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Dr. Decoteau J. Irby’s life work focuses on creating and sustaining organizations that contribute to Black people’s self-determined well-being, development, and positive life outcomes. He is an Associate Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. He is the author Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership (Harvard Education Press) and the picture book Magical Black Tears: A Protest Story (Derute Consulting Cooperative).

Show Highlights

Parallels between live performance and leadership to overcome the plateaus of learning.
Relationships with mistakes and failure create more equitable schools for all our students.

Redefine mistakes to take the pressure off and create a better performance.

Strengthening the conditions of your school community requires an important commitment.

Create transformative experiences between a teacher, a student by connecting the learning process to how we facilitate learning.

Racial equity breakthroughs and how they act as indicators of progress.

Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership

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Learn why the ABCs of powerful professional development® work – Grow your skills by integrating more Authenticity, Belonging, and Challenge into your life and leadership.

 

Break from the status quo most schools are built around and stop celebrating false positives.

“I think that leaders should be really mindful to seek out coaching, to seek out opportunities to learn. I try to give myself a major learning opportunity about every seven years. And that might mean, enrolling myself into a leadership training program that has nothing to do with my work.”
- Dr Decoteau Irby

Madeline Mortimore
Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership

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Read the Transcript here.

Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership

Daniel (00:02):
If you’ve ever performed live, maybe it’s through an athletic performance, theater, music, or speaking. You know, the fear of making a mistake. When you’re in the arena and all eyes are on you, there’s a certain, very physical and mental response when you mess up. But the interesting thing is, if you don’t necessarily tell everybody you messed up, they might not even notice. Often as leaders, we take things way too personally. What do you do about that? How can these live performances actually help us become a better leader? How can our relationship with mistakes and failure actually create more equitable schools for all our students, especially our black and brown students? We’re gonna talk about all that in today’s show. Hey, it’s Danny, Chief Ruckus Maker over at Better Leaders, better Schools. And this podcast is for you, a Ruckus Maker, because you invest in your continuous growth, you’re challenging the status quo, and you’re designing the future of school now. We’ll be right back after a few short messages from our show sponsors.

Daniel (01:31):
Learn how to successfully drive school change, and help your diverse stakeholders establish priorities and improve practice in leading change. Certificate in School Management and leadership course from Harvard Leading Change runs from February 15th to March 15th, 2023. Apply by Friday, February 3rd, enroll by Thursday, February 9th. Get started at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard. School Leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time. Give your students more opportunities to learn in class by monitoring the talk time for teachers and students. Check out Teach FX for yourself, and learn about our special partnership options for Ruckus Makers@teachfx.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, which equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid, or traditional educational setting. Learn more@organizedbinder.com. Hello, Ruckus Makers. Today I am joined by Dr. Decoteau Irby, whose life work focuses on creating and sustaining organizations that contribute to black people’s self-determined wellbeing development, and positive life outcomes. He’s an associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. He’s the author of Stuck Improving Racial Equity in School Leadership by Harvard Education Press. In the Picture book, Magical Black Tears, A protest story. Welcome to the show, Dr. Iby.

Dr Decoteau (03:29):
Thank you so much for having me on, Danny. I appreciate it.

Daniel (03:32):
The pleasure is mine. We both play guitar, I’m sure you play it much better than I do, but I’m curious, what has guitar taught you about leadership, especially when it comes to the plateaus of learning?

Dr Decoteau (03:47):
Thanks for this question, and I don’t know if I’m better than anybody. I think a lot of how I think about guitar is in large part how much of a both individual and collective endeavor it is when you’re learning. I think that is leadership too. One of the things that I’ve learned is that there’s this kind of back and forth between how much work you can do on your own and how much you can do yourself. How much better you can get yourself, and there’s a limit to that. The opportunities to work with other people, to play with other people really expands the possibilities of what you can do. You can just do so much more in a group and in a collective than you can as an individual.

