I recently facilitated a professional learning session for more than a dozen district leaders in the Midwest aimed at pushing them to think about implicit and explicit biases and how they play out in their schools. At one point during our day together, I shared a personal story with the group, all of whom were white. I told them about a Twitter post that my adult son had sent me the other day. Written by a graduate school application reviewer, it read, “Every grad school application I review from a person of color mentions childhood trauma. We have really been conditioned to showcase our pain for white academics.”

A response to the post asked, “Has anyone written about the way we have to pimp out our trauma to get funding and access to institutional learning?”

“That’s crazy!” I exclaimed to the group. Reading that post, I explained, reminded me of how I had used the trauma I lived as a boy of color growing up in the Bronx to get myself into college. Writing about that experience in my essay was the only way I thought I could get into college, I explained, the only thing that I thought would make me stand out.

I wondered aloud to the group, “How often have I used my trauma in this way? What stereotypes am I perpetuating by doing that?”

Every week I enter rooms full of school system leaders across the country as the expert on how to talk about the implicit and explicit biases that live in our schools and in our communities, and I try to guide them in unraveling their own biases and how they affect their work as educational leaders.

Over time, I have come to realize that acting solely as the expert on leading for equity telling education leaders what they need to do is not in their best interest, or mine. As a facilitator, I need to make it clear that I have as much to learn as they do. We all have the responsibility to unpack what we see, hear, and experience. I have found that the more visible I am with my learning and reflection, the stronger our conversations are as a group. The more I work to build empathy and understanding in myself, the better I am able to build that in others. That has meant explaining that as a man of color, I have my own work to do in the effort to examine and dismantle systemic racism, that I need to push myself to become more aware of the stereotypes I live, so that I can try not to perpetuate them in my facilitation and in my daily life.

For example, I reflect on what it means for me that when I lead sessions in rooms full of predominately white people, I wonder if I am subconsciously looking for their approval, their validation? I reflect on how that might connect to the fact that most of the teachers in my life, most of my supervisors, have been white women. What do I need to do to move beyond that, to not feel like I need to apologize for who I am and what I stand for, to not perpetuate an aspect of institutional bias?

Layer that with my experience raising a young man of color who is looking to me for guidance as he comes into his own racial consciousness. In our conversation about the Tweet, we realized that he had done the same thing with his college application. Now you have two generations who are pimping out their personal experiences because somewhere along the way I was taught to do that, and I unwittingly taught my son to do that. If I were to go back in time, I told the group of district leaders, I would write a college essay that highlights my identity. I am so much more than my childhood trauma. I don’t know if that would have gotten me into the school of my choice, but that is me taking a stance. This is what my son and I are working through together.

There are some critical questions that I urge facilitators of professional learning around equity, particularly racial equity, to ask themselves, questions that I try to keep top of mind and reflect on myself and with the groups I am supporting: Am I challenging my own biases and notions of race and of myself? Am I continuously pushing my own learning so that I can more effectively push the thinking of each person in the room? Is my public reflection on my personal experiences furthering others’ learning? Struggling with these questions helps move the work forward. If I don’t push myself, how can I expect that of the leaders I support?


Derick Spaulding

National Leadership Facilitator

Derick Spaulding joined the Leadership Academy as Senior Director of Leadership Development in 2016. In this role, Derick works with school systems across the country to build school and district leadership capacity and facilitate continuous adult learning. As a national facilitator, Derick works directly with current and aspiring principals, principal supervisors, and superintendents. His projects include working with the state education departments in Nevada and Iowa to increase equity driven leadership capacity statewide; working with school districts in Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan to increase coaching capacity of systems level leaders and school building leaders; and executive coaching superintendents and system level leaders. Derick supports the Leadership Academy’s vision for equity by serving as a member of the organization’s Equity Leadership Team. Derick brings more than 13 years of experience in education to his work. He started his career as a middle school math and science teacher in New York. His commitment to serving students of color in the under-served and under-resourced Bronx community he grew up in inspired him to pursue a career in school leadership. After attending New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals Program, he founded and led Emolior Academy Middle School in the Bronx, a school which remains one of the highest performing schools in the district. TNTP named Derick a District Exemplar Case Study of Practice in 2016 for his exemplary distributed leadership and capacity building systems. He also received the New York State Senate Educational Leadership Award and was selected as a Cahn Ally within the Columbia University Leadership Development program in 2008. Derick holds a BA in Communications from The State University of New York at Albany, and graduate degrees from City College University and Baruch College. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Urban Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy at Fordham University.