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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

Giving Black Male Leaders the Mentoring They Most Need

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When Black men in new leadership roles are mentored by other men of color, they thrive—and stay.

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LeadershipEquity
Dwayne Chism (left) and Javan Childs at the 2023 Men of Color in Educational Leadership National Convening.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Arturo Rivas Ojeda
Caption: Dwayne Chism (left) and Javan Childs at the 2023 Men of Color in Educational Leadership National Convening.
Like all new education leaders, Black male leaders of color greatly benefit from mentorship opportunities. But specific factors make mentorship especially important for recently appointed Black male principals. As they assume the principal role, Black males often find themselves in the minority among their fellow leaders, due to the scarcity of male leaders of color in principal positions. They face unique cultural barriers and burdens that require guidance and support tailored to their specific needs and experiences. To address the distinct challenges Black male leaders face (which often shorten their tenures), and to foster their resilience, school districts must offer an alternative approach to mentorship, what we call representation-based mentorship.
Representation-based mentorship connects Black male leaders with mentors who can empathize with and validate their experiences and identity—ideally fellow Black males. It facilitates conditions in which Black male leaders can thrive in the principalship and increases the likelihood of long-term retention. Drawing from our experiences as a former principal/principal supervisor (Dwayne) and current principal (Javan), we'd like to explore here the challenges new Black male leaders face and how their chances of success are enhanced when their district supports strategic mentorship. We'll do so through each telling our story, Javan as a new leader who benefited from mentoring, and Dwayne as his mentor.

Javan's Story

For Black Leaders, the Struggle Is Real

I know from experience that Black male leaders often face conditions that make them engage in complex mental gymnastics. Due to the lack of diversity in leadership positions, there is often a sense of pressure to exceed expectations and prove one's worth, which can impact Black leaders' outlook on the future. Before stepping into the principal role, I served as vice principal at a high school in Fresno, California, for four years. I had typecasted myself by working in areas stereotypically associated with Black men, such as athletics and discipline. During my time as a vice principal, I commonly had feelings of imposter syndrome. Any time my mind considered anything beyond these typecasted roles, I experienced thoughts of not "measuring up." Each year, I was asked to consider becoming a principal, but for four years, I found a reason not to accept the challenge.
The root cause of my reluctance? My fear of failure and the possibility of exposing myself as someone not intelligent or intellectual enough for the principal role. As a Black man, my apprehension about taking risks was compounded by my awareness of societal stereotypes associated with my race and gender. When you are one of the few Black men present, it's easy to feel pressure to behave in ways that try to negate negative stereotypes. You can become overly cautious in your demeanor, speech, and sharing of ideas—and avoid taking risks.

Black male leaders face conditions that make them engage in complex mental gymnastics. There is often a sense of pressure to exceed expectations and prove one’s worth.

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This was my mode of operation during my tenure as a vice principal until the Fresno Board of Education adopted a board policy to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. This policy was developed based on the disproportionality of educational opportunities for ethnic minority students and the disproportionality of ethnic minority administrators. It involved a strategic plan that proposed an increase in the diversity of site leadership, starting with specifically supporting and increasing the number of Black administrators.
Around this time, our school board partnered with Men of Color in Educational Leadership (MCEL) to support Black male leaders through mentorship. In California, all administrators are required to successfully complete a program called the Clear Administrative Services Credential (CASC). This program provides support and guidance to new leaders as they progress to a cleared license credential. Although CASC is designed to help leaders navigate their responsibilities and compliance activities during their early years as an administrator, when I did this program (prior to working with Dwayne), I felt an absence in its coaching component. As a Black male leader, I constantly feared being judged by my CASC coach due to my limited knowledge.
My CASC coach was an Asian female who I had worked under as a teacher while she was a vice principal. By the time I became a vice principal, she was a successful principal at a middle school within the district. My relationship with this coach was good, and she greatly improved my instructional lens and operational knowledge pertaining to the job. Although she was supportive and important to my growth, there are intricacies of the lived experience of Black males that limited how far the support could go. I needed a mentor who could help me explore my vulnerabilities and gain confidence in expressing them. Fortunately, through the MCEL partnership, I met Dwayne, a mentor who represented my race. Dwayne played a pivotal role in my overcoming imposter syndrome and gaining the confidence to move into the principalship.

