#106 – Increasing Black Leaders’ Opportunities to Serve as Superintendents and School Leaders

Unpacking Education August 17, 2022 41 min

Our guest, Dr. William Campbell, shares that his favorite moments being an Assistant Superintendent often come from interacting with the students in his district. He recalls such a moment when he was visiting one of his elementary schools. On that visit, he overheard a student asking another, “Who’s that tall Black man?” In response, a young African American boy turned to his friend with pride and said, “That’s the boss of all the principals.” As a school leader, Dr. Campbell understands the impact he can make on the expectations and aspirations of the students and staff he serves.

Dr. Campbell recently finished his dissertation on ways to increase Black leaders’ opportunities to serve as superintendents and school leaders. In this episode, we discuss the key concepts of this research and explore ways to increase the diversity of leadership in our schools. While Dr. Campbell’s research focuses specifically on experiences in Minnesota, we discuss how the concepts and strategies can be applied more universally to other states, school positions, and underrepresented groups of educators. Join us as we unpack ways to bring more equity to positions of school leadership.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American Baptist minister and social activist

Increasing Opportunity

The topics of equity and opportunity reverberate throughout this episode. Specifically, we discuss how to increase leadership opportunities for underrepresented groups of educators. How do we open doors that might appear closed? How do we break down barriers to make advancement more achievable? How do we recruit qualified and licensed individuals to apply for positions of leadership? These key questions and more drive our conversation.

As you listen to this episode, you will hear about Dr. Campbell’s personal journey and the research he uncovered while writing his doctoral dissertation. He also shares some of his conclusions, including possible actions that can be taken to increase leadership opportunities for people of color. The following are a few highlights from this episode:

  • Dr. Campbell’s Journey: Dr. Campbell recounts how his journey began in North Philadelphia, where opportunities could feel limited. He remains thankful for a friend’s father who helped him enroll in college. He also describes a career in teaching and his ascension to school leadership positions, including principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent. He also talks about the importance of those in the system who have reached out to help and provide opportunities for advancement to underrepresented groups of educators.
  • Becoming the First: Dr. Campbell moved to Minnesota 4 years ago and became the first African American Superintendent to ever serve in a rural Minnesota district. This experience has made him keenly aware of the need to explore why there were so few Black leaders in the state and how this number can be increased.
  • The Importance of Mentors: There are a number of challenges facing educators of color who wish to become school leaders. One of those challenges is awareness and perhaps not having the belief that the opportunity is attainable for them. Mentors can play important roles in overcoming this hurdle. In fact, Dr. Campbell’s research reveals that most, if not all, of the Black leaders surveyed for his dissertation have had some sort of mentor who encouraged them to pursue a position of school leadership.
  • Barriers to Becoming a Superintendent: There are a number of barriers that may prevent Black leadership from ascending to the position of superintendent. One is licensing requirements, which can make it more difficult to move to Minnesota from another state. Another is the lack of connections that leaders of color may have to other state leaders. Still another is the appearance that a position may be unattainable or undesirable because of the lack of diversity in the district looking for new leadership.
  • Challenges on the Job: Leaders of color who rise to a position of leadership face unique challenges once they are in those positions. Challenges include a limited network of other leaders of color, difficulty accessing mentors, and the occurrence of regular microaggressions. Dr. Campbell reflects that these microaggressions are a “daily reminder that you’re Black.”
  • Code Switching: “When we are not allowed to show up as our authentic self in different spaces, it stifles the creativity. It stifles cooperation. It stifles trust,” notes Dr. Campbell. He explains how it is common for people of color to be criticized for how they talk, how they dress, and how they act. He talks about the challenges of code switching, “where we are expected to dress a certain way, look a certain way, speak a certain way, respond a certain way to fit in.” This experience, he shares, is “exhausting.”
  • Recommendations: There are a number of actions that districts and states can take to increase the number of leaders of color. They can identify classroom and building leaders who have the qualities to lead and support them in pursuing a path of leadership. They can encourage the licensing boards to reexamine licensing practices and make it easier for leaders to move from one state to another. Current school leaders can reach out, encourage, and mentor others who have potential to lead.
  • A Broader Relevance: While the findings of this dissertation focused specifically on Black superintendents in Minnesota, Dr. Campbell believes that the findings also relate to other states, school positions, and underrepresented populations.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • Are there leaders of color in your school, district, and state? Is this representation proportionate with overall demographics? Explain.
  • What limitations might educators of color face in pursuing an administrative license in your state or district?
  • How might your school encourage more applicants of color to apply for leadership positions in your district?
  • What personal examples can you share of both the struggles and successes of leaders of color in your community or state?
  • What licensing requirements might be restrictive in your state? Are there ways to accommodate strong candidates who may need to update a license in order to accept a position in your district?
  • How can you encourage students of color in your district to consider careers in education and educational leadership?