Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Back in 2020, the Leading Equity Center, the podcast, it really started to take off, and I found myself in a position to where I am working two full-time jobs. I am special education director at my school on the reservation, and I was also basically watching the Leading Equity Center grow into an entity that I found myself putting in roughly 40 hours a week on the Leading Equity Center. And then also, I'm putting in another 40 hours at my daytime job. So needless to say, I am working my behind off.

               And when you start to do a lot of things, and you have other responsibilities, that's just the work side, that's not including family, that's not including your mental capacity, that does not include your inner energy, in order to maintain all of these responsibilities. And when you start to think about what that looks like as an educator, because in 2020, March, the pandemic hits. Now we're all forced to stay at home. We're not able to do the things that we are used to doing on the personal side. The family dynamics has changed. I went through a divorce. It was a very stressful time. I'll just put it there. I'm not going to go into details regarding all the ins and outs, but it was a very stressful time. And like I said, I'm still trying to maintain my sanity and be the best educator that I can be at the end of the day and the father that I can be at the end of the day.

               Welcome to the Leading Equity Podcast. My name is Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins, and for over a decade, I've helped educators become better advocates for their students. What is an advocate? An advocate is someone who recognizes that we don't live in a just society. Advocates aren't comfortable with the status quo and are willing to speak up on behalf of others. No matter where you are in your journey towards ensuring all of your students are equipped with the resources they need to thrive, I'm here to help you build your knowledge and confidence to ensure equity at your school.

               So the thing about being educators, we're humans. We're humans first. I should probably say it that way. We're humans first. And what does that mean? Because sometimes we hold our students to certain standards. We expect our students to perform in spite of everything that they have going on. We expect them to perform well. We expect them to do all the things that we require of them in a orderly fashion, if you will, according to our rules and regulations. And sometimes we forget the social and emotional side of what it means to be a student. When we think about what it takes as adults to deal with the social pressures, to deal with financial constraints, to deal with uncertainties, when it comes to dealing with loss and responsibilities, and then we come to class every day, we come to our schools, we walk in the hallways, and we're supposed to keep a smile on our face. Sometimes it's difficult.

               I live in Idaho. A few years ago, there were quite a few murders of Black men, unarmed Black men, by the police. I remember coming into work one day feeling isolated, feeling alone, feeling like I didn't have someone to talk to that could understand what I was going through. When Michael Brown was shot and killed, I was school principal in Oregon, the only Black staff. I remember showing up to work the next day for a staff meeting, to lead a staff meeting, and I had to show positivity. Initially, I had to kind of pretend. Initially, I felt like I needed to pretend as if things were normal, but I could sense it in my staff, that they knew that I was bothered. I've never been one of those people that's really good with a poker face. If I'm bothered and you know me, you know that something's bothering me. I'm not good with covering that up.

               So I remember sitting there in my staff meeting and just telling them, I think someone asked me, "Are you okay?" And I just said, "No, I'm not okay." See, even when we are in leadership positions, we're expected to have a certain character and we're expected to stay positive and never to be bothered and [inaudible 00:04:36] because we know that folks are looking at us. Our staff depends on us to hold the ship in line as the captain of the school. But at the end of the day, we're still human beings. And sometimes we forget about that. So even when we're in charge of our classrooms, when we're in charge of our classrooms, again, our students are looking up to us, and they expect us to be a certain way, but you know what? Life happens. Life happens.

               I'll be honest, this last school year, and I remember having this conversation with my former principal, and I told him, I said, "Listen, I've been here all school year, but I've been dealing with a divorce. And although I've been physically at this school, I haven't been at the school." When it came down to it, I had to make a decision, because I'm glad that there's a lot more conversations happening regarding mental health. But I just remember having a conversation with him, said, "Look, for my sanity, with everything I have going on in my life, I'm not going to be able to keep this job. I'm not giving the kids the best. I'm not giving the school the best that they deserve right now. I need to choose my sanity, my mental health, over anything else."

               Here's the thing. We talk about relationships all the time. And I am, I'm a big proponent of the importance of relationships. One of the things that I would argue about the majority of our students in the classrooms and the halls in our schools, and we could even start as low as preschool, all the way up through higher education, through your doctorate degree, if you're going that route, I think one common denominator through all of that is I would imagine, I don't think it's an argument that all of our students can appreciate authenticity. The thing about it is we can sniff it out. Students can sniff it out. They know what's up. If we aren't genuine, if we're not being ourselves, if we are not bringing an authentic experience for our student, they recognize that, and I don't think that's going to strengthen any relationship.

