family
that this show provided and how/in what ways this image dominates White
Midwestern thinking about family.
Family Activity. Next, in partners, students create a list of all of the family
configurations with which they have had personal experience. They describe each
family as precisely as possible, for example - African American biological
heterosexual Dad, White biological, heterosexual Mom, two mixed-race biological
Partnered groups are then asked to share one configuration at a time, round
robin style, going from group to group, until all configurations that groups had
recorded are shared. This creates a huge list of diverse families. All of these family
configurations are recorded visually for all to see, and the class discusses and
reflects on this activity using the following guiding questions.
• What did you notice/what struck you about the families listed?
• What can you generalize about families?
• Looking at this list of families, what implications does this have on school
In groups, students then brainstorm and share the two lists, moving this
uncomfortable theoretical discussion to practical administrative steps like the
• Specific steps/ways to effectively communicate with diverse families
• Specific ways to connect with/involve diverse families with your school
The following readings were used both before and after this session to expand and
challenge students' thinking: "The Way We Never Were: Defying the Family
Crisis"(Coontz, 1992), "Something Has Gone Very Wrong" and "Handicapped by
History" (Loewen, 1995), "The Bridging Cultures Framework" (Trumbell, Rothstein-
Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001), and "Only For My Kid" (Kohn, 1998). We have
found that these readings together provide various entrance points to explore the
assumptions and myth about families. For example, it is common for students, in
subtle and overt ways, to express that White middle-class and upper-class parent
participation is the kind of school participation desired. Kohn provides an important
lens for understanding the realities of particular kinds of participation. Additionally,
we have found that "The Bridging Cultures Framework" provided students with
important insights into cultural norms of diverse families through the description of
collectivist and individualist family beliefs.
One student reflected on the readings/session on family diversity:
I have a lot of things going in my head right now from class tonight and I'm not
sure where I want to start. I love the term social construction. I have to admit,
I have never heard it before but it totally makes sense ... As the Dean of
Students, I will be in a great position next year to work on these issues. On my
drive home I was thinking of all the ways I could work to break down that
"bubble" that keeps certain families and certain kids on the margins of our
Another student observed:
Seeing the different family configurations taught me to disengage my thought
of normal. To me normal family configuration consisted of a genetically related
father and mother with a child or two. While I was not oblivious to different
family arrangement, seeing the many different configurations changed my
perceptions and assumptions of what a family is in today's society. There is no
"normal." Normal is not what I perceive it to be, but rather what is lived by
those who are part of a given situation. The diversity of families is what is
normal, yet we construct norms of schooling, family participation based on the
values and belief that the Leave it to Beaver family is the norm ... it is this
growth in understanding [for me] that will help me to become a successful
While it is not "nice" to challenge and suggest that students' worldviews about
family are incomplete, a more complete understanding of family diversity is a
necessary step in becoming leaders for social justice. These students' reflections
indicate that we might be one step closer.
Talking about Race within a Largely White Preparation Program
Delving into the topic of race is essential in getting past "niceness" and
preparing leaders for social justice. As Ryan (2003) and others (Anderson, 1990;
Delpit, 1988; Freire, 1970; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Love & Kruger, 2005; Nagda et
al., 2003; Shields, 2004a; Young & Laible, 2000) have pointed out, administrators
tend to want to ignore race in their own schools, but such ignoring leads only to
continuing racist structures.
