What It’s Like To Be A Principal Of Color Dealing With White Parents

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/DYLAN PETROHILOS

In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in northwest D.C., a parent attending a school meeting is angry that her child doesn’t have enough time to play at recess. She berates the school principal — a black woman nearly a foot shorter than she is — in front of the other parents, pointing a finger no more than two inches away from her face and shouting, “How do you expect to keep your job?”

The principal has been at her new job for no more than five weeks, and recess time is unfortunately out of her control due to academic requirements for other parts of the school schedule and other factors. As more parents at the meeting demand answers about recess, the principal eventually tears up. She asks the parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are white, to please trust her.

Scenes like this play out all over the country, according to the administrators, educators, and community education advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress.

Nationally, only 11 percent of school principals are black and 20 percent of administrators are people of color in total. Meanwhile, the teaching population is still very white — at 82 percent of the teaching workforce. So these principals of color are often dealing with pushback from other white people in their district who may treat them as if they don’t have the expertise to do their job due to racial bias.

In recent years, principals of color have filed lawsuits alleging discrimination against school districts for giving them harsher penalties for certain behavior than white staff members, or for holding them more accountable for problems at the school due to their race.

These principals can run into similar problems with white parents, who may attribute all of the school district’s challenges to the administrator of color.

For example, a few years ago, teachers in Portland complained their principal was focusing too much on race and making white students and teachers feel uncomfortable. “It’s gone past the point of comfort. Even the kids of whiteness in our building feel they aren’t part of the building anymore. Our whiteness is constantly thrown in our face. We’re taught we’re incapable of teaching students of color,” one teacher told the Portland Tribune.

How white teachers undervalue administrators of color

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Jane, a black guidance counselor who asked to speak under a pseudonym after she was criticized for recent comments she made to the press about racism in education, is considered a mid-level administrator at her school. She said her ability to do her job effectively is constantly undermined by the white principal, white teachers, and sometimes white parents. The principal will micromanage her work and offers her little autonomy and trust. If Jane tries to broach the issues that are making it difficult for her to do her job, the principal will essentially say it’s Jane’s problem.

“[Human Resources] was actually involved and her response was that she doesn’t know when she can bring things to me because she doesn’t know how I’ll take them or if I’ll get angry, so I was like ‘Oh great, the angry black woman trope, you pulled that out real soon,’” she said.

This lack of trust in administrators of color to do their job, and defensiveness when they’re criticized for it, often extends to the relationship between white teachers and administrators of color. Christopher Emdin, the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, said it’s common for him to see this dynamic play out.

Emdin said that the career trajectory of principals of color has something to do with this. In schools where the majority of students are people of color, white teachers may expect any teachers of color to act as a “behavior modifier,” or the authority figure that students will respect and listen to because of their race. Then, when teachers of color are tapped to become principal, their other forms of expertise, such as in pedagogy, are discounted because white teachers only see their talent through the lens of their race and their interpersonal skills with students of color.

It is overwhelmingly popular with white teachers who think they can do a better job than the black and brown principals they already have.

“I’ve seen that play out in a way where there’s an African American school leader that is deeply enmeshed in and entrenched in the culture of young people, their own language, and almost has a familial relationship to the students, and a white educator who doesn’t really understand those cultural dynamics — they perceive the principal’s interaction with the young people as undermining the kind of control and management strategies the teacher is trying to implement,” Emdin said. “They’re like, ‘Well I didn’t learn this, so why is the principal allowing the kids to listen to music?’”

Emdin said white teachers may not outright criticize a principal but may subtly undermine him or her by saying things like, “I don’t know, that’s just what my principal told me to do” — coded language that essentially communicates they don’t agree with the principal’s decisions about how to lead the school.

According to Emdin, having a principal of color in charge can sometimes even be a motivator for white teachers to become more involved in school administation.

“I’ve heard this language a lot: ‘Well if they have these people being a principal I might as well get my principal license too,’” Emdin said. “There are a number of quick teacher-to-school leader programs, especially in New York City, that are a couple courses you take over the weekend. And it is overwhelmingly popular with white teachers who think they can do a better job than the black and brown principals they already have.”

How white parents approach administrators of color

The relationship between administrators of color and white parents can be extremely fraught in gentrifying neighborhoods, where white parents may feel entitled because they’re helping to “improve” the school. If the school doesn’t bend as easily to their requests, the principal of color becomes an easy target for their frustration, sources working in gentrifying schools say.

A school consultant who works in gentrifying schools on the east coast, who asked to comment anonymously and will be referred to as Lisa for the purposes this story, said she has seen parents target and try to undermine principals of color in various ways that she said seem tied to the principal’s race. Throughout her time working with communities where schools are led by black principals, she has been taken aback by many of the incidents she’s seen.

They would specifically say, ‘She’s so terrible. How dare she?’

In one district, for example, parents would openly talk about the black female principal on an email listserv even though they knew the principal received those emails. Just two months after she started working there, parents circulated a petition to get her fired. “They would specifically say, ‘She’s so terrible. How dare she?’” Lisa recounted. “I got the impression that particularly with a black woman, she seemed more vulnerable, like they felt like they just didn’t have to respect her.”

