Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., is the Founder of the Leading Equity Center. Dr. Eakins (pronounced "A-kins") is also the host of The Art of Advocacy Livestream and the Leading Equity Podcast. Furthermore, Dr. Eakins is the author of Leading Equity: Becoming an Advocate for All Students (Jossey-Bass, 2022). He was interviewed by Robb Scott, co-editor of C2C Digital Magazine.
He may be reached in various ways:
Education and Technology Interests
Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D.: Thank you for the opportunity and for reaching out to me for this. So let's get into it.
Dr. Robb Scott: When and how did you start to see convergence between your interests in education and your interests in technology?
Eakins: So I had just finished my master's degree, ed leadership, about 2012. And I was applying for jobs. Initially, I was applying for teaching jobs. I had got laid off my job, where I was a history teacher at a small private school, a Christian school, and I was teaching middle school history and religion at the time. It was a private school, and the enrollment went down. As the newest teacher, I was let go due to low enrollment.
And as a result, I started looking around for principal jobs. And as I looked around for principal jobs, there was a small school in Louisiana that needed a school principal, and one of their big staples was they needed a website. I had never created a website in my entire life, though I've always been kind of tech savvy.
If I hadn't gone into education, maybe I would have gone into computer technology or something like that. But I was afraid of math classes, and so that's why I went into education as opposed to something technology related, computer science or something like that. I probably would have been really good at computer applications, actually.
In the interview, I told them, "I'm good at websites. I can build you a website." I got the job and became the principal, and that was the task. Now, my sister is a computer graphics designer, and so I remember reaching out to her. I was like, "Hey, I'm supposed to be building a website. I have no idea how to do it, and I need help." And so, she kind of walked me through how to make a WordPress website. And again, me being tech savvy enough, she kind of gave me some basic steps and then from there, I just took it on and I learned how to do it. I made my very first website, 2012. That's what really kind of got me going. And from there, I wanted to learn more and more.
Mass Social Communications Wizard
Scott: I have seen you at a very advanced level in your development as a podcaster consultant and author of your leading equity enterprise. Can you look back and trace the key steps that brought you to your current activities?
Eakins: Yeah, absolutely. So fast forward. 2018 I'm living in Idaho now. Keep in mind I'm a black man living in Idaho. 0.8% black people in this entire state. And I can tell you I was dealing with a lot of challenges from microaggressions, implicit bias, flat out racism sometimes. And as a result, I didn't know what was happening.
I had never seen these things before. I grew up in the south. It's just a lot different in the south. The culture is different in the south. It's really blatant out there. You know where not to go, you know what stores not to go to. You see certain signs and symbols, flags and all these kind of things. So you already know that's how I grew up.
But when I moved to the Northwest side of the United States, things were a little different because stuff is a lot more subtle, and everybody's not just openly blatant and out there. Things are a little different now, but when I first moved here back in 2018, there was a lot of subtle stuff. And as a result, I didn't know what to do, what to say, how to respond to certain situations, and I felt lost. Not only that, me personally, but my students, especially my students of color, were dealing with issues, and I didn't know how to help them. And then, of course, my own two children would have issues. And so I said, I was fresh off a PhD dissertation, so I was still in research mode. And so I said, you know what? I'm going to start creating content, because I'm going to educate myself on how to do better, how I can navigate this new territory that I'm in.
And as a result, I was like, okay, do I want a blog? Do I want to do a podcast? Do I want to create some sort of videos? What do I want to do? And I decided I wanted to podcast. And the reason why I wanted to podcast over anything else was, one, I don't really like to write. I barely made it through my dissertation. So I said, this is not what I want to do. I don't want to be blogging every week. But I went to a conference in Chicago, Illinois, a national principal conference. And I sat in a Podcasting 101 session. And the guys that did the session basically broke down how to do a podcast. And it looked pretty easy. OK, well, maybe not. It wasn't easy. It was more like, well, actually, it was to me: it was okay. I'm not going to lie. It was easy to me. However, it was a lot of work.
And so I went home that day. Actually, I remember that evening, I jumped on Amazon, ordered my microphone, Samsung QTU. I still utilize that one on travel, like it's my travel mic. And so I ordered the mic, and I started setting up again, set up my website and did all the things and all the skills about a year in at the podcast. And I made sure I came out every week, every Monday I was coming out, boom, boom, boom. Every Monday an episode. This was five years ago, even.
Sometimes I would come out on Thursdays because it got to a point where I had done so many interviews. I just had such a bank. There was one point I had like 20 episodes just sitting around and I just felt bad telling my guests, okay, this episode isn't going to come out for a year or it's going to be about six months. So I started doubling up and I was pushing out Mondays and Thursdays in the early days. And after about a year, people started reaching out to me. I guess folks were listening to the show. They reached out to me and asked me, hey, can you come speak? Or, hey, can you come and do a webinar with our group? And then pandemic happened in 2020. So two years later I started getting more work and then George Floyd was murdered and then I started getting even more work and so it just started to build.
But sometimes I remember I used to think, kind of complain rather, man, I live in Idaho. I hate it here. It's just maybe not my favorite place. Again, I often feel isolated and left out, but I'm very thankful because if I hadn't moved to Idaho, if I didn't have the experiences that I have had living here in Idaho, and now I've grown to like Idaho. Initially when I first got here, I was like, dude, I'm the only black person here. But now things are a lot different. I've learned how to navigate, but had I not moved to this state, I wouldn't have started to podcast. I probably would be in a more diverse area.