A Transformative Experience

I met Dwayne when my district asked its Black male leaders if we wanted to participate in the MCEL mentorship program supporting male leaders of color in Fresno. While I agreed to the experience, I remember questioning if it would be worth my time. When the time came for my first one-on-one mentorship experience with Dwayne, I felt nervous. I had reservations about having a mentor because I believed it meant exposing my weaknesses and vulnerabilities—which clashed with my upbringing and perception that Black men have to be strong.
I had always found it easy to provide generalized information about my own work and knowledge related to schools when I participated in PD group sessions. But, like I had feared with CASC, the prospect of one-on-one coaching made me anxious that a coach might dig deep enough to discover my (self-perceived) lack of knowledge and decide I was incapable of thriving as a principal. I struggled with trusting someone not to use my vulnerabilities against me. I asked one of my colleagues who had participated in representative-based mentorship what it was like. He smiled and said, "It was therapeutic." His answer immediately turned me off, but I'd already accepted the invitation and didn't have a valid excuse not to show up.
Despite my initial trepidation, my experience as a mentee—which lasted two years and continues informally to this day—was transformative. It shattered my misconceptions and had a profound impact on my life. The benefits I've found that make me a believer in the power of representation-based mentorship include:
  • Feeling seen and heard. For the first time, I was able to engage in meaningful professional conversations that didn't involve me feeling like I had to explain how my race and gender affected my ability to carry out tasks. I was being asked questions in a way that relayed empathy and understanding of what I was facing and going through as a Black male.
  • Having permission to be me. I felt "invisible tax" free. I didn't have to be mindful of my tone and posture, or give thought to sounding smart, articulate, efficient, or other traits that I usually feel I must project every day.
  • Learning about perceptions and "unseen competencies." As a Black male principal, I have to consider how my decisions are perceived by those I supervise. I initially didn't realize that some of the changes I made as a new leader would be perceived by some as discrediting the work done in the past. Some of the initial difficulties I faced took a toll on my mental and physical health; many times I thought about writing my resignation letter. But my mentor provided affirmation, guidance, and the backing I needed to stay in the position. He also taught me unseen competencies I needed to know and master as a Black male school leader, including:
    • The need to identify the "unofficial principals" (strong teacher leaders) in the building and how to work proactively through them when enacting change.
    • How to endear myself to a room, knowing that my race and gender enter along with me, with actions like greeting everyone by name and with a smile as they walk in.
    • How to open up to staff and clearly communicate my values so that the work can move and grow.
    • The tact needed to get my message across without being perceived as threatening or aggressive due to my positionality.
Principals are tasked with improving the lives of children through influencing teachers and developing their skills in an effective manner. They must understand people and how to motivate them, which takes knowledge, experience, and skill. In my two years as a principal, I've found great value and safety in having a mentor who shares my cultural experiences and background. My mentor has helped me be more confident, navigate the daily decisions I must make, and be aware of how people I work with might respond to my actions.

Dwayne played a pivotal role in my overcoming imposter syndrome and gaining the confidence and efficacy to move into the principalship.

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Dwayne's Story

Paying It Forward

Experiencing circumstances and feelings similar to Javan's in my early leadership roles is what led me to become a mentor and pay it forward. Having been a principal supervisor, I understand what it's like to shoulder the weight of one's positionality and to not want to hinder future opportunities for those walking a similar path who share your complexion. I know the feeling of being isolated and overwhelmed with negative self-talk while searching to find where you fit in.
In my initial conversation with Javan, I sensed his hesitation and guardedness as he fought to maintain an anti-stereotypical image of himself. However, when I shared with him in an early session that "As Black men, we are not broken," I could feel his sense of relief.
What began as a monthly conversation quickly transformed into weekly and even daily exchanges of calls and emails. Most meetings were virtual, but several times I came to Javan's school. Our sessions focused on leadership goal-setting, Javan's current challenges, self-care, and building instructional capacity. We talked about the nature of being risk-averse and the fallacy that one needs to feel completely ready before transitioning to a new role—and the need for Javan to articulate his "why" and trust his experiences.
With each communication, I saw Javan's level of efficacy increase; he became confident in his abilities and aware of his powerful influence when leading from a place of authenticity. When our relationship began, Javan, then a vice principal, harbored doubts about assuming the principal role. He is now not only thriving in his second year as a principal, but also set to defend his dissertation. (In fact, by the time this article is published, he will have achieved his Ed.D. in education.)

Setting Up Representation-Based Mentoring

We encourage districts to establish representative mentoring programs to create conditions for Black male principals to thrive (plus mentoring programs for leaders from other marginalized groups, such as Black female principals and LGBTQIA+ leaders). Here are some key steps:

1. Commit resources.

The first step is to commit resources to make this program a priority in your system. Resources include a system—clearly communicated to all—through which mentor and mentee time will be scheduled and protected, and compensation for the time mentors will spend being trained and mentoring.

2. Identify competent mentors.

If your district is privileged to have influential Black males in leadership positions, discuss with them how their knowledge and leadership expertise might be used to support new and aspiring leaders through representation-based mentorship. Good potential mentors will have a proven track record of successful leadership or have shown strong leadership abilities. If you don't have many Black male leaders in your district, consider working with organizations like MCEL, which can provide support and potential mentors. Tapping such resources allows for greater networking and gives mentees access to a wider spectrum of leaders.

