Equity & Innovation Leadership with Dr. Teresa A. Lance (Ep 48)

February 22, 2021 / By

Dr. Teresa A. Lance currently serves as Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Innovation in a suburban school district outside Chicago, Illinois. Prior to her current role, Dr. Lance served as the Superintendent in a suburban school district also outside Chicago, IL. As Superintendent, Dr. Lance led with an equity lens. Her approach is evident by the significant decrease in the disproportionate number of out of school suspensions and expulsions for Black and Brown children. Additionally, under Dr. Lance’s leadership, the number of advanced placement course offerings doubled. For the first time in the school district’s history, 9th graders were allowed to enroll in advanced placement courses securing both opportunity and access for our often-marginalized students. Dr. Lance was also a School Leadership Officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In her role as a School Leadership Officer, Dr. Lance was responsible for more than 11,000-students in 21 schools. While in Colorado, Dr. Lance oversaw multiple programs including: Gifted and Talented, Special Education, Emergent English Learners, and Professional Development. Dr. Lance’s career, however, began in Baltimore City, Maryland as a health and physical education teacher. It is in Baltimore City where Dr. Lance credits much of her growth; moving from teacher to assistant principal and eventually principal of both a middle and high school.

In her quest for learning and to create better outcomes for the students she serves, Dr. Lance has received training in various parts of the country, including three stints of professional learning at Harvard University’s Professional Education programs. Dr. Lance earned her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and defended her dissertation titled, The Contributions of a Ninth-Grade Academy on African American Males’ Promotion to Tenth Grade: A Single-Case Study. Additionally, Dr. Lance co-authored a chapter entitled, Leading Boldly in Challenges to Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs in Organizations.

Dr. Lance has presented at several professional conferences, including The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and American Association of School Administrators (AASA). More recently, Dr. Lance was appointed and proudly serves on the Advisory Board of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center, which services Iowa and Illinois. Follow Dr. Lance on Twitter @teresa_lance and visit her website at https://teresaalance.com/.

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Transcript

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. And on today’s episode we have Dr. Teresa Lance. And in this episode she shares her leadership experiences in her work in equity and education. Dr. Teresa Lance currently serves as Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Innovation in a suburban school district outside of Chicago, Illinois. Prior to her current role, Dr. Lance served as the superintendent in a suburban school district, also outside of Chicago. As superintendent Dr. Lance led with an equity lens. Her approach is evident by the significant decrease in the disproportionate number of out of school suspensions and expulsions for Black and Brown children. Additionally, under Dr. Lance’s leadership, the number of advanced placement course offerings doubled for the first time in the school district’s history, ninth graders were allowed to enroll in advanced placement courses, securing both opportunity and access for often marginalized students.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Dr. Lance is also a school leadership officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In Her role as school leadership officer Dr. Lance was responsible for more than 11,000 students in 21 schools. In her quest for learning and to create better outcomes for students that she serves Dr. Lance has received training in various parts of the country, including three stints as professional learning at Harvard University’s Professional Education Programs. Dr. Lance has such a rich history and experience in working with schools around equity issues. And I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Teresa, I am so excited to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being a part today.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Thank you so much for having me, Nathan. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I have been following you for a while and in this past year your tweets have really been a source of inspiration for me. I see a sense of authenticity and courage in your tweets and it’s really what jumped out at me. So I just want to thank you personally for being so authentic and courageous in your social media presence.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Well, I appreciate that. And I’ll share with you Nathan, that oftentimes those tweets, more often than not, are really tweets that speak to me. So engaging in this sort of self-talk are those things that speak to me? And so I’ll tweet something out that speaks to me and it unintentionally will resonate with other followers or not followers. And that’s how I’ve been able to just really engage with so many good people on Twitter.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, I can tell and people definitely do respond to what you’re putting out there and it makes people think and it helps them to reflect on their own practice. So please continue to be you and put those inspiring messages out on Twitter.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And speaking of inspiring, I love the title that in your role that you are currently working in as an Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Innovation. And I’d love to hear more, and I know our listeners would love to hear more, about what that role means for you and how that intersects with education and supporting the community.