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Black History Month Series: I am a Black Principal

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    Arria Coburn

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor Black leaders who significantly changed and influenced America’s history. Just as it is important to honor those who came before us, it is just as necessary to acknowledge and spotlight those who are leaders today. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, we will profile a few of the many Black leaders and EL partners who are making waves in education.

This blog post is a part of a series. Read the first blog and last blog in this series.

Five years ago, I had no idea what it meant to be a leader of color navigating through spaces that had often been preserved for people that didn’t look like me. If code-switching was what one did to alternate between two languages in order to fit in, I was identity switching in order to gain acceptance based on my own insecurities with being a Black leader. It took a conversation with an 8th grader, Adia, to shake me out of my delusional perception to realize the positional power I had as a Black leader at an urban school. Adia, who is now a 12th grader at The Springfield Renaissance School approached me during my first year as a principal with excitement. Never before had she had a Black principal and she was excited about the possibilities it would bring to the school and her journey through high school.

She didn’t realize that I wasn’t ready to be her Black principal, I simply wanted to be the principal.

Being a leader of color came with the challenge of trying to prove my presence was not merely a representation of the diversity quota that needed to be fulfilled, but because I had truly earned a seat at the table. I believed that I had worked hard during my eight years as an educator and so my transition to becoming a principal was a natural next step. I told myself I would fight to deter others from believing anything other than I was hired because of my ability, rather than because I was Black. 

I separated myself from who I was in order to demystify the perceived perception that Black leaders are hired because of their race rather than their ability. I worked hard at attending to all that was required of me and often extended myself beyond what was expected. I was a principal leading an urban school, but I wasn’t yet being the Black leader my students needed. 

It wasn’t until an incident at our school, that I found myself conflicted with how to respond. I knew what my students needed to hear. I knew what my staff needed to hear. At that moment it wasn’t about what the students of color needed to hear, it was about what the student body needed to hear from a Black leader regarding the use of the n-word. They needed to hear from me as their principal and as a woman of color. For the first time, the two worlds I tried to keep separate needed to coexist in order for me to be my authentic self. What I shared with my students needed to speak from a place of vulnerability and authenticity:

"Today we gather to discuss a moment in time that represents the sad truth of how our world has shifted to a time where we, all of us are questioning the ability to feel united, protected and respected.

As a Black woman I wake up each morning and I have to pray that my family is safe; that when my husband leaves out at night time, he makes it home safe.

Talking about race is tough…it is tough because we all hold different feelings and emotions about where we stand, yet the one thing we share in common in this building is the importance of talking about it…And here we are gathering because the same raw emotions that I carry as a Black woman, a Black principal...these are the same emotions that many of our students carry. And I have to be honest, as a school, we are very much aware of the hurt and pain that many of our students carry related to the heavy issues that as adults we can not deal with."

Arria Coburn, , Principal at The Springfield Renaissance School

As I spoke to the students, I publicly shared my position on race. I had finally arrived. I had shown up as a Black leader and was taking a stand on something that affected all my students. 

That day in the auditorium, my worlds collided, and I transitioned into my role as a Black leader. I understood what it meant to be a Black leader who is comfortable with being uncomfortable for the explicit progress needed for students. 

As a Black leader, I needed to be my authentic self and be comfortable naming my positionality and identity as a Black leader committed to the exploration of how to ensure all students have access to equitable learning outcomes. The pressure of being a leader comes with its own challenges, but being a Black leader presents a series of struggles that can only be accomplished through owning both roles; being Black and being a leader. 

I am a Black principal that proudly shares with my students my positionality and my unapologetic approach to ensuring all students have access to equitable learning outcomes. 

I am a principal. I am a Black principal.

Arria Coburn is the principal at The Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts, an EL Education Credentialed School. As a credentialed school, Springfield Renaissance has implemented the EL model with fidelity and achieved corresponding gains across all three dimensions of EL’s expanded definition of student achievement.