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March 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 6

Coaching for Equity Demands Deeper Dialogue

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Only by pushing through resistance can coaches help teams achieve necessary change.
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"We can't teach what we don't know, and we can't lead where we won't go."—Malcolm X
These times of social unrest lead to conversations about social justice. Although this discourse is essential for our education system, individuals sometimes engage more for appearances than a sincere desire for growth and change. Initial conversations, often superficial, rarely touch the surface of systemic inequalities or lead to real change in academic outcomes for students of color.
Reflecting on and acting against racism and oppression in education is difficult work. Having a coach or facilitator, however, can be an essential support to educators who are learning to confront the complexities of working in racialized systems. Coaches support adult learning primarily by serving as thought partners or "critical friends," as well as by providing structured guidance or sharing expertise (Allen & Blythe, 2004).
Coaching for equity—an act often fraught with resistance— requires an additional set of knowledge and skills: It requires that coaches know when (and how) to utilize both technical fixes and adaptive solutions. At least, this has been the experience of coaches working with Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools (RIDES), a project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Through the RIDES Institute, a seven-month professional learning program, coaches worked with teams of educators to act upon their understanding of racism and oppression in schools. However, they struggled to keep race central to discussions with their school and district teams. While developing and implementing improvement plans, they faced challenges that were both technical, in that the RIDES coaches could address them by introducing a new tool or routine, as well as adaptive, which required these coaches to help educators examine their beliefs, mindsets, and practices.
During the institute, educators engaged in a six-step Equity Improvement Cycle (see Figure 1) that guided them to articulate a vision of racial equity, collect data to diagnose and assess their progress toward that vision, and create a specific action(able) plan to implement that vision (Teitel & Amante, n.d.). In the figure, each stage of the cycle graphically touches the inner circle, which represents the Development of a Personal and Team Equity Culture. Throughout the cycle, teams continuously re-engage in racial dialogue. RIDES coaches helped these educators dig deep into their discomfort zones, explore their own biases, and build relational trust within their teams to do this work in a meaningful way. What was needed most, they found, was a unique set of coaching moves to push through resistance.

Figure 1. RIDES Equity Improvement Cycle

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Source: The Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools Project (RIDES) at Harvard University

Understanding and Overcoming Resistance

Improvement coaches have been supporting school reform for decades. A "coaching" title can be accompanied with other labels such as literacy coach, leadership coach, and instructional coach. All coaching roles help schools with their improvement goals; however, as noted earlier, coaching for equity requires a different body of knowledge, skills, and a deeper discourse. It takes a lot of work to get school communities to make meaningful changes and help each student reach higher levels of learning.
When external support providers arrive at schools, faculty often think, Who is this outsider and what is their intention? Teachers are skeptical of coaches and consultants who ask questions and offer suggestions without having "enough" information, context, or longevity at the school. It can be challenging to gain credibility in a school community before short-term rewards are achieved. Coaches who meet resistance from teachers might interpret this as being negative and obstructive. However, we propose that resistance can signal a need for additional information, more clarity, or a different approach. It is a chance for coaches to be creative and resourceful—to build relational trust by planning activities that strengthen community, for example, or creating norms. Coaches can reduce resistance by using this opportunity perspective to employ new strategies.
To combat resistance, some solutions may involve simple tactics, whereas others require a more complex approach. Over the course of the institute, RIDES coaches found it useful to refer to a framework by Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie which describes adaptive challenges (2001). According to the authors, "adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge" (p. 3). They explain that "technical or routine" situations can be solved with known solutions, but adaptive situations require reframing roles, responsibilities, and norms.
RIDES coaches identified challenges they observed when working with their assigned teams; named what resistance looked like; specified what coaching decisions they made to address the resistance; and described the impact of their coaching moves and actions. While RIDES coaches described various scenarios during their year-long experience, we will focus on three challenges: (1) using agendas and facilitation, (2) knowing when and how to name issues of racism, and (3) supporting a leader's ability to sit in discomfort.

