The Role of Identity and Race in Leadership

The post below is by guest blogger Celine Coggins.

Today is the first day of my career post-Teach Plus. I am welcoming students for “course preview” day at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For a decade, my identity has been: founder, teacher advocate, entrepreneur, CEO. Now I’m trying “teacher” back on for size and I couldn’t be more excited and nervous.

The process and timing of leaving a founder role mirrors the start-up process in reverse.  It takes a long time to plan properly and get right. Lots of the things that matter are out of your control. There are many moments when you think: Is this really happening?! The decision involves as much the totality of your identity as the start-up process does. Leaving your professional baby is never a single-issue decision.

For me, the same reflection question that led me to take the risk and jump on the founder express led me to determine it was time to get off the train. Given who I am at this very moment, what is the best contribution I can make to the ed reform movement today? A decade ago, my teaching days were fresh in my brain and the field was disproportionately focused on teacher quality issues. My vision fit the zeitgeist. Today, our issue emphasis has shifted with a new President who has created renewed urgency around protecting our most vulnerable students and standing up for social justice in schools and beyond. I agree with this shift in emphasis, but find myself taking the stance of learner more and expert less these days.

I watched with discomfort last fall when the hot topic among talking heads in education became which White leaders should step down to make space for a new generation of leaders of color. It’s a fun topic for Twitter or cocktail parties, less so when you’re pondering it IRL. It felt like the wrong version of identity politics. And yet, being a middle-aged White woman committed to greater diversity among education leaders factored heavily into my decision to give up my role.

I think, if we’re going to get anywhere on addressing race in leadership, we can’t lead with a deficit model of who past or present leaders are not. Leaving— taking a next step in one’s career— is never who you aren’t, its about who you are at your best and what you want to become as a whole person in the future.

My most important role at Teach Plus was empowering others. As a non-(current) teacher running a teacher leadership organization, I learned how to be a servant leader and give others had the spotlight. I like to think of myself as the person who dives in front of the elevator door before it closes to bring a new person up to the top floor with me. I like that role, It always reminded me of my teacher role and eventually led me back to teaching.

And I know my leaving will empower a new generation of more diverse leaders to step up at Teach Plus and that matters to me as well.

Race matters in education leadership. We have a long way to go to reflecting the population of students we seek to serve. But race is not a variable to consider in isolation. I hope our conversations about the future leadership of our field can be strengths-based— and include diversity as a strength— rather than myopically race-based. After all, there are an awful lot of us experienced White folks who are willing to step aside to learn from and follow a new generation of my diverse leaders. I humbly offer myself as one of them.

Celine Coggins is the founder of Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization that operates in ten states across the US. This month she is transitioning from Teach Plus to become a Lecturer and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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