Dr Decoteau (04:35):
But, there’s this back and forth because playing guitar, playing music by yourself is also required too, because there’s muscle memory and repetition that’s really important. So you can just do some muscle memory without thinking. And that’s similar to how I think about leadership. Like there’s certain things, certain decisions that you will make, certain things that you do that are routine that come from just this practice of repetition, but then creativity requires a more deeply intellectual kind of thinking approach. I think the creativity comes from being around other music, other musicians that pull out things that you might not have thought of and that you can emulate and see things that they do and try to do things that they do. The main way that I would answer that question about what guitar has taught me is that it’s really important to be consistent to practice what it is that I want to be able to do, but also to take the risks of, playing with other people, trying new things. Anytime you get into one of those group situations where you’re playing with other people, it’s always gonna test you? No situation, even if a song is the same, you never play the song the exact same? It’s impossible to do. Every situation is new. The other thing that I think that I’ve learned is that there’s new directions and beauty and creativity and mistakes. Sometimes you might hit a wrong note or you might do something that kind of sounds strange and then you kind of just have to go with it. When I hit plateaus, one of the things that I’ve learned is that hitting a plateau really requires taking a completely different approach. So if I’m learning, if I’m stuck, for example, and playing the major pentatonic scale, and that muscle memory is there, my fingers want to just do that, and my mind wants to do that because it’s so comfortable.

Dr Decoteau (06:47):
The way to break out that pentatonic is to not try to play it in necessarily, well, you could try to play it in different positions, but really you should try to play a whole different scale to break you out of the consistency of playing in the major scale. For example, in the major pentatonic, you might wanna just say, “Ookay, I’m gonna play in the minor scale, or I’m gonna play in a major scale for two weeks straight.” You’re never gonna forget your muscle memory from pentatonic scale. If you go to a different scale and start to play that, it’ll help you begin to integrate with that scale that is already locked into your muscle memory. So yeah, I think the big thing is that, and then the other thing is getting coaching. Taking lessons, learning from other people when I feel plateaued. And I think that leaders should be really mindful to seek out coaching, to seek out opportunities to learn. I try to give myself a major learning opportunity about every seven years. And so that might mean, enrolling myself into a leadership training program that has nothing to do with my work.

Dr Decoteau (07:49):
I took this program from a group called Center for Progressive Leaders, and it was just totally different from what I was doing in my day job. And then I started to do something similar this year. So I think that just breaking out of a genre or particular pattern is really important for overcoming plateaus.

Daniel (08:07):
In some ways you’re talking about disrupting yourself almost and disrupting the routine. The muscle memory is good and then the leadership connection. You might have mental models and different ways of approaching different leadership challenges and that’s good because you don’t want to waste a whole bunch of mental energy trying to reinvent, how do we solve this challenge all the time? But the one thing that’s coming through with this music metaphor that I’m hearing from you is the importance of disrupting that automatic so that you can break out of plateaus and lead to more growth. There were a number of things that you said there, like playing different scales, getting around different kinds of people, investing in programs and coaching, which of course as a coach to school leaders, I love hearing that because that’s what I do. I support every school leader who wants to grow, get mentorship, and level up. Like that’s my jam. I really appreciate you bringing that up. Let’s make this choose your own adventure, because the threads I wanna pull on, one has to do with the different groups you might play with live or you mentioned something interesting about mistakes and failure. Where do you wanna take the conversation?

Dr Decoteau (09:26):
Oh, wow. Yeah, I mean, maybe we can go with mistakes and failure.

Daniel (09:29):
You talked and I heard the wrong note as you played it too. And then you get this whole response while you’re playing live and like, whoa, tell me what you do with the mistakes in that moment. I would wanna hide immediately. Who heard it, who’s looking at me now? And that kind of thing. But that actually makes it really about myself and not about the audience and who I’m trying to serve or the band and that kind. Talk to me how you process a mistake as it’s happening live too, when you’re performing.

Dr Decoteau (10:01):
One of the things that I like about playing groups is that, if you make a mistake, you can just drop out. It’s very difficult for everybody to make a mistake at the same time. You make a mistake, you can just drop out completely, enjoy, soak it in and it jumps back in when you’re ready. But, one thing that is important is to have a good team. A good band, good people playing with you is something that you can drop off. The failure, the mistake is less consequential when you have a good squad? This was a challenge that was very difficult for me early on because like you mentioned, I would want to kind of just stop and I have all these things playing in my head. One of the things that I learned to do was to just play through mistakes. And so playing through mistakes, you know they happen, anticipating them, knowing they’re gonna happen, resisting the want and the need for perfection. So going into a situation, a performance, whether it’s with the group or whether it’s solo, understanding that I’m gonna make mistakes. And if I understand that and I accept that, then it allows me to give myself grace and permission to play through it because I knew it was gonna happen. I anticipated it. And so I played through. But the interesting thing when we was talking about, practicing and repetition, one of the things that I had to learn when I would practice is that, and this was both when I play solo and I’m practicing as well as when I’m practicing with the band, is you have to announce, we’re just gonna play through the entire song.

