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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Adaptive Leadership for School Equity

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In February 2020, teachers gathered in the cafeteria of Maryland's Arundel High School to participate in a gallery walk, reviewing student data that demonstrated gaps in discipline referrals, suspension, and academic achievement among different student groups. This data dialogue was part of a districtwide equity-focused professional development session for our large comprehensive high school. During the walk, a veteran educator turned to me, their principal, and said, "Why are we still working on equity? We have a diverse population of students, and everyone gets along."
Everyone gets along? Is this what I had inadvertently communicated to my faculty about what equity means? While that statement might have been true from a surface view, something underneath was clearly contributing to the persistent gaps in achievement in our school. Our Black, mixed race, and Hispanic students, who make up more than half of our school's enrollment, had lower academic achievement and higher discipline referrals than their white peers.
As I sat with that teacher's statement, I began to understand why my school's previous work on equity initiatives had been unsuccessful. We had been approaching the pursuit of educational equity as a technical issue, assuming that if we adjusted our bell schedule to allow for homework help and remediation during the school day or increased the enrollment of historically marginalized students in Advanced Placement classes, we could eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps.
This teacher's comment made it apparent that my faculty did not understand our equity goals or why this work was necessary. Achieving true equity would require a different approach—an adaptive one.

Behaving Like an Adaptive Leader

My school had been completing tasks in the name of equity for years. We made technical changes to many of our structures and practices and required all staff members to participate in quarterly professional development seminars that discussed issues of equity, highlighted the works of leaders in the field, and examined strategies that could be applied to make classroom instruction more equitable. In addition, we enrolled more historically marginalized students in advanced classes, provided a period in the middle of the day for tutoring and support of those students, and carefully crafted schedules to support struggling students with additional resources. Unfortunately, gaps in achievement persisted.
I knew that it was time to approach our equity initiatives with a fresh start. As I looked for a research-based framework to guide me through the adaptive changes that would need to occur in my school to ensure our equity initiatives moved forward, I discovered the seminal work of Ronald Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie (Heifetz, 1994; Heifetz & Laurie, 1997) and the book Leadership: Theory and Practice by Peter Northouse (2019). These researchers explain that adaptive leadership focuses on helping leaders act in a way that encourages others to adapt and embrace change. Adaptive leaders engage in activities that mobilize, motivate, organize, orient, and focus the attention of others (Heifetz, 1994; Northouse, 2019). Instead of single-handedly trying to solve all problems and challenges, the adaptive leader empowers their team to tackle them.
This is in contrast to technical leadership challenges, which focus on a leader's knowledge and expertise to "fix" a certain problem. Technical problems are identifiable and have achievable solutions, such as educating teachers about a new reading program so their students can meet with success. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are not as clear-cut or easy to identify and cannot be solved by the leader alone.
In discussing adaptive leadership, Heifetz, Laurie, and Northouse identify six leadership behaviors that play an important role in the process. These behaviors provided a clear path forward for me in my own school's progress.

Behavior #1: Get on the Balcony

Many leaders have a tendency to want to solve all the problems for their employees, and that was definitely true for me. I wanted a quick fix, but what I really needed was to step back and gain perspective. Northouse (2019) calls this "getting on the balcony," a way of pausing and gaining a more objective perspective of the problem at hand.
I met with early adopters of my equity goals and a few teachers who would view the situation with a more critical eye to gain information on power conflicts that existed within our school. After sharing the veteran teacher's comment about equity in our school, I asked these early adopters and allies a specific question: "Does our culture truly promote education equity for all students?" My most trusted colleagues sat in silence. I posed another question: "What are the barriers to equity in our school?" Still silence.
I shared graphs and charts that showed our standardized test scores, graduation rates, participation in advanced courses, and discipline data—each disaggregated by race, economic status, and English acquisition status. I asked these leaders if there might be something invisible in our school culture causing these discrepancies and, if so, to help me identify and eliminate it. Together, we identified our work as adaptive—there were no simple answers and no simple solution. We had to discern why the gaps between our student groups continued to exist and how we could dismantle existing barriers.
Subsequently, I talked to some students of color about their experiences at our school. I asked them to tell me about times when they were made aware of their race. Some relayed how they'd been stopped and asked for a pass in the hallway while white students simply walked by the teacher without being confronted. They talked about receiving a detention after walking to school because the bus transportation from their neighborhood was not reliable, and about teachers who would mispronounce their names. They talked about being the only students of color in their AP classes because their Black friends didn't think they were smart enough to take those classes.
This view from the balcony gave me a perspective that revealed concerning patterns in students' authentic experiences in our school. There was clearly conflict between what we, as school leaders, believed about our school culture and what was really happening in our building, to our students. These conversations shifted my thinking about our present reality, revealing issues I would not have seen without stopping to get a broader perspective.

