As a native Wisconsinite, I was honored and humbled to be tapped in 2020 to serve as lead program consultant for New Teacher Center’s (NTC) ongoing partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Having the opportunity to work collaboratively with MPS leaders to support the 450-550 beginning teachers new to the district each year in the largest school system in my home state was and is a real privilege.
MPS serves approximately 68,000 students, roughly 91% of whom are students of color. Seventy-five percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 20% access special education services, and 14% are multilingual learners from 81 different language backgrounds. And not unlike the rest of the nation, about 70% of the MPS teacher workforce is white.
Soon after I started working with the incredible Theopa Tolbert, MPS’ induction and support manager, we began a series of conversations about how the teacher induction program could better serve as a lever for equity in the district. Theopa had participated in an NTC National Program Leadership Network session on prioritizing underserved learners and wanted to lead an effort to be more intentional and supportive in elevating equity issues in mentoring training and practice. At the same time, NTC program staff had been seeing some missed opportunities during in-field coaching to disrupt practices that could perpetuate inequities. When Theopa suggested working together as thought partners to design a four-part equity learning series for MPS mentors, we jumped at the chance.
As a white male with no personal or professional history in the district outside of the partnership, I knew I would be co-designing and facilitating across many lines of difference. So I was grateful for and relied on Theopa’s leadership and the collaboration of Dr. Patricia Ellis, director of the district’s Department of Equity, Access, and Inclusion, who provided resources that would help us align the series with the district’s ongoing equity work.
Together, we decided to use the history of desegregation in the district from the Milwaukee Public Schools Equity Guidebook as a jumping-off point. Many of the district’s mentors, some of whom were retired educators, had deep roots in MPS. A number had even attended school in the district as children and then taught for decades in the system. Their lived experience of the city’s complex history over the last 60 or so years provided real depth and authenticity to the initial conversations about equity that mentors had together, including how they were still witnessing the legacy of this history in classrooms today. This was not topical, performative talk. This was personal.
Outcomes for MPS’ equity learning series for mentors
- promote the conditions, mindsets, and practices for creating optimal learning environments for every learner
- ground my coaching in context to center students and community
- build teacher awareness of identity and race through coaching conversations
- identify entry points to center students in planning/problems of practice
- more aware and better equipped as a coach to identify and pursue equity issues in coaching
- challenged and supported in a community of peers working toward personal and collective professional growth
Creating space for participants to engage with one another like this required being flexible with our agenda to allow more time for deeper if sometimes uncomfortable conversations. For example, our planned 15-minute “connector” conversation about the district’s history turned into a 45-minute “experience” that participants found incredibly meaningful. One mentor reported: “It’s important to me that our experience with desegregation as a district was valued and allowed to be a focal point in today’s session.”
The co-design team was also committed to centering the district’s identified equity “problem of practice” as grounding for the design of the learning series.
“MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) neither consistently nor effectively engaged all of our students of color in an environment conducive to learning; thus, there are opportunity gaps that perpetuate low student achievement.”
We also wanted to use common language, concepts, and conversation protocols mentors and teachers would continue to encounter in the district’s ongoing Courageous Conversation equity training. Finally, we were committed to being deeply responsive. We followed the participants’ lead about what mattered and redesigned subsequent sessions accordingly to provide a coherent throughline. We were co-designing in every sense of the word, with MPS leaders before and after each session and in the moment with the mentors themselves.
“It’s important to me that our experience with desegregation as a district was valued and allowed to be a focal point in today’s session.”
After laying the groundwork in the opening session with contextualized conversation and identity work, session two focused on naming the student groups participants considered “underserved” in MPS. This conversation expanded the equity focus beyond race and ethnicity to include other marginalized student populations. We also discussed ways mentors could support teachers to prioritize student voice to better understand their experiences in school. Another session focused on mentor self-assessment of their strengths in engaging in honest conversations about race with follow-up peer coaching. In the final session, mentors discussed specific opportunities they might have in coaching conversations to talk about equity and its implications in the classroom. They also identified priorities for their ongoing equity work as a mentor learning community and personal next steps to continue developing their own awareness and capacity to coach for equity.
Feedback from the learning series was exactly what we’d hoped for: “Immediately after the professional learning, I noticed that mentors are more comfortable talking about equity and biases that exist,” one program leader reported. “They also talk to each other in new ways … to seek diverse perspectives from those with different identities.” Program leaders also noted a shift in discourse in post-observation conversations between mentors and teachers.
In our equity work with mentors in MPS, we created places and spaces for collaboration and let participants take the lead in contextualizing and shaping the experience in alignment with their collective and individual needs. This is what professional learning should look like.
“Immediately after the professional learning, I noticed that mentors are more comfortable talking about equity and biases that exist,” one program leader reported. “They also talk to each other in new ways … to seek diverse perspectives from those with different identities.”
At NTC, when we support our partners to co-design systems for equity, one goal is to shift from prioritizing how things have always been done to prioritizing the outcomes the stakeholders in the system want and need. And when we say “system,” it’s important to consider the systems within the system, those smaller units where meaningful change can take root in alignment with the larger movement. Where better to start than with mentors who are guiding new teachers as they step into their professional roles with the potential to impact the lives of thousands of students in the years to come?
Learn more about co-designing systems for equity. View Milwaukee Public Schools Profile in Practice from NTC’s The Elephant in the (Class)room.