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What “Lead by Example” Means for Students of Color

Updated: 6 days ago

One of the most used expressions in leadership is “lead by example”. Unfortunately, our future leaders of color don’t have access to people that look like them, and share their challenges, in influential positions. 

Equity in education is a work in progress, and industries, politicians and professional sports teams are all scrambling to “fix” inequity but overlooking the community leaders who have already started making the social change we need on a small scale. 

Students of color are isolated by their race and, sometimes, their income.

According to Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education, “It is the measure of segregation [that] is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap.” For example, according to The Washington Post, schools are more segregated today than they were 40 years ago. The majority of students of color “attend schools in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods.” And, after high school,  these students are generally able to access the jobs they can walk to. However, these jobs do not provide them the chance to disrupt the cycle of poverty, or challenge the ways of thinking that keep the cycle of poverty in motion. 

What we need to be doing is giving students of color opportunities to talk to the leaders of color who are forcing the doors of opportunity open, and holding that door open for the ones who will follow them.

I’m a product of New York City Public Schools, representing for Queens, NY, and I always felt something was missing from my education. My teachers didn’t really get me. I was painfully aware, without being able to verbalize it, that watching Fast and Furious in Earth Science was not a good use of my education and was a poor attempt to meet our interests. I’m putting you on blast, Mrs. Williams.

It wasn’t until I had a teacher that looked like me and talked like me-who sent my best essay back three times, while insisting I could do better-that I could begin to imagine myself as more. I’m shouting you out, Mr. Gurrero, because you’re the reason I dressed the way I did as an educator.

My students would always go, “Uh! Mister Anzer, why you dressed like that? You got an interview?”

“Nah, I’m dressed like this because I’m here to teach you, and that’s important.”

I knew how important it was to show them that someone who walks like them,  listens to the same music as them, and who came up like them could affect change in the world, no matter how small. They needed to know that no career is off-limits to them, and they needed to hear that and see that from people they admire and aspire to be like because that’s what I needed.

My experience isn’t an isolated one. A recent study found that “when students had teachers of the same race as them, they reported feeling more cared for, more interested in their schoolwork, and more confident in their teachers' abilities to communicate with them. These students also reported putting forth more effort in school and having higher college aspirations.”

Most importantly, this truth extends beyond the classroom and beyond students of color to everyone who is under-represented as research shows: “role models have an amplified benefit for women due to the gender biases, institutional barriers and negative stereotypes women have long had to contend with...In short, seeing is believing.”

We need to give underrepresented future leaders the chance to see people like them doing the things they want to do, or didn’t even know they could do. This is the most critical aspect of developing these future leaders to impact their own social change and it’s transformative in a way that a check or a donation of a dozen new computers can’t be. 

When our students get to explore these leaders’ stories and see themselves mirrored in these positions of influence, they’ll begin to imagine themselves as more, just like I did. And as they learn from, and talk to, these leaders, they’ll seamlessly connect their natural inquiry to an imperative question: how am I like all these accomplished people?

One quick application of this that can be incredibly influential is as simple as opening your classroom to a guest speaker that looks and speaks like your students, or is from the same neighborhood as your students. This simple practice will validate the identity of your students and support them in considering how they directly impact the communities they live in. 


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