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Ezzani’s Research Shows Power of Leadership for Social Justice

student in classroomAs the nation navigates COVID-19 precautions and a growing movement for social justice, assistant professor Miriam Ezzani’s research may help leaders, specifically school administrators, to practice what she calls renegade leadership – fighting for anti-oppressive systems despite reluctance.

While many studies show how educational leaders perpetuate institutional racism in their schools and districts, Ezzani studied ways in which leaders can disrupt systemic racism in her article published in the Journal of School Leadership. She focused on an elementary school with a high student population of culturally, linguistically and economically diverse students, led by Ms. DiFalco (a pseudonym to protect her and her school’s privacy).

Before DiFalco made significant reforms, Black students represented 15 percent of the school’s population, yet more than 80 percent had a written discipline plan. She used data to inform decisions, asked teachers to develop core values and employed ongoing critical coaching and intellectual empathy. In a powerful example Ezzani witnessed, DiFalco and her staff lined the hallways before school started, as they did every morning. DiFalco knew students by name, made eye contact and offered support to children she sensed needed it. Her efforts helped minimize the school’s disproportionate discipline of Black boys and created an environment where teachers felt comfortable discussing racial issues and solutions.

Ezzani said there’s no shortcut to the process of implementing anti-oppressive practices in educational systems. She said the means to empower historically marginalized students require changes in practices and policy, and partnerships between universities and districts to collectively train leaders and teachers who will fight for social justice.

“You have to have hard conversations about systemic racism in the university classroom, otherwise leaders won’t be able to have hard conversations with administrators and teachers in their school building,” Ezzani said.

Ezzani said DiFalco stood out because she could empathize with her Black male students and with her mainly white teachers. She spent about half of her time in classrooms, monitoring teachers’ behaviors and facial expressions and their effect on students of color.

“She acknowledged the power of teachers in the classroom and how consequential it is in their ability or inability to do right by their students,” Ezzani said. “Teachers could see that she was trying to understand them. This fostered mutual respect and openness where she could coach them to critically reflect on their beliefs and behaviors.”

Ezzani teaches intellectual empathy and critical coaching toward self-reflective practices in courses like Cultural Foundations for Educational Leadership. She asks her graduate students who are current and aspiring leaders to reflect on their personal experiences and earliest memories with their families around issues of race, ethnicity, gender, faith, sexual orientation and ableness.

“It helps students think about where their values and beliefs come from,” Ezzani said. “A lot of times we’re not asked to think about these things.”

Ezzani said more research is needed to learn how systemic changes happen at the district level. She plans to use her research as a case study for teaching in the fall and her article will appear in print in December.