Monday, June 15, 2020

School Leadership, Black Lives, Systemic Racism, Social Unrest and Social Justice Education

We’re at an interesting place in education in 2020. Although police killings of unarmed Black men is nothing new….in fact, it has been occurring for a very long time, what is new is that these killings are now being captured on cell phone video, surveillance video and police body cam video and broadcasted on television for the world to see. For the first time, the world is seeing what the Black community has been crying out about for over a century. With the recent cell phone-recorded police killing of George Floyd, the surveillance and subsequent body cam videos of the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, and the home invasion and subsequent police killing of Breonna Taylor, America has shifted. The America of today, June 15, 2020 is not the America of May 24, 2020. In other words, when George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020 where a Minneapolis police officer (knowingly being recorded) kept his knee on Floyd’s neck to the point of suffocation for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, America shifted. Starting with Minneapolis, the masses immediately “took to the streets” in the form of marches, protests, rallies, demonstrations, rebellions and rioting. As I write on June 15 (21 days after the George Floyd murder), masses of people are still “in the streets” of America and the world, across racial / ethnic groups, demanding justice, solutions and immediate change relative to the policing of citizens of the Black community.

The aforementioned has implications for the classroom every day that cannot be disregarded. The social unrest that we’re all currently observing and will in all likelihood continue to observe for some time to come cannot be ignored, circumvented or “swept under the rug.” At the district and school levels, it must be met head-on. It must be welcomed and embraced. Why? Because it impacts every child sitting in your schools and classrooms. Schools across America must be willing to embrace and infuse America’s new reality into every classroom in the country under the banner of Social Justice Education. Of course, there are many schools that have embraced Social Justice Education long before 2020, but there are other schools where Social Justice Education is “way off the radar.” The times dictate that Social Justice Education is an inherent part of the teaching and learning process across all disciplines…Math, Science, Language Arts, Social Studies, etc. For the purpose of this essay, I am making the case for Social Justice Education in schools where Black children are enrolled because I am writing specifically here about “Black Lives.”

What is Social Justice Education (SJE)? First and foremost, I was a social justice teacher and principal because it was just natural for me professionally as it emanated out of who I am personally. I took on the tough topics and issues with my students because I felt it was my duty to do so. I owed it to each and every one of my students to have the courage and audacity to be a social justice educator...for them. But secondly, I have read extensively about SJE over the years and there are so many definitions and perspectives out there as to what it is and what it is not. For me, it’s simple. SJE is the ongoing student-centered exploration, examination, assessment, critique and analysis of the world upon which your students exist…the world around them relative to their relationship with it and how they fit into it relative to issues of social justice (and injustices) and overall systemic, institutional and individual racism (unconscious, implicit or explicit). As it relates to your Black students for example, the question becomes, “What are the realities of being Black? What are the realities, experiences, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals and aspirations, across genres, of being Black in America? What challenges does being Black pose to your Black students?” Depending on the age of your students, chances are that your Black students have very strong, emotional and intellectual thoughts and opinions about the reality of being Black in America. As I indicated previously, SJE along with your Black students’ thoughts and opinions therefore cannot be ignored, circumvented or “swept under the rug” because the implications and correlation between their world and their academic success in your classroom and beyond are immeasurable. For example, they see the current unrest; they can relate to the current unrest; they understand the current unrest and many even may be participating in the current unrest. You must therefore ensure that SJE is an inherent component of learning and discussion in your school which not only enables your Black students to put their world’s in perspective toward confronting it, but equally enables your non-Black students to better understand and appreciate the world of their Black peers.

So what does this all have to do with school leadership? EVERYTHING. It requires leadership…strong leadership…purpose-driven leadership…visionary leadership…courageous leadership…passionate leadership to ensure that Social Justice Education occurs in all schools toward educating the “whole child.” Toward the implementation of Social Justice Education in your schools, I offer you the following ten self-reflective questions to guide your thinking, planning, organization and implementation:

1.  What do I know about Social Justice Education?

2.  What would Social Justice Education mean for the students of my school?

3.  Why would Social Justice Education be necessary in my school?

4.  What are the reasons that Social Justice Education exists in my school?

5.  What are the reasons that Social justice Education does not exist in my school?

6.  Can our students; particularly our students of color articulate, beyond emotional reactions, the injustices that surround them?

7.  Do the teachers that I supervise have the necessary cultural competency to engage our students in issues of social justice?

8.  What type of PD do we provide staff toward developing a comfort and confidence in engaging our students in issues of social justice?

9.  How knowledgeable am I in issues of social justice?

10.  How competent am I in incorporating issues of social justice in my overall instructional leadership with staff?

Principal Kafele is the author of seven ASCD books including his recently released Amazon best-seller, The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth. For further writings authored by Principal Kafele visit


  1. I would like also to see in this SJE someone to address the mental health factor. Our children are under great psychology pressure it's hard for adults to make the necessary shift with all the societal changes we are facing.

  2. Do you have suggestions or can you provide resources for how this practically looks inside a classroom that still needs to meet the demands of state standards? I am a firm believer that SJE is necessary and I strive to allow these conversations to happen naturally in my classroom when they arise, but I'd like to be more intentional about them this coming school year.

  3. As a future teacher I believe discussions like these need to continue. Students may not understand why SJE is important, however it is the lasting impact on them that will move this country forward. Students have so much to deal with on top of what is already rampant in the world. Reform must be made so that we do not continue to repeat history.

  4. Indeed!! Black men being killed by police while unarmed is nothing new. Systemic racism must be taught to students so that black people can be redeemed.


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