Dr Decoteau (11:35):
We’re gonna play through the mistakes. We’re not gonna stop in the middle of practice. If somebody makes a mistake or anybody makes a mistake, or we all make a mistake, we’re gonna find our way back to the course and then we’re just gonna finish the song. And I think that changed the way that I performed because, even when you’re practicing, you make mistakes. And so you just get used to the idea of making mistakes. My general tendency is to practice and anticipate them, practice them. And that helps in the real moment when you’re performing and you just kind of play through. Now, recently I did have a performance where I totally just forgot the chord progression and I just kept going and just kind of played something else. The amazing thing, as you mentioned, is that unless there’s other musicians that are really closely paying attention to what you’re doing, most people won’t notice and they won’t remember. If they do notice in the context of a 45 minute performance or a 30 minute performance, nobody remembers the three seconds because that’s how long the mistakes last. Like three to three to five seconds in the whole scheme of things. Nobody remembers those three to five seconds. That’s kind of how I think about mistakes. Again, just like practicing for mistakes and practicing and rehearsing in a way that allows me to be able to kind of make mistakes and build the capacity to play through

Daniel (12:58):
‘Em. Yeah, I appreciate those ideas. To reflect back to the Ruckus Maker listening, who do you have a strong team built around you so when you need a minute to recover or recuperate or stakes are high and you just need to collect yourself, do you have that team to support you? And then the idea of finding mistakes. Realizing they’re gonna happen, welcome them, set an intention that we’re gonna play through them. Reminds me of my second favorite book of all time called The Art of Possibility. And within there, the two authors described these 12 practices and one of ’em had to do with just redefining skiing and that you’re gonna fall down when you ski. So you have the accident, it could ruin the whole trip or whatever. Or you could say, “Hey, these conditions are a bit more icy than usual.”

Daniel (13:48):
I’m probably gonna fall a lot, so let’s just have fun. And I had to tell that myself to myself because I was hiking the other day in the Otter Rondex up here in upstate New York. Anyways, it was slippery and there’s people around and they’re probably not like taking notes, oh, look how many times Danny slipped. Right? Or if you’re about to fall. And so I just redefine, like, if I do start to slip, that just means I’m out here having fun on a mountain and who cares? Like who sees it, if anybody at all. And that just that approach made me looser as a hike. And I actually didn’t fall. I slipped a lot and I was like, whoa? But I actually didn’t fall, which was kind of interesting because I think I took the pressure off.

Dr Decoteau (14:31):
Yeah, absolutely.

Daniel (14:33):
I wanna see if there’s any more connections before we move on from the music stuff. Playing live, everybody’s looking right, they’re there for the performance. As a leader, We feel like we always need to be on, and people are watching as well. Any parallels there for you between live performance and leadership and being on.

Dr Decoteau (14:55):
I think one of the things that I try to focus on is not only the music, and the performance, but really trying to make a connection with the people. I really try to pay as much attention to movement, how we’re moving together, whether we’re in sync together, whether we’re having fun. Like those things matter. Most of the time when I perform a show and I finish, I don’t necessarily remember how the song sounded. I remember how I felt playing them. I think that people pick up on that vibe. Like when I go to shows and I see people kind of vibing together and they’re looking at each other and you see these glances and you see these smiles. That’s really the kind of energy that I try to bring is to make sure that we’re having fun together, that we’re vibing.

Dr Decoteau (15:48):
And so even when I think about where I, my friend, my music buddies and I are like collaborating and preparing for a show. Sometimes I’ll just be like, we know the chords, we generally know the changes. I’ll try to give people something in terms of like, feel that they can relate to. I’ll say, let’s play this, like, we’re in the basement. Or Hey, let’s play like we’re at, Lollapalooza, like we’re playing at Lollapalooza, like, let’s go big. I try to really capture the feel and then try to kind of give the kind of energy that goes with the feeling that I’m hoping it will capture. Because, there’s songs that can, you can play ’em and perform ’em a bunch of different ways. The same exact song, same core progressions.

Dr Decoteau (16:33):
You might slow down a tempo, you might come in and out of the changes differently. But the things that I find are really beautiful is when I can kind of look at somebody and we hold that change, we hold a transition for a moment and then we all drop in right at the same time. And for me, that’s about a people connection. And the people’s connection to me is the thing that actually makes the musical performance work. I think that people love to hear music, but I think that human beings like to see other human beings in sync and connected with one another. I think about that in terms of leadership as well, because I feel like leaders really need to think about how to be kind of connected with the people that’s on their team that they’re performing with.

