Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan: “Forget what you know about the way we learn”

Jamila: Forget what you know about the way we learn. Knowledge is so much more than what we’re tested on. There’s a reason people feel they learn more on a job that they do in school. It’s because of experiences and the way those experiences make them feel and allow mastery to be shown in […]

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Jamila: Forget what you know about the way we learn. Knowledge is so much more than what we’re tested on. There’s a reason people feel they learn more on a job that they do in school. It’s because of experiences and the way those experiences make them feel and allow mastery to be shown in real time. It also shows that their past experiences with similar situations impact their approaches to solve problems and make decisions. When we decolonize Western forms of knowledge to also include Indigenous, Afrocentric, and other non-Western ways of knowing, we see, hear and engage with students and teachers in our school communities in a stronger way. I mentioned my experiences in two different high schools earlier and this is a prime example of how the ways of knowing impact learning and success among students.

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need to Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan.

For more than 20 years, Shane has worked at every level of the education system — from the classroom to the boardroom — bringing passion, skill, and unique solutions to the challenge of school transformation and the promise of educational opportunity for every child.

She is the co-author of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin Press, March 2021) and author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017).

Shane holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Brown University, a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, and an administrative services credential from California State University East Bay.

Jamila Dugan is a leadership coach, learning facilitator, and researcher. She began her career as a teacher in Washington D.C., successfully supporting her school to implement an International Baccalaureate program. After being nominated for Teacher of the Year, she later served as a coach for new teachers in Oakland, California. As a school administrator, Jamila championed equity-centered student services, parent empowerment, and co-led the development of the first public Mandarin immersion middle school in the Bay Area.

Jamila and Shane began their work together 7 years ago, developing The Listening Leader for which Jamila acted as the primary researcher. Jamila currently serves as an equity-centered leadership development coach across all sectors including non-profits, public school districts, charter networks, parochial, and private schools.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Fresno State University, a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from George Mason University, and a doctorate in Education Leadership for Equity from University of California, Berkeley.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Shane: My decision to become an educator really began in the Rhode Island Training School for Youth, or RITSY, a euphemistically named juvenile prison. I was interning with Jennifer Wood, a civil rights attorney in Providence who represented all RITSY youth in a class action lawsuit challenging what are called “conditions of confinement” — things like access to health food, exercise, educational opportunities, etc. Each week, Jennifer and I met with youth leaders from the different units and I grew to know and love these young people who were trapped in a system designed to strip them of agency and opportunity. The shape of systemic racism became acutely visible to me. These youth had committed the same “crimes” for the most part that my predominantly white, middle-class peers had committed growing up in the suburbs; yet I could not name a single kid who “did time”. This fueled my initial entry into education which I hoped would provide a way to interrupt systemic racism and create opportunities to thrive for youth of color.

My experience as an educator at Balboa High School, a diverse public school in San Francisco also furthered my passion for creating equitable schools.

Jamila: I wasn’t exactly sure what career path I’d take as a young person. I was interested in mental health but my early experiences taught me that there is much to be done as it relates to valuing, affirming, and cultivating the genius of Black students. As an elementary student, I enjoyed school but by the time I got to high school, I experienced a big disconnect between what I needed and what school was able to provide. I was going through a lot outside of school that did not seem to be of importance to my teachers and I eventually failed out of high school. It wasn’t until my father put me into an Afrocentric school that I discovered the power of education, especially one that is based on a critical lens in which students learn to question the world. I learned so much about myself and my history and ultimately found that I could be an influential person in my community. This anchored my decision making moving forward and ultimately led me to teaching.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Shane: Early in my career in the 90’s, as an educator at Balboa High School, I attended a training where I met a diversity coordinator named Lisa Arrastia from a nearby independent school, Marin Academy. We became fast friends, bonding over our shared goals of developing transformative learning experiences for our students that focused on equity. Together, we launched a project called BALMA (BAL for Balboa and MA for Marin Academy) which united our students from vastly different worlds to conduct a collaborative investigation into equity in education. Students were paired in teams from both schools. They read literature from equity and education thought leaders, visited each other’s campuses and spent two nights at a retreat hosted at Marin Academy to explore issues of race, difference, and bias. Our project became the focus of an hour-long, Emmy award-winning PBS documentary, “Making the Grade.” This still marks one of the most transformative moments of my career.