In order to start a discussion about race, we lay some groundwork for the
necessity of talking about race and prejudice in the context of a social justice/cultural
foundations course. We provide a short article from The Economist ("Racial
prejudice: Thinking about it," 2003), which summarizes a study that found that
people's ability to complete cognitive tasks slows down if they are trying to think
while also trying not to say or do racist things. Similarly we assign students to take
one of the online race-based "Implicit Association Tests" available at
As described in the popular book Blink (Gladwell, 2005), the Implicit
Association Tests provide a series of words associated with concepts of good and
bad, such as "glorious" or "hurt." In the Black/White race IAT, they also provide a
series of Anglo and African American faces. Test-takers are to assign the faces and
the words to the correct category (good/bad). The test-makers combine categories
to include both race and value: "White/Good" versus "Black/Bad" and then combine
"White/Bad" and "Black/Good." Taking too much time to assign the word "glorious,"
for example, to the category "Black/Good" would indicate that the test taker has a
slight or strong preference for White faces. As Gladwell notes, "the disturbing thing
about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly
incompatible with our stated conscious values" (p. 85). Even the nicest of educators
may discover that we are not as egalitarian and non-prejudicial as we thought. The
questions for our students are: If you're prejudiced - and we all are - how do those
prejudices affect your relationships with families and students in the school that you
lead? And what do you do about them?
A discussion of race in a largely White preparation program necessitates
beginning with Whiteness, using purposeful and structured conversations/activities.
We begin this discussion with the use of a visual slide (Figure 1). Students are asked
to silently write what they see. Students share their observations. They typically
include statements like, I see, "A series of dots," "Different clusters of colored
circles," "Colored patterns, one looks like a paw print." We validate what people see
and redirect the discussion to focus on the background of the slide. For the purposes
of beginning a serious investigation about race, we discuss the need to start with the
white background. We connect the students' observations about the colored dots on
the slide to the all too often and erroneous assumptions about race in the White
Midwestern United States, that race is an issue for African Americans, Latinos, Native
Americans, Asian Americans, and is not about Whiteness. We conclude this short
activity with the point that our discussion about race and prejudice begins with
focusing on Whiteness.
Next we establish ground rules for the conversations about race. These were
adapted from Beyond Diversity (Singleton, 2002-2003) and Courageous
Conversations about Race (Singleton & Linton, 2006): 1) Keep it personal, local and
immediate; 2) Isolate race (race, not socio-economic status, not culture, not
ethnicity, not nationality, not gender); 3) Agree to be uncomfortable and accept non¬
closure; 4) Examine the presence of Whiteness and its impact; and 5) Stay engaged.
We also provide "Distancing Behaviors Often Used by White People" (Edler & Irons,
2002), which has led once to a student haIf-jokingly asking another, after the other
had referred to his friends of color, if he was "being an expert," which is one of the
behaviors Edler and Irons list.
Using a technique called "Four-Minute Writing," students respond to 1 of 4
different quotes on race 1 . Each student shares his or her response, but can only
share what each has written. Next students read "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
of White Privilege" by McIntosh (1990) in class using a "Say Something" 11 (adapted
from Harmin, 1994) activity. Following the reading, they fill out a White privilege
checklist (Singleton, 2002-2003). The class shares their scores, how they felt, and
what struck them about it. Following this they read "White Privilege in Schools"
(Olson, 2002) and upon completion they go on a Talk Walk'" (adapted from Harmin,
1994) with a new partner to discuss their reactions to White privilege, where they
have seen or experienced White privilege in their lives, and where they see it in
schools. After sharing with the class the talk walk discussion, the class watches the
video The Color of Fear (W ah, 1994).
Upon finishing this intense film, students are asked to write about reactions,
gut response, and to probe why they think they reacted that way. Students are also
asked to pose two discussion questions for the group. As a follow-up assignment,
students are expected to complete the White privilege checklist with someone of a
different race than they are and have a conversation about it. Additional readings
include: Other People's Children (Delpit, 1995), "Unmet Promise: Raising Minority
Achievement" (Johnston & Viadero, 2000), Crossing over to Canaan (Ladson-Billings,
2001), "The Canary in the Mine" (Singham, 1998), "Breaking the Silence: White
Students' Perspectives on Race in Multiracial Schools" (Lewis-Charp, 2003), "The
New White Flight" (Hwang, 2005), "White Racism, Anti-Racism, and School
Leadership Preparation" (Young & Laible, 2000), selections on White privilege from
White Like Me (Wise, 2005), and selections on race from Adolescents at School
The following class session students share their experiences with the White
privilege survey, share/comment on important passages from the readings, and
watch the video The Difference Between Us from the Race, the Power of an Illusion
series (Herbes-Sommers, 2003). Students discuss how this topic of race and
Whiteness applies to future leadership and what they can do to alleviate the White
privilege in schools. While this is not a complete course on race and Whiteness, the
goal of including this topic in the foundations course is to create a beginning
understanding of Whiteness and for students to see and confront privilege in their
schools. Additional goals are for students to understand that race is not a topic with
a final resting point, that there is no magic bullet that nice White educators can
adopt to achieve racial equity in schools. We stress that through the discomfort of
and engaging in discussions of race, we build our language and capacity to see,
address, and speak to these issues.