Daniel (17:21):
Sure. Yeah. That’s cool. I like the basement or a Lollapalooza idea. Sometimes I ask myself when I need to change my energy or I’m just, I’m stuck. I say, what were the three years like, future me, who’s better and more optimized and more valuable in this kind of stuff, how would he show up in this moment?

Dr Decoteau (17:41):
Know? That’s dope.

Daniel (17:42):
And that, that always gets me through the rut? Yeah. Every single time. I don’t wanna let him down. Like who am I to do that? I always step it up. But I like that Lollapalooza and the basement piece.

Dr Decoteau (17:55):
We did a performance one time and there was this band that had a high tempo, a lot of energy, horns and we were just a three piece. I was like, we had rehearsed how our set was gonna go. And I was like, I just said, “let’s lay it all back. Let’s lay it back. The sun’s gonna be going down. We were playing when the sun was going down, this was outside. I was like, let’s lay it back. Let’s get into our, let’s get into our Frankie Beverly Maze, white linen outside mood. And we just laid the whole thing back and it was just so smooth because it was so different from what the band before us had done in terms of the level of intensity. So we really, we were on a big stage, but we played it in a very kind of pulled back, laid back way. It really resonated with folks. And it felt good. It really felt good.

Daniel (18:44):
That’s being in tune. With the energy of the people and the room and that kind of stuff. So very cool. We could talk about this forever. I wanna bring your daughter into the conversation because she told you something when she was around six. Maybe that really impacted you. And if you could unpack the significance of this encouragement she gave to you, which was, if you wanna be a rockstar, you have to practice and take risks. What does that mean to you?

Dr Decoteau (19:09):
It was interesting because I think, connecting it to a leader and being a parent, being a person who’s a leader in her life, you’re gonna get back what you give. She was basically using something that I’ve always said to her, like at the time I think it might have been like, you learning how to ride a bicycle. And like, she’s frustrated because she can’t do it. I’m like, well, you’ll be able to, you’re never gonna be able to be as the cyclist you want to be if you don’t practice. If you don’t take the risk, right, you’re gonna fall. So, for example, one of the things that I taught her first about both of my children, is I took their training wheels and stuff off.

Dr Decoteau (19:45):
We never did training wheels. When they were ready to start to learn how to ride the bike, the very first thing that I taught them was how to fall. And I was like, if you learn how to fall and you realize that you can fall without really hurting yourself and you know how to put your feet out. And so I literally seem kind of crazy, but I would take the back of their bike and I would kind of jerk ’em around and be like, put your leg out, put your leg out. So I’m like, if you could learn how to fall you know, you’re gonna fall. So learn how to fall. After that, they just had the confidence to just try out different kinds of things. And everybody would say, how did you teach your kids how to ride their bicycle so long?

Dr Decoteau (20:18):
I’m like, I helped them go over fear of the fall first. And then I told ’em that now you gotta start practicing the things that you wanna do because you know that if you fall, you won’t hurt yourself. When she told me that, that was after I basically stopped playing guitar for, probably about four years. I moved from Milwaukee to Chicago when she was growing up. Me and my friends would play in our basement pretty much every Friday. She heard music every Friday night, now you could hear out on the street, but we would play pretty loud. We would turn up and play music every night. When I moved to Chicago I lost the music community that I had in Milwaukee. I just really didn’t play much.

Dr Decoteau (21:00):
I might pull my guitar out once every three weeks, tinker around, do some finger exercises. And then, that day that she told me that, I don’t know where it came from, she just asked me why I haven’t been playing my guitar. And I told her, like, well, I got a lot of things on my plate, I’m kind of busy. And she was like, well, you wanna be a rockstar, don’t you? And I was like, well, I would love to be a rockstar. She was like, well, how you gonna be a rockstar if you practice? And that was when she told me that next week I took my guitar and I went to an open mic and performed at an open mic for the first time in like four years.

Dr Decoteau (21:36):
So this is going from being in a band in Milwaukee that would get good shows at the spots with the nice sound systems and the sound people. Then coming to Chicago and being like, which I still am in Chicago, like, not known at all. If I walk in, nobody knows who I am, it’s just me and my guitar. But the thing is that taking a weapon out into a place and being willing to play when I’m brand new, nobody knows who I am. I haven’t practiced, I haven’t been practicing, but I’m gonna just take my guitar out and go to this open mic and just play a song or two, see what happens. And that was really what got me back into playing. That was at the beginning of the pandemic because I had stopped for about four years. It was really cool to get my own taste of my own medicine in terms of her telling me what I need to do if I wanna actually do something. So it was good.

Daniel (22:23):
Yeah. She’s been watching and listening to all those lessons you’ve been teaching her and reflecting them right back at you.