While it has been 20 years, this experience just seems like yesterday. It was, in many ways, the high point of my career as an educator. I think when we decided to just break through the boundaries of the classroom walls, and really get young folks outside of the container of what we typically think of as a classroom, they amazed us. Their level of compassion and empathy for each other, their level of critical thinking and just discovery of the world outside of their own experience, and their ability to connect across vast social-economic and life differences was beautiful.

Jamila: I will never forget seeing how even the smallest students can stretch, grow, and show their knowledge. As a kindergarten teacher, I was a part of piloting the International Baccalaureate program at my school. We were given the opportunity to create project based learning experiences focused on developing speaking, listening, writing, and oral language skills for early learners. Along with my student-teacher, we developed a six-unit sequence based on knowing ourselves, our classmates, our community, our city, our state, and our world. One of our early projects involved students interviewing caregivers and community members and to reflect on why those folks were important to them. Students were to present their learning in an oral project in front of the class.

I was so inspired by how much our students learned about those around them and their hunger to learn more. I’ll be honest that I wasn’t sure a kindergartner would be willing and able to stand and speak with confidence to a group of peers, but they can! The learning standards were about literacy but we discovered so much more… Our kids felt affirmed in their identities, proud to have shared, and we had a lot of fun. It really showed me what is possible. If we ask kids the right questions and give them space to be themselves in our assignments, they’ll rise to the occasion every time. I remember on the presentation day watching each student present their posters and share what mattered most to them. I felt honored to bear witness to their passion and learning.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our latest book, Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, March 2021), was released in March so we’ve been busy with speaking engagements and press conversations to discuss our Street Data methodology and more importantly, bringing the broader conversation around equity to light as it pertains to education and assessments.

The “Avoid Equity Traps and Tropes’’ chapter has really been eye-opening for those we’ve spoken with recently. We define 10 types of traps and tropes that commonly occur when we are working toward equity, and get specific about what it looks like when they play out in practice. These 10 traps and tropes are something most people will recognize from personal experiences or blunders their organizations have made in trying to implement diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Jamila: Let’s just say that we would not give our system a passing grade. We are failing our students in the ways we assess them, which ultimately impacts how and what we teach. Standardized testing is outdated, rooted in racism, and expands inequities among students — especially those at the margins. Our education system currently looks at a satellite view of student success with the primary purpose to point out large-scale patterns and deficits. Rather than being helpful, this objectifies students and only points schools and educators in a general direction for further investigation. Our system is designed for a very small group of students. There is no way to get a “passing grade” when that is the case.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Here’s what I would offer: I think we are at a crossroads in the US education system where we need to be bold and brave or we will continue to sustain a status quo that does not and has never served learners at the margins. There are teachers and thought leaders out there pointing the way toward a different direction and here are some areas they orient us toward:

