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Be Like Tom.

Updated: Dec 12, 2021


Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams

School Leadership for Social Justice

October 5, 2021


I recently saw a post in a principal group on Facebook that inspired me. It was a middle-aged white principal of a mostly white school with a small percentage of Black students asking for help in how to improve outcomes for his Black students. Let's call him Tom.

Tom was reflecting on his school's data and recognized startling performance gaps in his school, specifically in early literacy and school readiness, and wanted to know how to reach the parents of Black students and how to get them to engage more in school and in their students' education. Let me first acknowledge that Tom approached this issue with true humility, explicitly naming that he had no idea where to start or what to do. So much of how Tom approached this was spot on: I see a problem and I want to do something about it. I also recognize that I don't really have the tools. But, Tom is not alone. Many school leaders report feeling ill-equipped to lead for equity. Check out this Instagram post that shows just how many leaders feel the same way.

While so much about Tom’s post and call for help was right, there was one thing that stood out: the solution Tom presented - and those presented by so many others who chimed in - focused on external factors rather than internal factors. Here's an important truth: Leading for equity and excellence starts with us. It starts on the inside! It starts with each of us making a personal commitment to equity. And, it starts with learning about ourselves, realizing what we don't know, examining our own biases, our own identities, our own practices, and the structures we have consciously and unconsciously held up that harm students of color. It starts with asking hard questions like:

  • What have I done that has promoted this inequity I now see?

  • How have I been complicit in a system where students of color aren't having the same outcomes and school experiences that white students are having?

  • What do I need to know and understand about families of color that will help me lead for equity?

Inequity is absolutely a problem in schools. And we absolutely must do the work to upend educational inequity. But the work starts with us. It requires us seeing differently, thinking differently, and doing things differently.

Here are 3 important mindset shifts you can make as you start your journey toward becoming a social justice school leader:

  1. Be like Tom. Acknowledge the problem and know that you have to do something. This is our job as leaders. We solve problems. Tom was ready to solve the problem.

  2. But don't be like Tom. The real problem is not the parents or students, and neither is the solution found just in what they need to do. Adopt an asset-based mindset rather than a deficit mindset when it comes to students and families of color. Rather than thinking there's something wrong with THEM, see their strengths and instead seek out the gaps in opportunity and access.

  3. And be like Tom. Approach your learning with a spirit of humility. What do I need to know about families of color? What do I need to understand? Also, what do I need to know about myself? Cultural humility is about learning about other cultures, but it starts with an examination of your own beliefs and identities.

If you’re like Tom and you feel ill-equipped to lead the work of equity in your school, remember you are not alone. Want to learn more about becoming an equity-focused, social justice school leader? Be sure to join our private Facebook group and follow us on Instagram where we share critical learning about teaching and leading for excellence, equity, and justice! We are on a mission to ensure that every student of color has highly effective teachers and school leaders who are racially conscious, culturally competent, and equipped to lead for equity and excellence. We’ve got you covered!



Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leader in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.

As co-founder and partner of SLSJ (School Leadership for Social Justice), Sharla works with her partner in equity and justice, Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, where their work is focused on equipping educators to teach and lead for excellence and equity and helping everyone everywhere find their place in achieving a just and equitable society.

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