Navigating Discretionary Spaces

In our Cohort Program, one area of focus for our Equity Influencer Residency and Systems Leader Academy is “discretionary spaces,” a concept developed by researcher Dr. Deborah Ball. We asked four of our expert facilitators to talk about how they define these spaces, what it’s like to lead adult learning experiences on this topic, and how building and system leaders can confront inequities. We hope you enjoy hearing their insights!

1. In the virtual learning session on discretionary spaces, you open up by defining it to participants as the choices we make and the power and potential of those choices. How would you define discretionary spaces from your own words, and why is it essential that we discuss them? 

Brandy Nelson (@bnelsonroots), Executive Director, Learning and Teaching, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools: I define discretionary spaces as opportunities to make choices and exert power in service of equity and justice for students. It is essential to discuss them because I believe it is in those spaces we either increase our effectiveness in supporting students of all backgrounds, or we hinder our efforts. By taking the time to slow down and interrogate the choices we make in these discretionary spaces, we allow ourselves to make more intentional moves towards equity. 

Jasmine Landry, Director of School Leader Development, Teach for America Greater Philadelphia: Discretionary spaces are like “sliding door” moments; they are the seconds between an event/action and your response/reaction to it. We don’t often think about our reactions as choices, and without awareness our habits, implicit biases, and cultural training kick in. Discussing discretionary spaces increases our awareness, and with awareness we are more likely to notice these moments and make more deliberate choices. 

Sharone Brinkley-Parker (@P_Brink_S), Vice President-Research, Strategy, & Evaluation, UnboundEd: I define discretionary spaces as the time to P.U.S.H–create the opportunity to Praise and Uplift or Silence and Harm and so much more. This period of time between the event and response to such, depending on our power, is where our internal bias, informed by our lived experiences, cultural connections and inherent ways of being, determines the fate for our students. It is our responsibility during this time to understand how our bias impacts our responses so that decisions create opportunities for students to engage in academic rigor within the learning.  

Julianne Scherker, Independent Consultant: Every decision we make is influenced by a combination of various factors which range from the external, such as school policies and practices, to the internal, including racial histories and biases. Although we may not be cognizant of them, these factors are at play in the split second between an event and a response and will ultimately result in either an equitable or inequitable outcome.  

2. “We have instructional power, and we wield it every minute.” How does this quote by Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall (@Remarsh76) help build the participants’ idea of discretionary spaces?

Laken Detchemendy (@ElleDetch), Associate Director of State Partnerships, Instruction Partners: The power of this quote lies with the word “wield.” We can either wield a weapon or influence; negative or positive. In the classroom, teachers are gatekeepers of the knowledge and experience that students have. If we are not aware and intentional of the decisions that fill those discretionary spaces, we can do damage to our students by weaponizing our power. We have to become more aware of what fills those spaces so we can respond with practices that counter inequity. 

Brandy: The quote from Dr. Reed Marshall provides a description for the actions we take while in those discretionary spaces. An event occurs and we respond to that event by taking an action. The space between the event and the action is our intention, our belief, our mindset. We leverage our beliefs and take action based on those beliefs. We wield our instructional power, or take action, based on those beliefs.

Julianne: Deborah Ball similarly noted, “Teaching can have very powerful amazing effects. It can also do incredible damage. Even in a moment.” To responsibly wield our instructional power, we must interrogate our discretionary spaces. It is our awareness of these discretionary spaces that allows us to most constructively and equitably implement curriculum and pedagogy.

Jasmine: Teachers have positional power in their classrooms, so it’s up to us to decide how to use that power. Sometimes we wield our power consciously — by choosing a complex text to read (or by choosing a simple one). Other times we wield our power in discretionary spaces, by how we react and respond to our students in micro-moments. If a student reacts strongly to a text or concept, do we respond defensively or with curiosity? Do we shut it down to maintain control or do we invite other students to share their perspectives?

3. Much of this learning takes self-awareness, and some participants may feel too vulnerable to share their reflections. How are you able to navigate this as a facilitator?

Sharone: As a facilitator, it is important to take a pulse of the room (virtually or in person). Being well-planned is the key to being responsive and flexible to participant needs, helps to build trust within the space, and promotes vulnerability. You have to show up humanistic, relatable and open. You have to push with purpose and allow for space to dissect and model the unpacking of the content being shared. 

Julianne: We are all in different places on our equity journeys. The goal is to bring people in and welcome them, as they are, to engage in the difficult work of anti-racism. At the beginning of each session, we establish norms including the following: strive for inclusion of all voices, contribute to a learning environment where it is safe to say “I don’t know,” and speak our truth with love and mercy. While some participants may be reluctant to share with the whole group, we invite them to share in various contexts such as breakout rooms, the chat box, reflection journals, and the survey. 

Laken: I try my best to model that for them by being vulnerable and sharing my own experiences. As I prep for sessions I always make personal connections and reflect on my own journey toward being an anti-racist. I make sure to have those experiences ready in case I feel that people may be too vulnerable to share. I think oftentimes when they see facilitators opening up and sharing times when they have made mistakes in their journeys they feel more comfortable sharing.

4. What’s your advice for district leaders that witness events of inequity throughout their district?

Jasmine: Remember there is no “neutral” position. You can decide to take action in the moment, you can decide to take action later, or you can decide not to take action — but whatever you do, you’re wielding your power. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Being a leader requires courage, so find a community to support you in being courageous for justice and equity.

Sharone: As a leader, you have to be willing to use your voice to interrogate and disrupt systems of oppression that are pervasive. This means you have to first own your implicit bias, have self-awareness and understand the importance of the intersection of culture as integral to creating community. As such, when observing events of inequities, district leaders have to acknowledge it by calling it out. This calling out is not to condemn, but to create space to call people into community to discuss what is happening and how this event impacts specific groups of people, co-construct norms for conversing and participating in discourse, and create alternatives to the processes and procedures that create the seen inequity. 

Laken: The first piece of advice I would give them is to approach the situation with curiosity instead of judgement. Take the time to understand what is influencing those discretionary spaces and events before reacting to the event. Then, help those involved unpack their mindsets, biases and choices and coach them toward making more intentional choices. Leaders also need to be able to recognize these patterns and support teachers with learning new, more equitable, habits. 

Brandy: When district leaders witness events of inequity in their district, I would encourage them to be vulnerable, state what they saw, and ask questions. I would encourage them to keep asking questions and then take action. The action could be alerting a senior leader and/or creating a policy to change the inequity, and/or enlisting allies, to name a few. Whether they realize it or not, these leaders have power, and in the words of Dr. Reed Marshall, they “wield it every minute.”  

To learn more about the Cohort Program, we invite you to read the previous blogs in this series. Currently, our program is at capacity for the upcoming school year, but for school and district leaders interested in professional development grounded in equitable instruction, check out the leadership pathway offered during this summer’s Virtual Summit.