  1. Culturally and historically sustaining pedagogy: Writers like Zaretta Hammond and Dr. Ghouldy Mohammad have created frameworks and approaches that root teaching and learning in students’ identities, communities, and cultural wealth. This is a historically rooted thread — Dr. Mohammad, for example, writes about the roots of her model in African American literary societies of the 19th century — to follow and amplify. The work is brilliant, actionable, and is building momentum across the country.
  2. A focus on antiracist social-emotional learning (SEL): in recent years, there’s been more emphasis on creating social-emotional learning models and bringing trauma-informed awareness and empathy to the classroom. This is a great step in integrating more holistic learning into the classroom; however, as the brilliant Dena Simmons reminds us, SEL without antiracism can easily become “white supremacy with a hug”. Jamila and my book surfaces elements of SEL like deep listening and vulnerability, and we must relentlessly connect these approaches with an antiracist stance around what it means to choose the margins as the starting point for street data.
  3. Design Thinking approaches coming to the classroom: The sit-and-get style of teaching — what we call a pedagogy of compliance in the book — is being replaced in many classrooms by a more collaborative and problem-solving approach that is rooted in seminal work like Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We call this a pedagogy of voice in Chapter 5 of the book, and the field of design thinking offers powerful tools for supporting such a pedagogy. Bringing a more dynamic and interactive approach to the classroom prepares students for critical thinking, democratic engagement, and participation in lesson planning and curriculum design. When students are more involved in planning and implementing powerful learning experiences, there’s greater “buy in” in the classroom, which helps all students but particularly empowers those at the margins.
  4. Performance-based assessments: Again, this approach has been around for decades and lifted up in the work of Linda Darling-Hammond and others. We believe its day has come and wrote about it extensively in Chapter 6 of Street Data. Authentic assessments center student voice, cultivate student agency, and provide rich street data for teachers. We have witnessed many a marginalized learner blossom in their confidence and sense of self-efficacy through preparing to present and defend their academic work.
  5. Truth is making its way to the mainstream. Scholars have been working for ages to bring awareness to how our systems and practices are not set up to support the success of Black and brown students (and really any student who does not fit into a narrow definition of teachable). With the work of scholars like Bettina Love, Akosua Lesesne, Gholdy Muhammad, Ibram Kendi and more, folks are starting to take note and listen. It is saddening that what happened to George Floyd acted as a catalyst, but we are now having more open conversations and arguments about the history our education system was built on. This is connected to the idea of epistemic justice, or the notion that building knowledge and ways of knowing that center voices embedded in and love our communities.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Of course. First, it’s crucial for the success of our students that we shift our ways of knowing. Redefining epistemology enables us to flip our paradigm around data to realize that what is measurable isn’t always valuable. In our opinion, the notion of “don’t remediate, accelerate” doesn’t support students in the way it was meant to. It still is based on the premise that recovering from learning loss should be our priority. This continues to keep us narrowly focused on metrics rooted in the testing paradigm. Indigenous and Afrocentric epistemologies place value on relationality, intergenerational wisdom, experiential learning, and holism, incorporating all aspects of learning — the emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical. This is more inclusive for all students.

Next, we need to center the margins. Our education system follows Western colonial society with hierarchy, including silos that make it hard for differing socioeconomic and ethnic groups to interact and collaborate in an equitable way. Unless we refocus our approach to data, we will continue to marginalize and leave many students behind.

Third, and I mentioned this one just a moment ago, is recognizing the traps and tropes that impede equity and inclusivity. If we cannot recognize them, efforts to create inclusion and equity will ultimately fail.

Fourth, society needs to understand that equity work is first and foremost pedagogical. Education is the major player and to do this, schools and districts must recognize that equity efforts only begin when we redefine success. We need to create an environment that cultivates student agency and realign our measures of success to this. What helps a child develop a sense of purpose and efficacy in the world? It takes efficacy, mastery, belonging and identity to create agency and this is what the U.S. education system must work toward nurturing.

Lastly, I implore the education field, including policymakers, to use street data, which allows them to focus on all students, but particularly those in the margins. Street data is the qualitative and experiential data that puts children at the center and emerges as we train our brains to discern it. The methodology builds on the tenets of culturally responsive education by helping educators look for what’s right in our students, schools, and communities instead of seeking out what’s wrong.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.