Behavior #2: Identify Adaptive Challenges

My earliest attempts at leading for equity were characterized by a technical approach to adaptive challenges. I had not considered or addressed the need to change the values, beliefs, and attitudes of educators involved in the work. While outwardly claiming that we offered a space where students felt valued and a sense of belonging, we still allowed implicit bias and racist practices to impact our daily interactions with students. We did not insist on or provide culturally responsive classroom environments, and we were not adopting antiracist pedagogy in its true form.
This realization prompted me to recruit those students I had previously talked to about race. We met every week to discuss issues of equity, discrimination, and social justice and to offer solutions to help create an anti-racist school space. They invited their friends to join. As word spread about the conversations, people began to join the discussions through virtual lunchtime meetings.
Now with 35–40 participants—including students, teachers, administrators, and guests from other schools—this group meets each week, discussing issues such as micro-aggressions, the difficulties that non-gender-conforming students face in the school community, police presence in schools, and the absence of culturally diverse protagonists in our literature curriculum. The discussions are timely, relevant, and solution oriented. I've shared recordings of these discussions during staff professional development sessions, and they have influenced our teachers in ways that technical "fixes" could not. We have even held teacher professional development sessions facilitated by students on the importance of the student-teacher relationship. As a result, teachers' values, beliefs, and attitudes about our students and about what it means to be equitable have begun to shift.

Behavior #3: Regulate Distress

Asking people to reflect on their own biases and behaviors can cause stress. Northouse (2019) explains that this stress can sometimes be productive, but at other times can be debilitating. He notes that adaptive leaders support their employees in their stress so they can manage conflict effectively, grow, and feel empowered through change.
When applying this behavior, I had to remind myself that the end goal was not to alleviate the stress my people were feeling, but to help them learn to work through it on their terms and in their own ways. I established small cohorts, with teacher-leaders as facilitators, that worked together throughout the year to reflect on, discuss, and personalize topics related to antiracism and social justice. These meetings were short, focused, and often intense. Because the conversations touched on sensitive and uncomfortable topics such as white privilege and biases, the groups established a common vocabulary and group norms to promote safe, inclusive conversations.
Cohort leaders modeled the ability to tolerate uncertainty and frustration and participated in discussions as team members, asking everyone to lean into the conversation and recognize their own triggers. The teams had independent reading and self-reflection exercises they could do between sessions to ensure that we were all reading and processing the same material. These cohort meetings, though not always easy, have over time led to stronger and more trusting relationships between individual faculty members.

Building Equity Momentum

Attentive conversations between a leader and a teacher to clarify ideas and talk through scenarios that present challenges can keep equity initatives progressing, rather than stalling.

Behavior #4: Maintain Disciplined Attention

Maintaining disciplined attention requires staying focused on the difficult work, providing ongoing feedback, and giving frequent praise (Northouse, 2019). I encouraged teachers to drop their defenses—which often go up during conversations about equity and race—and openly confront the problems we were facing together as a school community. We reminded teachers to focus on the human aspects of teaching, such as checking in with their students and building relationships based on their students' lived experiences. By introducing vulnerability and transparency as necessary elements in moving the work forward, a new organizational culture began to emerge.
Arundel High School Principal Gina Davenport (left) regularly checks in with all her students about their experiences in their school as a way to keep her equity initiatives ongoing and effective.
After teachers participated in several cohort experiences, students began to notice positive changes. One student reported that his teacher took a few minutes at the beginning of class to acknowledge the tragic shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. This communicated to him and many other students that their fear and concern mattered to this teacher. Another student said her teacher asked the class to introduce themselves at the beginning of the new semester to avoid mispronouncing names. The student saw this as a great first step to building relationships.
Not all teachers were comfortable in making these shifts, and some saw this work as political or one-sided. As principal, but more important, as an instructional leader, I made myself available to speak with these teachers and help them understand that our work with equity was not political but was about the humanity of our profession that requires us to make every student feel welcomed and connected to our school community. These intimate conversations allowed teachers to clarify ideas and talk through specific scenarios they were having trouble processing. This helped keep our equity initiatives moving forward, rather than stalling because teachers were afraid of or avoiding change, which is often a pitfall of adaptive challenges.