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Sure. So I’m in a district that services more than 37,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade. And so my role is multi-faceted. So I spend a great deal of my time just focusing on equity. And that equity means I am in every department, every layer of the organization, from our special education to our curriculum and instruction to school leadership, to professional development. Where are the strengths? And then where are the greatest inequities that we can begin to peel back the layers and then eradicate those inequities for our students. Then I’m also going to say our staff members as well. We know that we have staff of color that are oppressed, whether intentionally or not, by policies and practices. So my job is to really to identify those barriers and obstacles and then work collectively with my colleagues to again, to eradicate that. So, that’s the equity side of the house.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: The innovative part is I’m still learning, to be real honest with you Nathan, what does that mean to be innovative? Because I can come up with a great idea, but you can have a nearby district that’s been doing that for a very long time. So I think this idea of being innovative is respective of the organization that you work in.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: So an example that I think of is that while I was in Colorado, we had middle school students that were taking AP courses and high school credited courses. And then when I arrived in Illinois, that was not the case. And so you would think that, that was not an innovative idea. So I just think depending on where the organization is at the time, you can create innovative ideas, but that, or, but may not be innovative for again, a neighboring school district.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: So basically that part of my role means that I am involved in our CTE, our Career Technical Education, our AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, post-secondary success. So those are some of the other programs that I help to oversee as a director for those departments. But all of those departments sit under the equity and innovation umbrella. So, that’s a little bit about the role that I have here in my current district.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You have your work cut out for you. You have a lot of different areas that you can have an impact on. And as you were talking through, I actually became a bit overwhelmed with all the different pieces of work that you have to engage in. And I first wanted to go to one of the first things you talked about with equity in that just identifying the gaps alone is a huge, huge undertaking. And I think that one could get lost just in the identifying, look because it’s obvious that the gaps exist, but I think you have pointed out so much in social media that the systemic gaps that exist and there’s so much work to be done with the systemic inequities. So I guess my question would be where in the world do we even get started? How do we move the conversation from, okay, here are all, here are the gaps. Here are the systems in place that are perpetuating these gaps. And then here is where we start to find solutions. And then get people on board too, because I know a lot of your work too is just illuminating the gaps in getting people to see it. So I would love to hear what your thoughts are on that portion of your role.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: I can tell you that when I arrived in this position, I knew right away that I was going to have colleagues who were going to be soliciting my support, but I’m one person. So the way I approached it was to identify patterns in the district. And so that meant that I had to really engage in this sort of listening tour. And I’m using “tour” because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So I have to be mindful of my interaction with folks. But I would ask as an example, the superintendent, members of his cabinet, our ETA, our teacher union president and then several other staff members. I asked them a series of three questions. They all got the same question. What of the strengths of our district? Where are the opportunities for improvement? And then based on their lens, where they sit in the organization, what do they consider be the greatest inequity in the district?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: And I asked those questions because I was hoping to have a theme that emerged, and then that would drive my work. But Nathan, I didn’t have a theme. There was no theme that emerged. So I was left again with trying to figure out Teresa, where do you begin? How do you begin to tackle the work? So still figuring that out because it’s so, it’s multifaceted.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: So there was an equity committee that was already in place prior to my arrival, but membership began to dwindle as a result of the pandemic. And then there was an untimely passing of my predecessor. So I just launched another call to committee. And that call to committee said if you are interested in this equity work, I would like for you to be a part of the equity committee. So we went from 25 members to 70 plus members that ranged from members of cabinet to teachers, counselors, social workers, administrators, para-professionals, community members. And really I’m relying on their voices to recreate or revise the existing equity plan using data, identifying the root causes for why the data looks the way it does. And then that becomes the roadmap for the work in which I engage in along with the 70 plus equity committee members and ultimately this entire district. So how do you get people on board? That was me. I didn’t have to say will you be a part of it? I just threw out a call and folks said, “Yes, I’m in.” And I was so grateful for that. And that’s really just how I started, excuse me, to get people to be a part of the work.