  1. Forget what you know about the way we learn. Knowledge is so much more than what we’re tested on. There’s a reason people feel they learn more on a job that they do in school. It’s because of experiences and the way those experiences make them feel and allow mastery to be shown in real time. It also shows that their past experiences with similar situations impact their approaches to solve problems and make decisions. When we decolonize Western forms of knowledge to also include Indigenous, Afrocentric, and other non-Western ways of knowing, we see, hear and engage with students and teachers in our school communities in a stronger way. I mentioned my experiences in two different high schools earlier and this is a prime example of how the ways of knowing impact learning and success among students.
  2. Realize efficiency doesn’t replace empathy. There’s so much emphasis on working efficiently in order to tick all the “necessary” things off of a teacher’s daily to-do list that compassion and empathy can fall to the wayside. Working quickly to get things done can alienate students by taking away one’s ability to read the room and connect with individuals. Because learning is a very personalized process, educators need to be aware of the social-emotional health of their students to really connect with them. Beyond focusing on social-emotional learning, we must integrate antiracist social-emotional learning practices that use deep learning, connected listening and vulnerability. This takes more than a curriculum — it is a way of orienting and requires integration through every part of the learning experience. It’s easy to make the mistake of seeing SEL in a silo early on in your teaching career and one I think we’re all guilty of making at some point. Between making lesson plans, grading papers and preparing for the next learning unit, it’s important to slow down and evaluate how kids are receiving the lessons, what can be tweaked so individuals can gain the most out of each lesson and nurture curiosity and learning along the way.
  3. Be prepared for a journey, not a destination. Discussions on race, gender and abilities as they relate to equity, inclusion and accessibility can be uncomfortable. We must have them anyway but that is only one piece. To truly work toward equity, we must acknowledge that our systems, practices, and narratives are designed to perpetuate disparities in our outcomes for marginalized students and deliberately identify barriers that predict success or failure and actively disrupt them. This takes time and a continued commitment especially considering the type of culture that has to be created in order for those who have been marginalized to be empowered and not harmed in the process. We delve more into this at the beginning of chapter two of Street Data. Exploring these topics can be incredibly uncomfortable, but they are so necessary if we want to cultivate each child’s unique gifts, talents and interests through education.
  4. Shane: I’d also say educators need to examine personal identity and bias regularly. By remaining aware of these things, we can recognize the creation or reproduction of inequitable practices more quickly. At first, it’s hard to evaluate your own practices that might need to be improved or fixed. Recognizing equity traps and tropes is incredibly helpful in determining pitfalls in bringing more diversity to a school or creating an equitable environment. We’ve seen more schools try to help educators with this by providing training around bias, privilege and identity and… this can fall into the equity trap Jamila calls “navel-gazing equity” because it keeps equity work at the level of self-reflection without penetrating to the instructional core or school system.
  5. So, my next thought is for educators of all levels — school and district leaders, and policy makers — to advocate for and manage the equitable distribution of experienced and beginner teachers across all schools. Teacher quality is the number one factor that correlates with deep student learning, and it’s critical that all schools have a mix of experienced and novice educators to develop an apprenticeship model and transform culture. Higher-poverty schools should not be staffed with a majority of new teachers.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

We need to treat teachers like the craftspeople they are. We need to compensate them as the professionals they are. We need to empower teachers as thought leaders in our society rather than service workers we assign tasks to. The pandemic really revealed an ugly underbelly to societal conversations about teachers; many people wanted their kids back in school at any cost, including teachers putting their lives on the line. It’s past time to infuse the teaching profession with the type of respect and fiscal support that it gets in places like Finland and the types of conditions that will make great teachers want to stay.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Shane: “That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. Being American is being more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” — Amanda Gorman, reciting ‘The Hill We Climb’ at the inauguration

Beyond the beautiful cadence of these lines, the content just stirs my heart. It reminds me of what author Glennon Doyle calls the “brutiful” (beautiful and brutal) nature of life. It’s been such a painful, heart wrenching year for so many people across the globe. I hope we all take time to focus on collective healing as we return to schools. And I hope we in the US begin to take on the work of truth and reconciliation around our history of systemic racism and injustice that Canada, for example, initiated years back with respect to Indigenous Nations and is wrestling with mightily to this day. This is existential work and requires a deep, long-range investment, but it is what our country needs to heal and transform into a true multiracial democracy.

Jamila: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” — Lilla Watson. A lot of times people get the impression that working toward equity or being a great teacher is about saving children. That we, especially as Black and brown people, are helpless and need a way out of our situation, but this work is about all of us. It is about humanity. If we understand that liberation is about collective freedom and reconciliation then we can make a lot happen. I am no longer interested in bringing anyone along. People have to opt in. This understanding is essential.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-).

Shane: Brené Brown and Tarana Burke! Together preferably, lol! I’ve been trying to send Brene a card and a copy of The Listening Leader for over a year, but I can’t figure out how. I feel a copacetic alignment between her work and ours.

Jamila: Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and Dr. Jarvis Givens. The work they are doing is incredibly inspiring and so rooted in deep affirmation and a refreshing sophistication around the Black educational experience. I am not even sure I’d speak at lunch, I’d probably just listen. They drop knowledge related to everything I want my children to experience and become.

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