While the instructors have no "hard" data indicating that these sessions are
effective for students, we look to students' comments from evaluations, reflections,
and on-line discussion. One student commented:
I honestly don't really know where to begin [about the session on race]. It
was disturbing, upsetting, uncomfortable, and eye opening. [In the video The
Color of Fear] as the White man kept expressing his views I kept seeing
myself, my parents, or other people I know. I used to believe that I wasn't
racist, but now I know I am. I think of my interactions with parents and
students. I am sure I didn't say "racist" things, but I am sure I probably
thought them, and it never even crossed my mind that the entire school
system was based on middle class, White values, and I am sure I imposed
those beliefs on my parents and students.
Another student reflected:
I find myself a little disgusted with my own race. It amazes me that we can
be so blind to the needs of others and so arrogant that even when we see
those needs we blame the "others" for having those needs ... I realize now
that if I want to reach all children, it will be MY responsibility to open MY
eyes, ears, and heart ... All of these things let me see the mistakes that I
have made in the past and the words, actions and thoughts that I have used
that are inherently racist. I was very disappointed with myself for these
faults. However, I have also come to realize, hopefully without being cliche,
that knowing is half the battle. At least these discussions have opened my
eyes and with this new knowledge I can find even more information and
continues my progression towards more equitable behaviors on my and my
Examining Whiteness, privilege, and racial inequity is clearly not a
comfortable experience for White students in leadership preparation programs. But
getting past a veneer of niceness allows for the possibility of becoming leaders
capable of enacting justice.
Talking about Social Class
While race has been "invisible" to our students because of their Whiteness,
social class has been invisible simply because "we don't like to talk about it." It is
one of the last social taboos; Fussell (1983) says that most Americans would far
rather talk about sex. For homework before our first session, we assign a reading
from Fussell ("A Touchy Subject") and ask students to visit the "You Are Where You
Live" section of the Claritas/PRIZM website
( http://www.claritas.com/MyBestSeqments/Default.isp7ID = 20 ) and enter the zip
code of the school they work in as well as the town they grew up in and the town in
which they live in now. Claritas/PRIZM is a marketing website which surveys
neighborhoods, categorizes each by "segments" and then identifies each segment's
typical ethnicity, income, and choices of restaurant, entertainment, and vehicle. To
open our class discussion, we ask:
• How accurate was the Claritas/PRIZM site for your lifestyle? For that of
• What similarities or differences do you see between the lifestyles of where
you grew up, where you live now, and the school you work in?
• What implications do they (either similarities or differences) have for your
practice as an educational leader?
• How does your own social class define who you are and how you interact
with the people in your school?
We continue this discussion about social class by asking students, in groups,
to define what class means, as well as to devise some criteria for what "middle class"
means in their school community: How are such people recognized? What do they
have in common? Since most of our students consider themselves "middle class,"
we ask, "How are you more or less receptive to families who are not like
yourselves?" We also use Payne's (2005) "Could you survive in poverty?," "Could you
survive in the middle class?," and "Could you survive in wealth?" handouts to further
the discussion about class differences and middle class norms in the United States
and in public schools. We follow this discussion with a case available from the
Harvard Family Research Project, "School Won't Let Mom Talk about Her Casino Job"
(McCown, 2001), which asks our students to determine what kind of occupations are
considered "okay" in a particular schooling context, and why.