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You know, Teresa, you mentioned one of, I think, the hallmark characteristics of being a leader is to enlist followers and a team and people who are willing to work alongside of you. And you obviously have a message of inspiration. You have a role of kind of uncovering facts and illuminating the issues that then it’s like, okay, we got to get to work. And how do we do that? Well, you have a 70 member equity team. And so I’m curious about what are some things that, because I assume that there’s some specific goals or specific measureables like how do you measure whether these gaps are closing? How do we know that the work is being focused and that we’re able, because I also love the strengths that you also brought about in the work as well. Like framing it around what do we do really well? And then where are these inequity gaps and how do these converge?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: So the existing equity plan, what I’m trying to do at this particular point, is implement some of the strategies and action steps that are embedded in the existing plan. So for example, what I heard, what I saw overwhelmingly in this equity plan was that we needed to have a culturally proficient staff members throughout our district. So we don’t need anyone to tell us to do that. We just need to go ahead and get started. So I just started off, I think it was September, we had conducted a professional development for all elementary staff members. That was not an optional training. The district had a calendar so there was no opting in. All elementary staff members had to participate in that training. And then I was to turn around and do that same training with secondary staff members in January, but I had a conflict. So that didn’t occur. But again, there are things embedded in that plan that we’re trying to make sure occurs while we’re in the middle of rewriting the plan.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Something else Nathan, that we did was we launched affinity groups. So we’d never had affinity groups. But what I heard overwhelmingly is that our African-American staff members, in particular, felt isolated. There was a lack of sense of belonging for that particular affinity group. So I launched five affinity groups. I launched African-American affinity group, Asian, LGBTQ, White allyship, and Latin X. So launched those five affinity groups not knowing what we would get, if folks would be interested, but they were. And our largest group today is our White allyship which said to me that folks want to help, but they don’t know how. So we had to create the space, the time and the opportunity for those conversations to occur.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Now I say all of that because to your point about measuring, measuring impact, that to me is critical because we can do all these feel good things, but if I’m not seeing opportunity gaps close, if I’m not seeing the retention of staff of color, let alone the recruitment, then we’re still not moving the needle. So that’s the point around revising this equity plan so that we are measuring the right work and we know when we have actually met a target, when gaps have closed, not achievement gaps, but these opportunity gap, these things that really matter what I call high priority, high performance indicators. Are we moving the needle?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You know, you talk about specifics and in being able to measure impact. In your bio, you were talking about your work in disproportionate number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for Black and Brown children and how your work had a direct impact on that. And so I’m curious because this is where this indicator is of the work being done well. Okay, we can see there’s been a decrease in number here. I’m curious for one, what was your strategy around solving that problem? And then two, how did you continue to develop that further? You get the data like, oh yes, the number’s going down. Let’s continue and grow this work.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Sure. Well, I’ll tell you, I started my career in Baltimore City public schools. And I’ll never forget my first appointment as principal I was assigned a school that was labeled by the state of Maryland as persistently dangerous. We had these labels then. And so it was my first year principal, I get this label from the state. So I go into principalship with zero tolerance, attitude, mentality, and work ethic. That meant that if a student walk down the wrong side of the hallway, I was putting him or her out. So I learned from that. I have so many regrets for how I led year one in Baltimore City schools. Now what I say is you can’t suspend your way to a positive school climate and culture. So at the end of my first year as principalship, we were removed from that list, that persistently dangerous watch list. But at what expense? I was saying to students you’re not worthy. You don’t deserve it because I did not take the time to build relationships and to understand. I was just putting students out.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: And so for me, as I learn and I grow and I’m mature in the work, I would say to my direct reports, my principals, we can’t suspend our way to positive school climate. So that meant we have to pay attention to the data and to illuminate the data. Who are we suspending? Why are we suspending? And so how do we stop? Because Nathan, suspensions, the numbers themselves, they can go down, but are they going down because we’re turning a blind eye to negative or maladaptive behaviors? Or are we truly addressing behaviors differently?