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5 ways to break through leadership barriers

By Jerry Fingal
June 3, 2020
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Desiree Alexander knows firsthand the barriers that people of color face in breaking into areas that have been traditionally white and male. As a black woman and a former instructional technology supervisor in a large school district in Louisiana, people would approach one of her white male underlings with questions that should have been directed to her.

“People would automatically go up to him and ask him questions, assuming a white male is going to be more of an expert,” she said.

Such assumptions aren’t easy to change. And it’s not a conversation that’s not easy to have.

“It’s hard to even bring up the issue without someone saying that you’re playing the gender card or you’re playing the race card. No, I’m not. I just want to know why you walked up to him first,” she said. “It’s hard to bring that topic up without being seen as confrontational. That’s one of the biggest reasons it’s hard to get a seat at the table.”

In the education world, Alexander would like to see more seats at the table occupied by diverse faces. Keynote speakers and presenters at edtech conferences tend to be drawn from the same pool of people. That limits perspectives and the issues that are addressed.

“If we only hear one voice, the other voices aren’t heard and aren’t validated,” she said. “A whole group of people will never be heard.”

As an educational consultant and frequent presenter on educational topics, Alexander knows what it takes to get through the door of the arena and become a player. One of the first steps is to encourage and coach people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in being presenters and active on the larger stage.

The people are there, she says, to diversify the culture of ed tech. Part of the equation is for individuals to spread their voices and make themselves heard. How do people do that? Alexander has some ideas.

Dream big, start small

The first thing aspiring leaders need to do is build their confidence. They can do that by being presenters on topics at their own schools. “Start going to your principal, start going to your administrators and saying, ‘Hey, I know how to do this. Can I present to teachers on this?’” Educators also need to realize they have something to offer. “The thing about educators is that we think everyone is doing what we’re doing,” she said. “We think everyone knows what we know. And that just isn’t true. So sometimes we are hesitant to put ourselves out there because we don’t want to be seen as the experts, like there’s something wrong with that. We have to get out of that mindset.”

Share your knowledge on social media 

Offer up the little things you’re doing in your classroom that “you might think everyone is doing but probably isn’t,” Alexander said. Take ownership of techniques that work for you and share them on social media. That will build confidence and raise your profile. “You want people to say, hey, this is someone I should listen to,” she said.

Start your own blog and blog for other sites 

Blogging is a great way to share ideas, reflections and interact with others. Once you get comfortable, reach out to education sites and offer to blog for them. Edutopia, EdSurge and the ISTE Blog accept contributions from educators. Look for submission guidelines on these websites and send in an idea. 

Build your PLN

“Keeping that cycle of learning and sharing is super important,” she said. “In education, the day you say you’ve learned everything is the day you leave education.”

Brand yourself

“Once you get that confidence, once you’ve put yourself out there, you want to bring all those awesome things you’re doing and put it under one umbrella of a brand,” she said. That puts one identity on your professional activities whether it’s a website, blog posts or a book chapter you’re writing, so people know it’s you. “People might not know your real name, but they do know your brand name,” she said.

All of those steps add up to Alexander’s bottom line for aspiring leaders: Put yourself out there, get out of your comfort zone and build a name for yourself. “Don’t expect someone to come along and just assume you know what you’re talking about,” she said.

ISTE members can learn more about how to become  thought leaders by watching a recording of the free ISTE Expert Webinar, A Seat at the Table: Diversity in Edtech

Expand digital equity in your school! Read ISTE's book Closing the Gap.

This is an updated version of a post that first published on September 7, 2018.