1. Using Agendas and Facilitation

At one school site, resistance showed up as disorganization during team meetings where the school leaders and teachers were supposed to be doing equity improvement work for the institute—a technical challenge. Team members were not following an agenda and were confused about who led the meetings. Participants avoided or derailed difficult conversations, and they would redirect to easier issues facing the school or have multiple sidebar conversations. The two RIDES coaches working with this particular team discussed their observations between themselves first, then with the broader group. Together, they identified low-stakes strategies that curtailed these unproductive behaviors. The first strategy was modeling the planning process: The RIDES coaches sent out a draft agenda two weeks before the next scheduled meeting to solicit input from members. Staff gave input into what was important to include in the agenda. Then, the RIDES coaches constructed a shared agenda with assigned roles and times allotted for each topic.
The second strategy was to explicitly identify next steps at the end of each meeting. Participants assumed each task with a due date. In between meetings, RIDES coaches followed up with individuals to ensure that the owners of the tasks were making progress toward completion. This "divide and conquer" strategy led to higher levels of engagement during meetings and increased accountability for achieving individual and school goals.
Technical fixes alone, however, will not foster the changes needed to accelerate the academic outcomes of students of color. Educators must also change their beliefs and behaviors—to do so, they must have conversations that directly address racism.

2. Knowing When and How to Name Issues of Racism

Resistance can also signal a misalignment with what needs to be prioritized and how to address needs effectively. One dilemma, or adaptive challenge, many coaches in schools face is when to name issues of racism and oppression directly and when to lead a group to discover these issues through inquiry. As one RIDES coach wondered: "Do we approach [issues of race] head on or do we blend it into what we do all the time?" Some coaches are comfortable being direct and "calling out" where they see a racial dynamic. This might mean naming patterns of participation in a group and highlighting when teachers of color are silenced, talked over, or interrupted. This level of comfort depends upon several variables, such as whether the coach has built relationships and established trust among the group, has engaged in self-reflection, is acutely aware of historical oppression, and understands how racial inequities manifest in schools. The racial or personal identity of the coach relative to the individuals who are receiving coaching also matters (Sue, 2015). For example, a coach who identifies as white might feel more comfortable being direct with other white participants because of a sense of shared identity or experience.
Regardless of the circumstances, deepening the dialogue about race requires coaches to address adaptive challenges. In "Changing the Discourse in Schools," Eubanks, Parish, and Smith (1997) describe two ways of talking as "Discourse I" and "Discourse II." Conversations held in Discourse I maintain existing schooling practices and results. They appear to be about change but are limited to known solutions. For example, talk that stays in Discourse I happens when educators focus on improving what already exists, stick with the familiar, or assume that certain traditions cannot change. In contrast, "Discourse II conversations tend to be about uncomfortable, unequal, ineffective, prejudicial conditions and relationships in a school" (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 156). They require educators to be adaptive: to question the status quo, to be uncomfortable, and to lean into new possibilities. Talk that moves into Discourse II happens when educators question underlying assumptions, push for transformation, and invite multiple perspectives. The following two examples depict coaches who pushed educators to embrace adaptive challenges and engage in Discourse II conversations about racial inequities.
In one "Discourse II" scenario, a RIDES coach used inquiry to support her team with issues related to race and equity. She explained: "As a school is looking at student data, I would ask 'wondering' questions about the data. For example, I might pose the questions: What do you notice? What are you wondering about? Does this have any relationship between who's being successful and who's not?" This resulted in both an exploration and pushing to keep race and equity at the center of the conversation. She reported that the school participants had "aha" moments and discoveries when the work was set up as an exploration. In this case, her first step toward mitigating resistance was to take an inquiry stance, then follow up with strategies to collaborate, refocus, and renew energy to create space for positive change.
Educators might feel that going through an improvement process is straightforward: develop goals, collect data, and assess progress. But the adaptive work lies in educators asking hard questions about why they are taking certain actions. For example, this coach asked school leaders to consider if their own fears or worries might be driving their decisions related to data: "What data am I not collecting? Did I not ask a question because I didn't really want to know [the answer]? Am I choosing to focus [improvement] on kids because it's too scary to focus on adults?" She summarized that "getting to the heart of these types of probing questions is part of the adaptive work we need to do when working through improvement cycles."