From a discussion of social class in general, we talk about poverty in
particular. We ask students to watch a short online media clip, "Budgeting for
Poverty" (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005), which provides facts
about the current poverty level for a family of four ($19,307 yearly) and average
costs of necessities such as housing, utilities, transportation, etc. We have also taken
the data from this media clip and made it into a budgeting activity. For this activity,
students are put together in various simulated configurations of a family of four and
are asked to submit a budget plan. They are given the average costs provided in
"Budgeting for Poverty" and are asked to make a decision about what they will
afford, what they would want to afford, and what else they need that they could not
afford. While we recognize this is a very didactic activity, it has proven useful in
opening students' eyes to the economic realities many families face daily.
One student wrote about the video:
The poverty video really made me think about myself and the people around
me. As teachers we know we are not paid enough for what we do in the
classroom and for the preparation we do outside of the classroom. After
watching this video it really made me think about how much I make and how
much worse I could be off. I couldn't imagine having a family of four and only
living on $19,307 a year.
We also discuss Elizabeth Warren's research on the increasing bankruptcy of
the middle class: one in seven families file for bankruptcy, and the greatest predictor
of filing is whether or not families have a child (Potier, 2003; Warren & Tyagi, 2003).
Students are floored by the idea that bankruptcy is due not to overspending on
luxury items, but to overspending, for the sake of children, on a nice house in a good
school district. Students who teach in an affluent district are sure that such is the
case for the families they serve. One says, for example:
I sometimes assume there are not financial burdens on my students because
I never hear anyone complain about them, but I know now that this is not the
case. There are poverty situations and families everywhere amongst us.
Because our Midwestern institution serves primarily rural populations, we also
address rural poverty with readings such as Adolescent Lives in Transition (San
Antonio, 2004), Children of the Land (Elder & Conger, 2000), and Growing Up Empty
(Schwartz-Nobel, 2002). Our ongoing questions from these readings and in these
discussions are: What does poverty mean for the families in your schools? and What
does poverty mean for you as an educational leader? To enhance our discussion we
use a mini-lecture that includes statistics from state, federal, and non-profit agencies
on the condition of poverty, who in the state/country is poor, and myths vs. realities
of low-income families.
We have also discussed a Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership case
entitled "Advanced Placement Courses: Do Prohibitive Costs Exclude Financially
Disadvantaged Students?" (Brimstein, Milgate, O'Donaghue, & Yunker, 2000). In
discussing the case, we interrogate our own school practices that privilege or
disadvantage certain economic status. During these reflective discussions, one
student shared about the lunch program at his school. He also wrote about it for a
I never had realized this before, but our lunch program really discriminates
against our low-income students. At the middle school, all the kids who
received free or reduced lunch get the "pre-pack." [The standard, pre¬
packaged hot lunch.] They get no choice unless they bring money from
somewhere. Middle class and rich kids can buy the pre-pack but they can also
buy a la cart. They get to buy pizza, fries, granola bars, you know the stuff
the kids want to eat. I never thought about how this is really stigmatizing and
even mean. I mean come on, what middle-schooler wants hot turkey with
nasty gravy when they could have pizza?
Talking about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues
An essential component to an introduction to social justice in our foundations
class is purposeful time and attention to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender
(GLBT) issues. While it has not been "nice" to discuss White privilege, and not "nice"
to challenge erroneous assumptions about family, and not "nice" to question
collective understanding of social class, GLBT topics often have been the most
challenging and most uncomfortable for students. Given the reality that GLBT
students are victims of verbal and physical harassment at significantly higher rates
than their peers, faculty and administration "never or rarely" intervene about this
harassment even when present, and that GLBT students attempt suicide at higher
rates than peer adolescents (Kosciw, 2004a, 2004b), there is significant work to be
done in providing safe and nurturing schools. We recognize that we use very similar
curriculum and instruction in this area to that described in great detail in "Integrating
Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Topics and Their Intersections with Other Areas
of Difference into the Leadership Preparation Curriculum: Practical Ideas and
Strategies" (Capper et al., 2006). We refer readers to this work for important
pedagogy and content in addressing these issues. After one initial discussion of GLBT
issues (before we had truly gotten into this curriculum), a cohort of students
commented they had heard from a prominent state administrator that they should
"avoid" and "not touch" these issues. While this is disheartening, it solidifies in our
minds the need to create time and intellectual space to learn and wrestle with GLBT
One question that we have found especially fruitful for students to ponder has
been: How do you as an administrator balance moral, community, and religious
concerns with protecting your students and faculty? Such a question was provocative
in class and led to an expanded discussion on the electronic discussion board.