In magnet schools and schools in low-income areas, many white parents develop a white-savior complex about their role at the school, sources say. Parent organizations tend to be all white or overwhelmingly white as and many parents are affluent, so parents of color and low-income parents are often discouraged from participating in those organizations in different ways. Sometimes discouragement happens through participants who scoff at parents of color and low-income parents and their priorities or scheduling that prevents them from attending because they work outside a 9-to-5 schedule. Many white parents also tend to expect principals to cater to their whims — even when it comes to issues that are actually districtwide decisions principals have limited to no control over.

Lisa has observed white parents, many of whom coordinate to decide which schools in gentrifying neighborhoods they want to send their children to, expect the school to change for them. In one case, a group of only six parents demanded a school with very few native Spanish speakers start a Spanish immersion program, forcing the black principal to do research on the issue even though the majority of black parents opposed it. In another case, a parent explicitly told the principal that a school event, as well as future events, would have to be changed due to the influx of white students.

“He actually wrote that the ‘demographics of this school are changing, so why does it seem like we have to do something to pander to the community that has been here for such a long time? You have a new community coming in,’” Lisa said. “So this is pretty bold that people are willing to put these things in writing.”

I’m a lame duck administrator.

According to Lisa, part of the issue may be that white and affluent parents who are sending their kids to schools in gentrifying neighborhoods are finding themselves working against the same mechanisms of systemic discrimination low-income parents and parents of color have faced for decades. They typically aren’t used to this kind of struggle, she said, and they may not know what to do with their newfound frustration.

“They’re coming in and they are bumping up into the same systemic frustrations that black and Latino and parents of color have had since the ‘90s,” Lisa said. “The system was really set up to keep those parents out and was not set up to invite those families in. The system never jumped when those parents told them to jump, so I see that you have white and higher income parents now coming in and they see something that should be addressed and they expect the school to jump. And the school doesn’t jump.”

At the magnet school where Jane works, black parents who feel sidelined sometimes come to her to complain. But she knows there is little she can actually do to change things.

“A burden that I take in my job is that they all complain to me, and I’m glad that they’ve got that, but then I can’t take it anywhere,” Jane said. “No one above me will allow me to do anything about it. No one below me will allow me to acknowledge that these are actual problems that parents of color are bringing to the forefront. I’m a lame duck administrator.”

Where can we go from here?

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Although racial bias on the part of white teachers and white parents can’t be erased with a few easy steps, there are some ways to facilitate a better relationship between these groups and administrators of color, experts say.

According to Emdin, schools should hold discussions about the assumptions people hold about each other before the school year starts, including everyone — parents, teachers, and students — and how to be more respectful of one another. And there should be some training for principals of color to prepare them for some of the unfair challenges they will face.

Cultural competency shouldn’t only be geared toward teachers’ relationship with students, but should instead focus broadly on the entire parent community. Community liaisons can help foster better conversations between parents and principals, so that principals don’t have to point out themselves when a parent’s tone is disrespectful.

“What I’m finding is when you call out issues around race, it’s automatically perceived as racist. People get upset about that,” Emdin said. “And so my way forward, whether we talk about school principals or classroom learning, is always about people talking about what got them to where they are to resolve whatever perception they have about each other before the school year starts.”

Teachers and parents in general also don’t seem to understand what administrators do on a regular basis. The mystery behind their work exacerbates the frustration parents have with administrators in general.

“There is this mystique that surrounds what they do.”

“There is this mystique that surrounds what they do, and so people have this idea, like ‘Does he even know whats going on? Has he ever been in the classroom?’” Emdin said. “All those kinds of questions often come from people not knowing exactly what person does. So I’ve worked with schools to have the teachers follow the principal for the day, to have the parents at the school for a day, and what happens is the complexity of the role of the school leader opens up and then the assets the school leader has emerges.” Chris Johnson, the principal of Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia, said that although he has dealt with racial bias in his career, he has a pretty positive relationship with parents and teachers because he tries to include them as much as possible in decisonmaking.

“We share the budget with the parents and they see that we have no money, so when I ask them for money, they’re more than willing to provide us with support,” Johnson said. “I say here’s our budget, here is how much teachers cost.”

Johnson said he’s also determined to always foster a climate where it’s clear to teachers and parents that every child is a priority at the school and that each child should have the same opportunities.

Of course, administrators of color shouldn’t bear the burden of navigating white parents and white teachers’ racial biases. It is the responsibility of white teachers and parents to understand their own biases so they can appreciate the work of administrators of color and foster a better working relationship.

In order to get there, Emdin suggests white parents and teachers ask themselves a few questions.

“White teachers need to ask themselves, ‘What are the necessary tools to be a successful educator or school leader in an urban school?’ When you view the work of the school principal from the lens from what it should look like if I were in a space that looks just like me, then you don’t have the opportunity to see skill sets outside of your expertise in order to recognize them,” Emdin said. “We often times end up slipping into narratives about people, not because we’re bad people, but because we slip into perceptions based on our misunderstanding of ‘the other.’ And so to move forward we just have to question those things amongst ourselves.”