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: And so that’s the work. How do we approach behaviors, negative behaviors differently or behaviors that we may perceive as negative but in reality, they’re just, we’re not aware. We’re just not in tune with some of the cultural behaviors and norms of folks who are not like us. And so that means bringing an awareness to everyone that you work with. Those are some of the things that I think about when I was addressing this disproportionality in suspension rates, especially for our Black and Brown children. My own mistakes that I made early on in my own career.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Teresa, I think it’s commendable and admirable that you’re transparent. And I think all of us as educators would reflect back and think, oh my goodness, what in the world was I thinking during my first year of teaching or my first year as administrator. And me personally, I had the exact same reflections. My year one as an administrator always thinking about, oh, I wish that I would have approached this situation differently. But being able to reflect on your practice and thinking about I want to change the dynamic. You had a really great point about it’s not just changing the number of referrals or changing the suspensions or the discipline of forms that are received by the principal. But it’s actual deep, below the surface work of professional development and training and being able to learn about the, the teachers being able to learn about their students and their backgrounds and being able to truly understand what are better strategies, being able to help students make positive choices and being able to create learning environments that are going to be supportive for everyone.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: You’re right Nathan. And if I could just say, I think about what are the inherent biases that we bring to the table that it causes us to respond negatively. And so I say that I’ll never forget this one story I’ll share really quickly. I was in a school district. I’ll leave it unnamed for right now, but I was in a school district. And I was in the cafeteria. I was over principals at the time and I was in the cafeteria and I’ll never forget the principal said to me, “Will you help me?” I said, “Sure.” And there were a group of African-American young men huddled together. And she was concerned that they were up to something, that they were plotting something that wasn’t positive. So at the time I didn’t think about it, but I just went over to those young men and I was eavesdropping. And I was like, “Hey guys, what are you up to?” And they just looked at me because, you know, I’m a petite person and they’re just talking about whatever basketball game that was going on the night before. They would just engage in a conversation. And it just dawned on me, like she could have reacted differently had I not been there and those young men could have been referred to the office for plotting something that they weren’t.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: And then I think about Beverly Tatum’s book about Why Do All the Black Children Sit in the Cafeteria Together? It’s because we identify, right? And we go to those individuals, those groups where we are most comfortable not because we’re plotting something negative. Well, that’s who we are as human beings. I just thought that was fascinating.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, that is such a kind reaction because I felt viscerally impacted by that story. But I think it’s, but your reaction hopefully, and you don’t have to share, but I’m hoping that you’re able to reflect with that principal and hopefully the principal over time was able to change their own biases. I mean there’s so much psychology around implicit bias and the biases that people hold. So my hope is that, that leader was able to do a lot of work on some bias issues that they had.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And actually one of the best leaders that I’ve had working for me, so yes.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yes, that’s good. That is good to hear. And the impact you’re making.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Thank you, Nathan.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So where do you, what’s next in your work because that’s a fantastic work alone, just in social-emotional learning, teacher training, restorative justice. There’s so many great initiatives that have spawned from this kind of work. I’m curious, I know that you’re getting ready to, you’re writing articles, you’re presenting in conferences. I’m curious about what is the thing that you’re really excited about right now that you’re amping up for and you’re excited to start to share and work around?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: I’ve been working on an article for a Journal of Educational Supervision. I’m excited for that to soon be released, but basically I’m thinking about this idea of support and monitoring at the school leadership level. Oftentimes we put a lot of emphasis and onus on a classroom instruction and rightfully so. Teachers, we know, have the most direct influence over student learning, but this untapped resource around school leadership, I don’t think we spend enough time around building the capacity of our school leaders. So this article is about their work and their influence and how they should really spend more time learning alongside teachers and then supporting them in their development by having very crucial conversations about opportunities for improvement. So I’m excited about that.