3. Train and support mentors.

Provide space and time for mentors to learn and grow their skills in mentoring, through approaches like:
  • Reflective coaching: Help mentors become skilled at active listening and acting as mirrors for mentees, helping mentees gain clarity and navigate their unique circumstances.
  • Discussing problems of practice: Set up a way for mentors to share and process their successes and challenges in supporting those they mentor.

4. Establish a cadence—and key topics—for mentoring.

It's crucial to ensure a consistent schedule for when mentoring takes place. We suggest holding meetings at least monthly, with each meeting lasting at least an hour. This enables mentors to stay attuned to their mentees and provide a more informed level of support. Mentors can process a wide range of topics with their mentees, such as:
  • Identity and culture: Mentors should help the new leader navigate his identity and the impact it may have on his personal and professional life, asking questions like: How does race impact your leadership walk? What challenges and opportunities does your identity provide? How can you form relationships that allow you to lead from a place of authenticity?
  • Building self-confidence and resilience. Help the mentee embrace his unique strengths and develop resilience in the face of adversity. This might involve questions like: What are your priorities for your development as a leader of color? How does the way you spend the majority of the day support or align with your priorities? Talk through a challenge you recently faced. What factors were at play? How could you leverage your position to better navigate these factors?
  • Career guidance and professional development: Mentors can help with networking and forming a professional support system, asking questions like: Where do you see yourself in 3–5 years? What steps are you taking today that will give you access to where you eventually want to be? What opportunities for growth could you take advantage of, and what people or organizations might you tap into to develop your leadership skills?
  • Mental health and self-care: A mentor should nudge a mentee to practice self-care and stress management and seek help when needed. Good questions to ask include: What keeps you up at night when it comes to your job? What could you change, or what strategies could you try, to feel more at peace? What things do you need to stay connected to, to be at your best? It's also good for a mentee to share what kinds of self-care and stress management help them most.

5. Monitor how it's going.

Merely providing representative mentors for new Black male leaders isn't enough. It's crucial for districts to proactively monitor the mentorship relationships that are happening and identify opportunities to enhance or better align support for new leaders. Note this isn't about a mentor or mentee having to disclose sensitive aspects of their conversations; it's about discovering themes in regard to the overall support Black male leaders need to thrive in their roles—which will ultimately grow and sustain the pipeline of Black school leaders.

6. Close the loop.

As Black leaders who have been mentored progress within your organization, leverage their potential by encouraging them to mentor others. Urge them to be advocates for attracting and retaining additional leaders from diverse backgrounds.

When I shared with Javan that 'As Black men, we are not broken,' I could feel his sense of relief.

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Helping New Leaders—and the System

Although student populations are becoming more racially diverse, the number of leaders from underrepresented backgrounds in education hasn't kept pace. Additionally, despite research indicating the benefits of having Black males in the principalship, Black leaders who assume the principal role too often experience a sense of isolation. They not only find themselves standing out as one of the few Black men in their position, but also typically have supervisors who come from different cultural backgrounds. This dynamic poses distinct challenges for Black leaders when it comes to communication, receiving guidance, and how their actions as leaders are perceived.
Representation-based mentorship helps Black male leaders face these challenges. It offers them a valuable chance to navigate the intricacies of being a principal, reflect on their thoughts and emotions about their role, and focus on their personal growth without the fear of another's judgment or lack of understanding. Nurturing Black leaders through such mentorship helps the whole system thrive because these leaders bring valuable perspectives and experiences to schools and districts. Their presence can influence the educational outcomes of diverse learners and contribute to the diversification of future leadership pipelines.

How Well Does Your District Support Black Male Leaders?

Reflecting on the level of support Black male principals currently have within your district is a key step toward providing them more support, thus promoting equity and addressing the need for more leaders of color. Districts should ask themselves:

  • Are there initiatives in place to actively promote diversity and representation in leadership positions?

  • What is the retention rate of Black male principals within our district?

  • Do they face any specific challenges or barriers that contribute to turnover?

  • Do we offer mentorship programs or networking opportunities specifically designed for Black male principals? Are there avenues for them to connect with experienced leaders of color who can provide guidance and support to meet their unique needs?

  • Do we have practices or policies in place to support their career advancement, such as mentoring or a retention strategy?

  • Is there a mechanism for Black male principals to voice concerns and provide feedback on how the district can meet their needs?

Discussing the answers to these questions will give district leaders a sense of what next steps should be.

End Notes

1 Grissom, J. A., Egalite, A. J., & Lindsay, C. A. (2021). How principals affect students and schools: A systematic synthesis of two decades of research. Wallace Foundation.

Dwayne Chism is the Dean of the School of Education at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. He supports equity work at the local, state, and national levels and works to support the development of current and aspiring leaders of color across the United States. Chism previously served as a principal supervisor, principal, and teacher. In 2018, he founded Shifting Perspectives, LLC, to help schools navigate diversity to create equitable conditions for learning.

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