Dr Decoteau (22:30):
Yeah. So now we all take, she takes guitar, she’s learning guitar now. Oh, cool. She takes lessons. I decided to start back taking lessons during the pandemic. And so me, her and my son, they’re seven and nine now. And then, me, all three of us take lessons every week. So it’s been good. I have to give her the credit for me picking a guitar back up and for us all taking lessons and that sort of thing.

Daniel (22:53):
Brilliant. We’ve been talking about music a lot. I wanna now transition to your work with schools. I’d love for you to talk to me and the Ruckus Maker listening on how to strengthen a school community. Like what would be the conditions if you wanted to do that?

Dr Decoteau (23:14):
Yeah, so I think that a lot of what I’ve been talking about are things that I think are important for a broader community of people. Like really placing relationships at the center of what’s happening in a school. Thinking about creating and cultivating a kind of space where mistakes are a part of the process where they’re welcome, where they’re expected. It would be, an awesome kind of school if children and adults both could go into a school and know that not only will you make mistakes, but if you’re engaged in the kind of teaching, learning and leading that’s required to help push students and to push adults in the building, that’s gonna be a part of what is happening at that particular school. So I think the conditions are really about certain routines that are important to provide structure and that sort of thing.

Dr Decoteau (24:01):
But then also knowing that mistakes are part of a creative process and that you’re really working to help people be creative to problem solve. To understand how to work through problems. And all of that requires this kind of commitment, creating conditions where people can try things that seem scary in other places. It, so those are some of the conditions that I think are really important. As I mentioned at the top, kinda like this unrelenting focus on learning. And learning every day. One of the things that I ask my children when I pick them up from school every day is, tell me about something that you learn that is exciting, something that you learn maybe that confuses you, that you wanna know more about. I’m always asking them, I don’t ask the generic question like, how was school? I ask, tell me about something you learned. And it’s pretty cool because they don’t have to say, oh, this was exciting. They can say, this was confusing. I was trying to learn something that confused me, or this troubled me, or, I have more questions about this. And so for me, that’s a sign that a school is doing what it needs to do, is that everybody should be able to leave out and talk about the things that they’re learning or something that they’ve learned when they leave the building that particular day.

Daniel (25:18):
Absolutely. I really appreciate that. That’s a great question to ask students, ask your faculty, we all should be learning as a part of a learning organization. My number one question I love to ask at the end of coaching sessions or workshops I might lead is, what was your number one insight, from today? It’s just a different frame of learning, but it reminds people of the value. Like, we did something special here if you were, if you have a pulse or paying attention, like, got something. And then it reminds me of Sarah Blakely’s dad, Sarah, founded Spanks. Multimillionaire type company now. But her dad always used to ask her, what did you fail at today? Right? So it’s like you with the girls and putting the feet down, riding the bike. But if we want to make mistakes, okay. And say that we learn from failure, like how do we normalize it and build it into sort of the normal day to day reflection. Appreciate what you’re bringing here with those questions. So relationships, mistakes, learning with some of those conditions. Let’s think about your kids, but other black and brown students, what can schools do to create powerful learning experiences for our students that are black and brown?

Dr Decoteau (26:31):
Yeah. Well, I think that this is one of the key things that even as we’re talking about this idea of being able to take risks, being able to, fail at certain things. The unfortunate reality is that in our society, taking risks come with different consequences for different people. Women leaders can’t take the kind of risk that men leaders take for example. LGBTQ people aren’t afforded the opportunity to take the kinds of risks or to fail. Failure brings on a kind of harsh judgment, critique and criticism for certain people and for other people not so much. I think one of the ways that I like to think about equity and opportunity is that do young people have the opportunity to try things out and to fail? And a lot of times the commitment to making sure students have, excellent outcomes means that people really kind of pressure, especially like black and brown students to become like really good at kind of like these routine things.

Dr Decoteau (27:31):
And you have to be able to do this, and you have to be able to do this. Whereas students who aren’t gonna be judged as harshly and who are gonna have more, who have more opportunities in society, have more opportunities to take risks. It’s the same way if we think about leaders in terms of entrepreneurship or whatever, most entrepreneurs have failed at multiple businesses before they actually get the one that hits, the one that works well. Well, if you’re black and you don’t have generational wealth, and your loans come from your family and friends and your own bank account, you only have two times to try. I think Gloria Lason Billings writes around this topic of not only educational gaps and opportunities, but she writes about this idea of educational debt, and there’s a debt.