               Being authentic also means that you're okay with being vulnerable. That's part of being authentic. If I'm not willing to show some sort of humility, if I'm not willing to show that I can be vulnerable, that I have challenges, that I have things going on in my life, you know, I used to tell my students sometimes in class, I said, "Don't let the suit fool you." You know when kids try to roast you and they try to test you in class? I used to say, "Don't let this suit fool you." We don't have to put on a show all the time. Sometimes I would say, not even sometimes, I would just argue that the best way, again, is to show our human side. We think that because we are adults, and again, we have folks looking up to us or we're in leadership positions, that we have to be an expert, that we have to behave and act a certain way.

               And kudos to all of the schools that are out there that are social emotional learning oriented, and that emphasis is not extended just to students, but also to staff. Shout out to the principals, superintendents who recognize the importance of mental health, who recognize the value in taking care of their staff. I believe that a school is a community. It's not just for one person. It's not just for students. It's for families, parents, guardians, community members, faculty, and staff. And if you are in a leadership role, the importance of ensuring the school culture is positive means, again, we need to be attuned to the emotional needs and stress of our family. I'll just say stakeholder, school family. We'll call it school family.

               When we're doing equity work, there should never be an us versus them mindset. Instead, recognize that you are in it together with your school community. Do not be afraid to show your students, your parents, other stakeholders, that you don't know something, and that you are still developing your capacity for understanding the experiences your students have at home and at school. Being vulnerable is not the easiest thing, trust me. It's not the easiest thing for educators to do because we operate from an authoritarian often and classroom leadership perspectives. We operate from a leadership perspective. However, students respect the fact that a teacher is unafraid to display their lack of understanding and willingness to learn from their students.

               Here's some questions I want you to ask yourself. How can I expect students to feel safe, to share about themselves, if I am not willing to do the same? Who are the people in my life that can serve as accountability partners in my pursuit of an equitable environment? Where's a safe space, a system or resources that will allow me to engage in conversations on how to better serve my school community? Another way that humility can work is participating in the same activities as your students. If you are having students participate in discussions and activities that require them to share personal stories and understanding, model that same vulnerability by opening yourself up to helping students get to know you on a personal level.

               Now, here's the thing. That does not mean that you need to pour your heart out to folks. That's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is I think a student can appreciate knowing that, you know what, I'm dealing with some struggles, just like maybe your parents or guardians are dealing with, or just like what you're dealing with, too. Or, I dealt with something similar when I was your age. I think a student can appreciate that. Again, you don't have to go all into details. They don't need to know everything. Just knowing that there are similarities and some experiences that we can relate to provides a little bit more empathy, and again, helps build the connection between you and your students.

               The thing about vulnerability, again, it's not just to your students, but it also is important for your colleagues, your peers. When George Floyd was murdered, I mean, again, this is during the pandemic, you had a lot of people that were paying attention. It's not like police brutality, the death of unarmed men of color, or women of color, this wasn't the first time. But I think when George Floyd's murder happened, it happened during a time when folks were at home. And I don't want to say ... Folks were at home, and they were paying more attention to social media. I had a lot of educators, especially a lot of white educators, reach out to me during this timeframe and said, "Sheldon, I feel like I need to say something, but I don't know what to say. You're a person that I respect, and I value your opinion. I would love to get some of your thoughts on how I can approach this."

               Anytime I get asked for support or my opinion, I always preface my answer, my response, with "This is my opinion. I do not speak for everybody." I remember helping a lot of folks out and providing a lot of tweets. And just as much as I could, again, this was in the middle of, again, a lot of personal things I had going on, but at the same time, I felt like that there was a need and I wanted to support folks as best as possible. But sometimes when it comes to coming to people for help, especially when it comes to difficult conversations, I know a lot of people are very uncomfortable with having conversations about race. And not only that, they recognized that even though they were uncomfortable, they needed some help. And it's an honor that folks will reach out to me. And I was happy to provide any support that I can.

               But again, it takes humility. Some of the people that reached out to me were known people within their industry, within their field, very respected, highly regarded people. It takes vulnerability and humility to reach out to someone, to let someone know, "Hey, listen, I don't know what I'm doing. I'm supposed to know what I'm doing, but I don't. I'm still trying to figure this out. I wasn't prepared." The thing about it is we've all been wrong. There's no perfect educator. There's no perfect person. Whatever experiences you had and have had in your life, we make mistakes. And we learn from those mistakes. I always tell people, don't dwell on these things, take it as a learning experience and an opportunity for growth. But you have to be willing to acknowledge that you might have been wrong and understand that we all have implicit biases that can misinform how we perceive the world.

