Perspectives From a ParadigmShift: Lessons for Net Work, Racial Equity, Innovation and System Change

August 10, 2021 Leave a comment

For the past 4 years IISC has supported the formation and evolution of a network of educators (the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition) across four school districts in western Massachusetts dedicated to diversifying the teaching profession with respect to race, with a leading strategy being to leverage the paraprofessional pipeline. And as the ParadigmShift initiative, as it is called, explains, “By helping Black and Latinx para-educators and teachers on waiver become licensed teachers, we are building a sustainable path for teacher diversity, increasing opportunities for students of color to thrive.”

Even in districts where over 80% of the student body is Black and Latinx, the teacher workforce still averages around 75% white in this region. By contrast, the para-educator pool is much more diverse, and many of these individuals come from the local community, yet there are numerous barriers preventing them from becoming fully licensed educators (stigma, stringent exams, lack of support, isolation, racism). A few years ago, educational leaders concerned about these structural barriers came together under the auspices of Five Colleges to explore the collaborative potential of working across institutional lines (school districts, teacher preparation programs, educator unions, workforce development initiatives). This ultimately led to the pursuit and receipt of an innovation grant from the local community foundation, which allowed for staffing and other supports to formally launch a collaborative network.

Over the last few years there have been tangible successes, with cohorts of paraprofessionals receiving mentoring and support to become classroom teachers. And there is clearly much more work to be done to work for educational inclusion and equity. That said, there have been several key lessons noted by the diverse Leadership Team of this initiative, and these have been laid out in a very rich report called “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity,” which tells many of the details of the Coalition’s development and discoveries.

Many of these lessons align with IISC’s core commitments around building collaborative capacity, processes and structures, including lifting up power dynamics and working for equity, leaning into the power of relationships and networks, and embracing love as a force for social transformation (see image above). Headlines for these lessons appear below, as they were shared with participants during an on-line conference on June 10, 2021 entitled “Leveraging the Power of Coalition for Teacher Diversity: New Perspectives, Practices, and Paradigm Shifts.” We are curious how these resonate with other system and equity change efforts, in education and beyond.

LESSON 1: Naming race is key because messages “for all” are not interpreted as “for me.”

LESSON 2: Crafting solutions based on participant input builds trust, reinforces the message that the pathways are designed for the candidates, and fosters effectiveness. This is critically important when building pathways to attract teacher candidates from historically marginalized groups.

LESSON 3: When administrators and others pay authentic attention to—and build authentic relationships with—paraeducators of color, the paraeducators are more likely to make the decision to become teachers and to persevere through the process of obtaining licensure. Paying attention matters because paraeducators of color face both role-based and race-based inequities.

LESSON 4: Some teacher candidates who otherwise demonstrate teaching proficiency do not overcome the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), which functions as a gatekeeping hurdle. The MTEL requirement reflects an assumption that competency is demonstrated solely through passing required tests. It is a barrier to diversification of the teacher workforce and should not make or break a career.

LESSON 5: Redesigning systems for racial equity requires change from the macro levels of policy to the many complex micro levels of practice, requiring leadership and resources. It is not a quick fix. Systems resist.

LESSON 6: Working in coalition leads to shared learning, pooling of resources, and regional solutions for regional problems while raising challenges of commitment, clarity, and communication. 

LESSON 7: The contributions of supportive funding partners are fundamental to the genesis and growth of innovative initiatives, though the funder practice of awarding short-term grants impedes systems change.

LESSON 8: The concept of innovation provides a framework that legitimizes learning and adaptability, elements that are necessary for effecting systems change to promote teacher diversity.

And threaded through all of these lessons was the understanding that in many ways the core innovation in all of this was the collaborative network itself, with people going above and beyond their day-to-day work, breaking down walls and boundaries, and flipping what have often been traditionally siloed and/or competitive institutional arrangements.

For more resources and materials from the Coalition, including information about our ripple effects mapping process, see think link.

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