Additional readings to inform students include the 2003 School Climate Survey from
the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, selections from Adolescents at
School, and a case from the Harvard Family Research Project about a gay teacher
called "Reaching Out to the Only One There" (Berges, 2001).
Brown refers to "educational plunges" (2004b, pp. 95, 101), where students
are asked to choose a setting outside their experience to visit and upon which to
reflect. The assignment for this course gives students the option of either
experiencing something outside their own experience or reading a non-fictional book
outside of their own tradition. The options of either experiencing something "other"
or reading someone else's story provides students with some comfort of choice.
Students have chosen, for example, to visit a Buddhist temple, read All Souls, a
Family Story from Southie (MacDonald, 1999), or attend campus events related to
Black History Month or Women's History Month. They are then asked to reflect upon
the experience and do a short presentation in class with these questions as a guide:
• Provide a context for what you did, when, and why
• What did you expect of this experience and/or this other culture?
• What do you notice is different from the way people of your own
background would do things?
• What seem to be some of this culture's underlying assumptions?
• How do those underlying assumptions compare to those of your own
• How would or how do the assumptions of both your culture and that of
this "other" culture get enacted in school? (You can use secondary sources
if you don't know.) What conflicts could ensue?
• How did you wrestle with any stereotypes that may have been
reinforced/rejected during this experience?
• How would you as an administrator work with or provide cultural diversity
within your school?
As an extra incentive, students can count their time during this cultural
experience towards their field experience hours. Presentations have prompted
discussion about current examples of cultural conflict in students' schools as well as
what students would do as future administrators to encourage embracing of cultural
diversity. One important outcome from these cultural plunges has been that many
students have shared that this experience was one of the only times in their lives
when they felt they were in the cultural minority. This has consistently prompted
engaging discussion about how this feels, the behavior we employ in these
circumstances, and an opportunity to unpack our gut reactions. After going to a
variety of Asian grocery stores, one student reflected:
Once I walked in I felt isolated, alone, different (and not in a good way), and
kind of stupid. I could not recognize most of what was being sold. I wanted to
buy the one thing I knew I liked and leave. I could feel my behavior changing.
I did not want to make eye contact. I did not want to ask questions. I did not
want to let on that I was ignorant about this place. It was a quick slap in the
face about feeling like a fish out of water. I couldn't help thinking that this
might be a fraction of what minority students feel everyday in schools.
We have noticed that some students choose decidedly less adventurous and more
convenient educational plunges - for example, eating in a Mexican restaurant - but
in the spirit of non-coercion alluded to at the beginning of this article, we grade
assignments based on students' depth of reflection about an experience rather than
on what we think might challenge a student most. We have wrestled and continue to
wrestle with this decision. This helps, we think, to create a sense that students,
rather than we, are responsible for their own educational growth.
Case Study: Applying Theory to Practice
As a final project, students develop a case study of an issue in their own
schools, relate that issue to the course readings and discussions, prepare at least
two possible courses of action for an administrator in that situation, and present
their case and analysis to the class. This assignment has helped students apply
course themes to their own schooling practice. Students have written, for example,
about a conflict between a special education team and the parents of a special
education student, and of an increase of families of color in a small town and the
impact on extracurricular activities. Students have found it instructive to hear about
and consider what other districts are doing.