               The decisions that we make, a lot of those choices come from our lived experiences. So whenever you're reaching out or whenever you're being vulnerable, humble, approach those conversations with the goal of learning and understanding, not persuading or convincing. When I was a school principal, same school, I remember it was a smaller school and I was the only Black staff and my daughter was the only Black girl in the entire school. And I remember there was a new family coming in that were interested in our school. We were a private school, and this family came and they had a Black son. And I remember listening to the guardian as they told me, "I want my child here because they have a Black principal. And I want my child to see this."

               Me, on the other hand, was excited, because again, I was happy to see a Black family and I was very happy to see a young boy that I might have some opportunities to connect with. So they enrolled their child into my school. It wasn't long before this kindergartener had some challenges. There was a kid in his class, no, actually there was a kid in the first grade that used to call him chocolate boy. Keep in mind, this young boy was in kindergarten, so he didn't think anything of it, didn't recognize or realize what was happening. He didn't try to stop it. But I remember, I think the teacher overheard it. And somehow I was notified of the situation, that this child was being called chocolate boy. Being the only Black staff, I honestly didn't know what to do.

               This was years ago. This was before I started the podcast. This was before I got into this work. I didn't know what to do. I felt some political pressures being the only person ... I already felt like being who I was and what I identified as, I had to work twice as hard and I had to prove myself that I was worthy of being in this space. To deal with a racial slur or racial issues in the midst of a community who probably has never felt or had to really think about these type of things, the type of things that I had to think about or this young boy would have to think about and his family had to think about, I didn't know what to do.

               This happened on a Friday, and rather than immediately addressing this or working on this or doing anything about it, I didn't do anything. I figured, well, I'll spend the weekend and I will think about what to do next, how to handle this, how to address this. Monday morning, I get a call from the parent. "My son's been called chocolate boy, and I heard that you knew about this. I'm disappointed that you didn't even at least call us to talk to us about it. You did nothing. I feel let down. We brought our child here because we thought our child would be safe and secure. Because guess what? Our kindergartner has a principal who looks like him. I'm disappointed." As an educator, as a school leader, as a person of color, I felt bad.

               I let the guardian know, I said, "Listen, I'm sorry. You're right. I didn't do anything about it. Honestly, I didn't know what to do. I know I didn't handle this right." Now, here's the thing. It takes a lot to say, you know what, I was wrong. It also takes a lot to grow and say, you know what, never again. Ever since that day, that experience, that week, anytime I hear of situations where a student is dealing with challenges with bullying when it comes to racism, when it comes to prejudice, oppression, I made it my business that especially if I'm in a leadership position, to address these things immediately. At least notify the parent or the persons involved and say, "Listen, I don't have a decision right now, but I just want to make sure that you're aware that we are working on this." That was a lesson that I learned.

               The parent was more disappointed, and I knew that they were upset, but they were disappointed that nothing was done. I didn't even contact them. But again, do I dwell on that and wrestle with it to where I can't function, or again, do I take this as a learning experience for an opportunity for my own personal growth as being a advocate? There is no such thing as you have arrived, you are an equity expert. I do not believe in that. I believe that equity's such a broad term that you can't arrive, or you can't ... I don't believe that there's a degree, that there is a level of mastery, because there's so much.

               There's so many different things that I will never experience when it comes to equity. I'm a cisgendered heterosexual man. There's going to be a lot of challenges that I will never experience. I will never know what it's like to feel discrimination as a member of a LGBTQ+ community. I'll never know what it's like to feel any sort of gender bias as a woman, or I don't have to worry about walking down the street in the dark by myself or my safety. That's not something that I think about.

               When it comes to humility, we also have to consider the importance of how sometimes things make us uncomfortable. See, when you're reflecting on and learning from your mistakes, it's not the easiest thing to do. In fact, it's pretty tricky and it might even hurt your pride a little bit, especially those first few times that you make mistakes. But that is what these conversations are all about. That is what being able to say, "Hey, I need your help." Or, "Hey, I made a mistake." The owning those things, taking responsibility, sometimes we have to try to figure out ways to get comfortable. And I've been shifting away from the conversation about being comfortable with your discomfort. It's more, for me, it's more of the importance of being confident in your approach.

               The more you build, the more you take the time to educate yourself, the more experiences that you have, the more aware you become when it comes to being an equity advocate, the more confident I want you to be, to build your knowledge. But when it gets uncomfortable, that's the moments when we need to stand in it. That's the moments where we need to be confident. As you become closer and closer and get closer to being a more equity focused and equity minded individual, it's not going to be easy. It's not supposed to be easy. It's going to be hard work, but stay the course, model your own vulnerability and humility, be authentic for your students and their families and the community. Be authentic as you develop your skills on this equity journey.

               This episode was brought to you by the Leading Equity Center. For more podcast interviews and resources, head on over to leadingequitycenter.com.


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