3. Supporting a Leader's Ability to Sit in Discomfort

Finally, adaptive challenges relate to experiencing and working through discomfort (Singleton & Linton, 2006) or being "willing to be disturbed" (Wheatley, 2002). In a second "Discourse II" scenario, one RIDES coach (a white male) described talking to a predominantly white school team about what they saw from gathering data about their students. Looking at the low performance data of their Black and brown students caused them to think about their role in producing these outcomes. As the coach described, "It's a hard conversation to collect data that implicates you as well as the system of schooling that educators and students are operating within."
While the team was looking at discrepancies between the data of white students and students of color, the RIDES coach walked over to a table and an administrator there said, "I'm not really comfortable, you know, looking at this data." When invited to say more, the administrator added, "I would think that we need to redirect our work here to go to a safer conversation."
The RIDES coach chose not to avoid this difficult conversation and instead invited a Discourse II dialogue. He responded aloud, in front of the group, "So we have a challenge as a team because [this] discomfort is going to prevent you from doing the deep work that you need to do. How do you work as a team to address that?" Since the RIDES coach had a good relationship with this administrator, he decided to be direct and engage the team in a deeper dialogue. In a later one-on-one conversation, the RIDES coach acknowledged the administrator's feelings and discussed the discomfort. While it is impossible to predict where these conversations will go or how participants will respond, it is critical to push through tense moments and not retreat when it gets tenuous and uncomfortable.
Leading data reviews like this requires that coaches notice emotional reactions and avoidance tactics, such as turning the conversation away from the data or taking a deficit view of students because of their poor performance (Nelson & Guerra, 2014). The complexity of sitting with data where staff feel incriminated surfaces a range of responses, including resistance. Coaches need to have ways to refocus conversations, such as naming when a conversation is becoming uncomfortable and inviting the team to reflect upon their own dynamics of identity, power, and privilege.
When teams engage in improvement, it is easy to follow a process of setting a vision, collecting and analyzing data, and taking action steps without digging deeper into the mindsets that led to the original problems. A RIDES coach explained this as the difference between "working around" and "working through" the stages of the Equity Improvement Cycle. "Working around" the stages of the cycle means simply following the improvement steps using Discourse I language and without deep reflection, curtailing individual and collective enlightenment. "Working through" each stage means leading a Discourse II dialogue, not shying away from hard conversations, sitting in discomfort, challenging one's beliefs and assumptions about serving Black and brown children, and understanding one's emotions. Teams that focus on nurturing a culture of equity listen to and face others' realities and build partnerships to work together in a meaningful and constructive manner. As the same coach described, "Technical solutions [without the adaptive work] help the team to get through the cycle, but not get to the deep stuff of transformation of the adults, which leads to authentic and continuous improvement for students."

Coaching Skills and Competencies

Discussing race and racism will upset individuals as well as the status quo. One RIDES coach said that coaches working on issues of diversity, equity, and integration "have to know they're rocking the boat." It matters that a coach has credibility, authority, awareness of the school's context, trusting relationships, and the ability to speak up courageously when necessary. They must also have humility and engage in self-reflection.
When working with teams in the institute, RIDES coaches, like many others who address racism and seek liberation for minoritized student groups, encountered their share of friction. Nevertheless, they were committed to helping schools become places where students achieve higher academic outcomes; feel a sense of belonging; know and feel adults' commitment to dismantling racism; and see that diversity is represented, valued, and integrated into every part of the school. Coaching with an equity lens employs both technical fixes and adaptive approaches to confront belief systems, biases, and behaviors. Disrupting systemic inequities is complex, challenging, and necessary. By continuously improving their practice, coaches can have greater impact and intentionally create diverse, equitable, and excellent schools where every student can thrive.
Authors' note: The Walton Family Foundation provided financial support to the authors for this project.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What technical challenges have arisen during your team's equity work? What adaptive challenges have arisen? What coaching moves did you make to address these challenges?

➛ How could the RIDES Equity Improvement Cycle help guide your school's equity work?

➛ What goes into determining whether to directly confront resistance or lead team members to inquiry?


Allen, D., & Blythe, T. (2004). The facilitator's book of questions: Tools for looking together at student and teacher work. New York: Teachers College Press.

Eubanks, E., Parish, R., & Smith, D. (1997). Changing the discourse in schools. In P.M. Hall (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism: Policy and practice (pp. 151–168). New York: Routledge.

Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (2001). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 79(11), 131–141.

Nelson, S. W., & Guerra, P. L. (2014). Educator beliefs and cultural knowledge: Implications for school improvement efforts. Educational Administrative Quarterly, 50(1), 67–95.

Singleton, G., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Teitel, L., & Amante, D. (n.d.). RIDES improvement cycle for equity—overview and usage guide. Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from

Wheatley, M. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

End Notes

1 The Equity Improvement Cycle, developed by Lee Teitel and Darnisa Amante for the RIDES Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Candice Bocala ( is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is the faculty director for the RIDES Project.

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