Behavior #5: Give the Work Back to the People

The fifth leader behavior identified by Northouse (2019) is all about empowering others to help you lead the way to change. I have learned that adaptive challenges cannot be overcome alone. It is important to assemble a coalition of allies that possess the skill and the will to do the work.
When students reported microaggressions that teachers let slide in the classroom and in the hallways, I assembled a team of teachers from multiple departments, members of my leadership team, and other areas. Their charge was to find a protocol our faculty could use that would help them learn to check, reflect, and correct their own microaggressions and biases and the social exchanges they witnessed.
Instead of micromanaging this change process, I passed it on to a group of educators who had the skill and the will to get the job done. They found a protocol called "Interrupt, Question, Educate, and Echo" (Delacroix, 2018), which we taught the faculty and students to use when in a situation where a microaggression or biased language is used. I continue to meet with this group of leaders regularly to show my support and build their confidence as we work together to call out and correct hurtful behaviors.

Behavior #6: Protect Leadership Voices from Below

In every community, there are what Northouse (2019) calls "out-group members"—people who are marginalized or who disagree with the group's goals. Yet it is important for an adaptive leader to listen to the voices of the out-group and engage them in the work, even when it is difficult and time consuming.
I am still attempting to provide time and space for out-group members to share their perspectives. Early into my personal equity journey, I had a tendency to shut down naysayers who did not align themselves with our mission or vision. As a result, I had a lot of unlearning to do. To help me overcome this perceived barrier, I asked one of our highly involved Black parents to give her perspective on our equity work and school culture. I admired this parent because of our blunt interactions, though I did not always welcome our encounters. True to form, the first thing this parent asked me was, "Why do you want to do this work, now? Aren't you just jumping on the social justice band wagon?"
Her initial response quickly cut to my worst fear—that parents would perceive me as being opportunistic. However, it was this parent's comment that allowed my goal to crystallize as I formulated my response to her. I talked about all the initiatives the school had tried to provide a welcoming environment for all students and explained that these attempts had not even make a dent in our achievement or behavior data. I talked about how many of our marginalized students have simply learned to accept that microaggressions and biased behavior are normal parts of their school days, and that this was not acceptable. I admitted that while I did want to capitalize on the momentum of the national social justice movement, I was also determined to create a sustainable plan for our school. Since then, that parent has been a staunch ally and supporter of our work and has helped communicate the vision to other parents. As an adaptive leader, I am learning how to clear a path for other marginalized voices to be heard as we lead for equity in our school.

By introducing vulnerability and transparency as necessary elements in moving the work forward, a new organizational culture began to emerge.

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Gina Davenport

Ongoing and Ever Adapting

As with so many adaptive challenges, our work is not yet done. We will continue to put in the work, collect data, and monitor our progress. To change attitudes and beliefs, a leader must promote a change in practice and show how the new practices are making a difference. In the opening months of school in 2019, for example, Arundel High School processed 139 behavioral referrals. A disproportional amount of those referrals were received by Black students for insubordination, class disruption, or disrespect. In those same months in 2021, however, only 39 behavior referrals were processed. None of those referrals were for insubordination, class disruption, or disrespect, and no disproportionality among student groups existed in this data. It is my hope that as teachers see the benefit of their efforts to make students feel comfortable and valued, they will continue on this path.
We will adjust and continue our conversation to support each other as new beliefs and attitudes take root. We will bring in new leaders to continue the work and grow our coalition. We will listen to our students. We will make mistakes, apologize, and grow from them. And we will move our school from a place of inclusion to a place of belonging for all who spend time inside.
Author's Note: Stephanie Savick, associate professor in the School of Education at Notre Dame of Maryland University, contributed to this article.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What qualities does an adaptive school leader need to have to ensure their vision and work is ongoing?

➛ How can you apply the six behaviors discussed here to your own school or district's initiatives?

➛ Are there voices in your school's community that you might be ignoring that you can invite to the conversation?

➛ How have Davenport's actions inspired you to adapt your own style of leadership?


Delacroix, J. (2018). Speak Up Against Hateful Rhetoric. Learning for Justice.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers, Volume 465. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75, 124–134.

Northouse, P. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Gina Davenport is the principal of Arundel High School, a large comprehensive public high school in Gambrills, Maryland. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Instructional Leadership for Changing Populations at Notre Dame of Maryland University.

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