Dr Decoteau (28:17):
If we think about the debt that, black students in particular black people in the United States, have inherited over time, it means that we don’t have the wealth and the resources to be able to afford to kind of make mistakes and that sort of thing. I personally love to see schools where people just get to take opportunities. As much as people don’t like Kanye West, he gets to take all the risks that he wants to take. It’s very difficult. Elon Musk, these people can take all the risks and try whatever they wanna try. They, like literally, try to send a rocket to space. You know what I mean? How many attempts do you get to make before you can actually make that happen? I think in the same schools that recognize the importance of creativity, mistakes, failure, risk taking as things that create possibility is really important. I know that’s a very philosophical response, but I would be happy and thrilled if more schools that had black and brown children or schools that are predominantly white, that served black and brown children, gave them, opportunities to learn from and build on mistakes and, give them opportunities to be creative and that sort of thing.

Daniel (29:33):
Got it. Well, Dr. Irby, I’m really enjoying our conversation. We’re gonna take a quick break to get in some messages from our sponsors, but when we get back, I’d love to ask you how racial equity breakthroughs are indicators of progress, learn how to successfully drive school change, and help your diverse stakeholders establish priorities and improve practice in leading change. A certificate in school management and leadership course from Harvard. Topics include adaptive leadership, culture, equity, and more Leading Change runs from February 15th to March 15th, 2023. Apply by Friday, February 3rd, enroll by Thursday, February 9th. Get started at BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/harvard. Hey, Ruckus Maker, Teach FX has been an incredible sponsor over the years, and they do great work helping educators be mindful and reflective about how their talk right and how much talk they have in a classroom impacts student learning. Now, don’t just take it from me that Teach FX is awesome, and it surely is, but check out what some real educators have to say about using Teach FX in the classroom.

Daniel (30:49):
I will be the teacher I wanna be when I’m a, like no longer a teacher, and I’m truly just a facilitator of class. And I think that Teach FX is a tool that will allow me to get there more than like any other tool I’d used. I wanted the students to be speaking more with each other, incorporating more opportunities for students to speak in the target language to each other. And I recorded that, and that’s what the data showed. So it helped me reflect on the purpose and what is best for my students.

Daniel (31:21):
Today’s show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder develops the skills and habits all students need for success during these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings. Organized binder equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed, whether at home or in the classroom. Learn more@organizedbinder.com. We’re back with Dr. Decoteau Irby. And Dr. Iby has two books you should check out. One is Stuck Improving Racial Equity and School Leadership. And also check out Magical Black Tiers, a protest story. As I mentioned before the break, Dr, I’d love to ask you one last question before we get to the questions I ask all of my guests, but essentially, talk to us about racial equity breakthroughs and how they act as indicators of progress.

Dr Decoteau (32:21):
Yeah. So in my book, Stuck Improving Racial Equity and School Leadership, I basically make this argument that most schools, communities lack the organizational capacity to create the kinds of conditions that allow them to kind of treat black and brown students better and provide them with better educational opportunities, experiences, and outcomes. And so what I argue is that, there’s an overemphasis on what I call equity by the numbers. And so looking at like, just, the number of students that go into like the college track classroom or the number of students who go to, who are involved in extracurricular activities. And what I try to do is really paint a picture of this, a different kind of outcome that is more process oriented called equity breakthroughs. And so in the final chapter of the book, I write about this concept.

Dr Decoteau (33:16):
And basically what I argue is that a breakthrough is an instance where a particular kind of practice from a leader or a teacher disrupts what would typically happen in the school. And in the process of disrupting what would typically happen in the school, it creates a new sense of possibility and a more expansive opportunity for everybody that’s involved. So, to give a concrete example of what that actually entails, I write about a science teacher who for years, taught science in a very kind of, kind of direct instruction way through lectures and reading and that sort of thing. And then the students’ assessment was a test. And so he knew over the years that, black students didn’t perform well in his classes. As part of the racial equity reforms in the school, he decided to give students, again, an opportunity to be creative and how they wanted to demonstrate their understanding of what they were learning.

Dr Decoteau (34:16):
So we started there with, you can choose if you wanna take a paper test, if you wanna write an essay, if you want to do some kind of practice, if based assessment or performance based assessment or project. And so what many of the black students chose was to do like these capstone projects. So this was a hundred points. They put all of their eggs into one basket and said, this is what I wanna try to do. I wanna do a capstone type approach to demonstrating what I learned in class. That totally transformed their level of engagement because they weren’t taking a test or, 10 quizzes or four quizzes that were 25 points each. They put all their eggs into one basket, but that gave them time to work through mistakes, to figure things out, to talk with their teacher, to consult the textbook and other resources to figure out how to actually demonstrate their knowledge of whatever this kind of science concept was.