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: And then for work, as it relates to the district here, we have launched an RFP. We had several companies that submitted a bid to conduct an equity audit in our district. Now, typically most districts will pick a company that someone referred to them to conduct the equity audit, but we didn’t do that here. We submitted an RFP. We had folks who submitted a bid. And we had every company that submitted a bid, we asked them to do a presentation to that equity committee. So the equity committee had voice in who we selected. What’s next is that we’ll engage in a two year, maybe three year project of not just identifying inequities, but learning and having those findings reported out from our board all the way down and then begin to take those recommendations. Couple it with the equity plan to really do some good work for our students and staff. So we’re really excited about what’s to come.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I’m curious, just with your wonderful leadership skills and talents and expertise, how did you end up, and you don’t have to name who you chose, but I’m curious about what the meetings were like. How did you end up going with the tool or the company that you went with? Was there something in particular that they demonstrated that you felt you were going to get some high quality data from this audit?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Well, I’ll have to say the decision wasn’t solely me, on me. It was this entire equity committee. And then I had a team of maybe five or six who vetted the initial set of proposals, which you’re talking about anywhere from 200 to 400 plus pages of information submitted by each vendor. And so at the end of it, what we were looking for was a company, and I’ll say that it was very tight. We had three, any of the three we would have been happy with, but for us it was a company who, number one, had experience doing an equity audit in this size district, if not larger. And that their data, their research was around both the quantitative and the qualitative piece. So great, you can look at our student outcomes, but we also want you to interview and engage in focus groups with our students and our families and our teachers. We want you to visit classrooms to get a true snapshot of what’s occurring in our classrooms. And then I would also say, could we see ourselves working with this individual, partners because this was going to be a long-term commitment. And those were really some of the driving forces for why we landed where we landed.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it’s so important that we, and you obviously have done a great job with this, engaging team to people, committees. The shared decision making is so key for ensuring fidelity to implementation, ensuring that all stakeholders are involved, which leads me to this question. How do you involve community in this kind of work? Because I feel like involving communities are a really important aspect of ensuring this implementation is successful or this work is successful.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Sure. So I meet with faith leaders. So we have 11 communities that feed into our school district. And so I meet with faith leaders from around these 11 communities. And I will meet with them once a month. They used to be called interfaith, but they’re now faith leaders. So they each have perhaps their own non-denomination or synagogue, whatever, that they have leading. They shared with me, “Look in the past, we were just getting information about the district. We don’t want to do that anymore. We want to actually add value. We want to do something.” So I said, “Great, because I need you to help me in this work.” So we meet monthly. And so the last meeting with them I invited African-American staff members to share with the group of faith leaders, their lived experiences of being a staff member in U-46 with the goal of helping faith leaders begin to have conversations about how they see themselves helping to reverse some of those negative lived experiences.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: So we’ll meet again next week to talk about, okay, so what’s next? What does it look like from your lens now that you’ve heard from the voices of our African-Americans staff members? This is where they’re struggling. What does it look like for you? So, that’s one group. I have African-American advisory council that I meet with monthly and then I have other community members on the business side of the house where I’ll sit on their committee meetings and I’ve engaged them in our equity committee work as well. So I think for me, it’s important that because I’m so new, I’ve got to find out who are the people that I should be reaching out to. So I rely on the superintendent, the deputy superintendent and my colleagues to say to me here are folks that you need to tap into. And then I just set up those meetings and we take it from there.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I so commend you for the deep level of engagement you have with the community. And I really do believe that’s going to help sustain this really important work. And I know we just, I feel like we scratched the surface of so many potential, really deep dive conversations. I wish we could go into lots of different areas from this point, but I’ll leave it at that as we go. And our podcast listeners who want to read your work and connect with you on social media, how can they go about doing that?

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Sure. I would say if they really want to know what’s going on with me to follow me on Twitter, Teresa, T-E-R-E S-A underscore Lance, L-A-N-C-E. I have a blog. They can read the blog and again, they can follow me. I typically follow back and I say that’s the best way to see what’s going on and to reach out to me.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Teresa, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Dr. Teresa A. Lance: Nathan, thank you so much for having me and I look forward to seeing you in person one day.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Me too. Take care.