Students have said, for example, "The case study allowed me to develop a
greater understanding of White privilege and to examine the realities of privilege
resulting from written and unwritten policies." Another student reflected,
The case study was a good way of getting practical experience with the
concepts discussed in class. Knowing what to do in a given situation is made
easier when you have had the opportunity to practice . . . often people jump
to make decisions without thinking through the issue from multiple (i.e.,
racial, gender, familial) perspectives. This case study was an excellent
opportunity to apply the issues from class into my school. I had to look at
things in a whole new way.
Students present a synopsis of their cases the last day of class, and we find that
these real-life stories provide yet one more example for us all of ways in which social
justice and cultural issues continue to be present in school life.
Meadows and Lee (2002), who have researched challenges of preparing White
educators to work with primarily White populations, specifically mention the
difficulties of discussing concepts such as White privilege because of their students'
Midwestern self-image of themselves as "nice, fair, and polite" (p. Ill), which
contradicts assumptions of privilege. We acknowledge these difficulties as well, and
call for further discussion and research about how educators can encourage future
educational leaders to move beyond inherent niceness to work for social justice.
Further, we acknowledge the difficulty in assessing (Brown, 2005b; Flafner, 2005),
even through reflections, whether students actually have moved to a social justice
disposition or are simply spouting what they think their instructors wish to hear. In
acknowledging this difficulty, we challenge ourselves, and the educational leadership
field, to move beyond only investigating dispositions, and into examining knowledge
and skills. Capper, Theoharis, and Sebastian (in press) call us to include and assess
dispositions as well as look to addressing and assessing what leaders know and do
with their knowledge. For this reason, we include these essential disposition
components into our preparation program at the very beginning stage. Students are
then expected at the completion of the course to use the knowledge they have
gained and apply it to a case study, but also to use it in future courses and field
We do not wish to make a claim, nor could we make such a claim, that we
have achieved the right balance of curriculum and instruction to facilitate our
students becoming social justice leaders. However, it is our intent that in our
predominantly White preparation, program our "nice" students must begin to wrestle
with these issues at the onset and continue that process throughout their program.
It is also the intent that the faculty in our program wrestles together with these
same issues in designing, delivering, and assessing our work.
As a faculty and as a field, we have a responsibility to build experiences and
assessments that indicate if we are actually preparing leaders who not only possess
particular dispositions and say they believe in social justice, but can and do enact
justice in their schools. Dispositions cannot be seen as the final and only goal for
developing K-12 administrators committed to social justice. We have the obligation
to consider our effectiveness as it relates to our graduates and whether or not they
create more socially just schools. That is the ultimate assessment of our preparation
programs: whether or not our graduates move beyond being "nice" as leaders and
take critical, and often uncomfortable, steps to building more socially just schools.
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I The four quotes students respond to for this writing activity are: 1) "Playing the race card."
(Anonymous), 2) "I treat all my students the same, race does not matter."-Anonymous teacher, 3) "Why
can't we all just get along?" (Rodney King), and 4) "Sometimes the way I choose to identify myself makes
it difficult for you to hear me." (Audrey Lorde)
II Say Something strategy is a reading strategy that keeps readers active with the text. The class is placed
in partners or small groups, they read the text independently, and stop every section or couple of
paragraphs to "say something." Each person gets to say something, recap, clarify, ask a question, point
out something that struck her/him, etc. This happens throughout the entire reading.
III A Talk Walk is an interactive active strategy. Students are paired up and discuss the given
topics/address the questions provided while walking. Students are given a limited amount of time must
continue to walk and talk the entire time.
Joanne M. Marshall is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Policy
Studies at Iowa State University. She is a former high school teacher and
researches the relationship between spirituality and public schooling,
particularly the experiences of students, teachers, and administrators.
George Theoharis is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Inclusive
Education at Syracuse University. A former teacher and urban school
principal, his research focuses on leadership, public school leaders committed
to equity and justice, and the education of marginalized students.