Dr Decoteau (35:10):
And what happened is that this created a different set of like relationships between this teacher and students. So it talks about how previously, again, black students didn’t do well in his class, but all of a sudden his lunch breaks were times where students would come and talk to them about like, I’m trying to figure out this piece and I want to talk you through my ideas in advance of like, putting together my capstone project. As a part of the Capstone project. He also also talked about through engaging students in this particular kind of process, parents were coming to parent teacher night that had never come before because people wanted, their students wanted their parents to meet this teacher, or the parents had heard so much or saw their students put so much effort into their science that they wanted to meet the teacher who like sparked their interest in science.

Dr Decoteau (36:01):
And so I called this a breakthrough and this was a breakthrough moment. And the reason that I, like, I want to name them in the book is because of this particular kind of experience, this transformative experience between a teacher, a student, and what the student is learning and how the teacher is facilitating that learning process. We don’t see that when the student goes to, for example, AP science class. AP biology. But that breakthrough is the thing that was sparking the interest of those students to give them the sense of possibility that they should and could go into a science related STEM related field. And so why, like, why it’s so important to name these breakthroughs is because I don’t, I’m mindful to not let schools that are committed to creating more equitable learning opportunities for students of color to let these particular moments go unnoticed. And if we don’t name ’em and we don’t know ’em, when they happen, then they go unnoticed.

Dr Decoteau (37:00):
And we don’t have the opportunity to, as we go back to the top of the podcast, we don’t have the opportunity to use these differences to like break out of a particular scale. Yeah. Play a different scale. because this teacher for years was just doing, he was in the major pentatonic and that was it. And you can do a lot with the major pentatonic, but, moving to a different not even a different position, but you know, the assessment practices, this Capstone Pro process being something that’s a totally different progression. It’s not a 1 -45 anymore. We’re in a different genre. Allow for students to be able to thrive in ways that maybe this student’s cultural connection isn’t too just one. Maybe it’s something different. Maybe the major scale as opposed to the major pentatonic resonates with this particular student and they can shine in a concert that is he that relies heavily on the major scale or or the minor scale as opposed to like the pentatonic scale.

Dr Decoteau (38:06):
So anyway, going back to the music metaphor, my point is that these breakthroughs are really important and I wanted to name them so that people can start to pay attention to when those sorts of things happen. They show up in terms of smiles, people having fun in the learning process, even though learning can be challenging and hard, once they kind of break through, there’s this sense of accomplishment and the sense of possibility that accompanies and counterbalances the struggle that was associated with getting to whatever particular point was. And so those are the kind of experiences that I saw happening in the school that I don’t see reflected in any of the kind of writing and literature about what it means to have, what the outcomes of a school that is doing a really good job working with black and brown students, actually.

Daniel (38:54):
Yeah. I love that. It was so practical, the picture you painted and allowing the students to have choice and authority and autonomy in terms of how they wanted to proceed to demonstrate their knowledge was a really cool part of that. I can’t help but think that you and the teacher are reading the room just like you do with a live ex, live performance. Or maybe when I’m posting a live experience with that energy in the people, like that’s a huge component again. And the classroom could be and should be like this exciting place where you see, like you said, the smiles or the vibe in and the fact that they’re connecting with each other and the content in the larger school experience.

Dr Decoteau (39:42):
I wanna add this one. This was something that I thought was really powerful too, that I wrote about in the book for this particular teacher. But he mentioned how this approach of not staying in one particular, having everything be one particular kind of way was less efficient, it was more intellectually challenging. And it actually, he said, took more time and energy than the previous way that he had done things like, muscle memory, this is what I do every year. Come in, here’s the syllabus, here’s what you do, here’s the test, here’s how I grade everything. So the new approach took a lot more energy and he acknowledged that, but also said, but I would never go back to doing what I did before because this approach Oh, could you, is so much more fulfilling.

Daniel (40:27):
fulfilling. But the kids you’re missing Yeah. Are engaged. They’re getting, you

Dr Decoteau (40:34):
Know what I mean? Exactly, exactly.The reason I wanted to bring that up is because I think some people prioritize efficiency. This is the system, this is what I’ve been doing. I think part of why I wanted to bring that up is that the system is built around a different set of values. Most schools are built around efficiency, compliance control, adult authority and expertise. And so to break from that, and in particular, a lot of times those teachers who do all those things get what I call false positives. They get good results because they are doing the same thing. It’s like, if I play the same song every night or the audience is probably gonna be pretty good. I know when the crowd is gonna react to a particular part. I know the exact same solo.

Dr Decoteau (41:22):
So I could get these positives from doing that same thing that’s sufficient and straightforward that I do every time. But the fulfillment and the excitement and the joy and the possibility is a different set of kind of like values or for example, the crowd participation. I could be doing something and saying like, look, I want to just make sure that nobody, but then it’s different when you have those musicians that’ll, everything will pause and they’ll say, all right, now we gonna do a little bit of call and response. And then you gotta get the, you gotta get in sync with the audience. And that sort of thing doesn’t feel the same every time, but it’s magical because the audience gets to participate in a different way. So I think that those are the kind of things. So really what I mentioned is that I wanna paint a different picture between what some people really value and really hold to, like the efficiency and what’s been done in the past. We’re gonna do the same thing. We know the outcome that it’s gonna give us. There’s a different way of being and schools over rely on version A and not so much of version B because people want to be comfortable and in control and be able to predict what’s gonna happen.

Daniel (42:28):
Yeah. I’ve named it a different way because you know, my thing is like Ruckus Makers, so the efficient way, the over reliance on adults, knowledge, authority, experience, that kind of stuff, and just the standard operating procedure. I call that a play it safe principle versus my favorite kind of leader who’s a Ruckus Maker. Which I define three parts. Invest in your continuous growth and the last part’s designed in the future of school now, which I think we’re touching on, but that middle part that every Ruckus Maker really amplifies is challenging the status quo. Yeah. How do we make it better? That kind of thing. So I really, I mean, you did a masterclass here. This has been a great podcast for sure. I hope the Ruckus Maker listening is excited as I am, and what I’ve learned in the potential and possibility that you’ve, you’ve described. So last few questions I ask all my guests. Dr. Iby. First one is if you could put a message on all school Marquis, around the world just for one day, what would your message be?

Dr Decoteau (43:30):
I always say a lot of struggle is necessary. Progress is possible, and equity is imperative.

Daniel (43:39):
And now, if Dr. Irby was building his dream school from the ground up, you’re not limited by any resources. Your only limitations, actually your imagination. How would you build this school? What would be the three guiding principles?

Dr Decoteau (43:52):
My school would not be a building, it would be a community of people. School of Fish. A school of people. School of learners. It would be based on, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a building, it could be a campus with several buildings, but I would wanna have multiple different kinds of resources for people to be engaged in a kind of learning process. Green space, water, buildings that they can go in and out of. And so I’m thinking more about a community that and a built physical environment that a group of people in the community have access to for the purposes of learning. I think the three guiding principles would be like learn through, learn by doing and reflecting on whatever you’re doing in your practices. So I would want everything to be problem based, problem posing.

Dr Decoteau (44:41):
And so, you’re really solving and addressing the kind of problems that you see and you’re using, the traditional kind of you know, aspects of the curriculum to be able to figure out what you need to do and be learning by doing. The second part would be, I would want it to be intergenerational. I would love if one of the problems that I think is that we group people by ages. I think it’s a huge problem and a huge mistake that, in a design flaw of us schooling in particular, I think the schools need to be much more intergenerational. I think that people of all ages need to be around other people of different ages. So it would be intergenerational so we could learn from one another. And then the third principle would be that the learning would be focused on this interplay between individuals and groups. And because our society right now is so individualistic, I would lean very heavily towards groups and collectives and groups of students working together to solve problems. That’s what real life is mostly about. Individual willpower does it, is a myth in a way. So I would, I would really be focused on those three things, learning by doing intergenerational learning, and then focusing on and prioritizing groups and teams over individuals.

Daniel (46:02):
Dr. Irby, we covered a lot of ground on today’s podcast of everything we discussed today. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?

Dr Decoteau (46:11):
Stay. Stay in the struggle. Stay in the struggle. I always remind myself of that. That’s what I would want people to know. When you feel like you’re struggling, it shows up when it needs to show up, whether that’s music or whether it’s leadership. It’s almost kind of like the process where they say, you’re sharpening your sword is a very kind of boring, mundane type thing, but it shows up when you need this forward. Or it shows up when you know you’re not falling when you’re riding up the youth, struggling to kind of, learn how to fall and that sort of thing. So my, my saying would be to stay in the struggle. Struggle is worthwhile

Daniel (46:53):
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@Betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud, and using the hashtag #blbs. Level Up your leadership at Better Leaders Better schools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”

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