I probably would have less of the type of challenges and experiences that I've been having. I don't know, maybe. But at the end of the day, I know I would not have started the show, would not have had people listen to me, and would not have had people reach out and ask me to support their schools, their districts, their nonprofits, their for profits. At this point, I do a lot of consulting in various realms and that would never have happened had I not started podcasting.
Using Technologies to Support Learners
Scott: What do teachers, families and school leaders need to keep in mind in order to make use of the internet and other technology in sensible ways that serve the needs and interests of students?
Eakins: I would say to answer that question, the first thing is you want to try to utilize what the students are utilizing. So I can learn about the latest and greatest technology. That's great for adults, but kids use TikTok, kids use Snapchat, kids utilize Spotify. There's a lot of technology that students use and I would try to relate first there.
Learn those things. If you're going to learn new technology, you might as well learn the technology that your students are using. Now, I know that the challenge though, is a lot of the PDs that are given where you go to instructional technology, or you go to these types of PDs sponsored by your district, or you go to a tech conference, they don't necessarily teach you how to utilize TikTok in your classroom. And that's always been my challenge with a lot of the technology type of trainings and PDs that are out there: they're not always trending from the students' perspective; they're often coming from an adult's perspective. These are best practices, research based, evidence based, and all these things based practices and tools. And they're great. Don't get me wrong, they're great. But my thing is, I like the challenge, so I say if you're going to learn some new technology, learn some technology that your kids are utilizing.
There was a point where Vines were very popular and I said, man, they're like short little six-second videos and things like that which have advanced into now we see a lot more reels which are 30 seconds to a minute. Technology evolves. So that would be my second piece, is not only start learning the technology from the students' lens, but also keep up with the trends because things change all the time. That's where I would start.
Scott: How has internet technology helped you to achieve your personal and professional goals?
Eakins: I rely on technology. I would say probably the most beneficial, probably one of the things I use the most nowadays is ChatGPT. Again, I tell you, I don't really like to write and a lot of that comes from not necessarily having an inspiration of where to start. So I like utilizing ChatGPT because it gives me a starting point. I can pop in there in the prompt, I can say, hey, create a 500 word blog on social justice.
Now it'll push out something for me, but it's not going to be in a language that I utilize. There's going to be a lot of stuff that I don't agree with or I don't want, but at least I have somewhere to start. Now, I push out a newsletter every Friday. I struggle sometimes pushing out 500 words. It might take me three hours, four hours just to do 500 words. Because again, that's just because I tend to write as I talk and I want things to be a certain way and I get distracted when I see red on the misspellings and grammar and all these things. I get distracted. ChatGPT has been very helpful.
The other piece that I utilize a lot is Grammarly. So ChatGPT and Grammarly are the two technologies I probably use every day the most. Of course, there's other stuff that I utilize, but those are the ones that have helped me personally and professionally with creating because I do a lot of content creation.
Advice for Aspiring Teachers
Scott: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a teacher?
Eakins: That's a good question because I would actually give different advice based on someone's identity. If we look at our statistics nationally, I believe it's 80%, 83%, something like that. White teachers. And so that means that there are only less than 20% teachers of color. And then we get a little bit further into the woods.
I believe it's three percent black males is a statistic. I don't have it in front of me, but I believe that's right. So black males make up three percent. I identify as a black male. So if I'm having a conversation with a black male, it's going to be a lot different than having someone who's outside of my identity. I would probably have more of a heart-to-heart conversation with a black male about the importance of or why we need more Black men in our classrooms, especially at the elementary level.
There was one year I taught second grade, the only year I taught elementary. But I remember I taught second grade that year, and I remember the parents, especially the Black parents, were fighting, almost fighting to have their child, their son, in my class. It was that big of a deal. I had never taught second grade. I was secondary, middle and high school trained, yet they didn't care. They were more concerned about having that mentor, having a strong male, black male influence within their children's lives, as opposed to the instructional practices and all that. They wanted the socialization over and above the academic side. So I would have a conversation with my Black males. Hey, we need you in the classroom. Especially at the elementary level. You will not have an issue finding a job. I mean, they scoop you up quick.
Sometimes when I've spoken to White candidates,it's like, okay, where should I go? Should I go to maybe an urban school or inner city school, or should I teach in a suburban school where there's predominantly White students? Where do you think I should go? And I always suggest I want you to really think, deep down inside. What is your goal? What is your purpose for teaching? What is your why? Why do you want to teach? Are you teaching because you have a love of children and you're thinking about future generations and you're wanting to change, make an impact from that level? Or are you teaching for a paycheck because you just need a job? Or what are your intentions? Because I think at the end of the day, whether you decide if you identify as white and you decide that, hey, I want to go to an urban school, inner city school, Title I schools, those kinds of areas, at the end of the day, I believe that you could benefit from all of those places, and the students could benefit from your teaching in all those places, especially if you're a socially just minded candidate or that's kind of where you want to be. But at the end of the day, what are your motives? Because if you're trying to save a struggling community and you want to create an impact that way because you have a "savior" mindset, I wouldn't want you to go there because kids number one can tell what your intentions are.
We're smart enough to know, okay, this person thinks that they're coming to save us versus someone that comes in that genuinely cares. And you know what? I recognize my own privileges. And as a result, I'm here to try to support or be an advocate and be a disruptor so that I can support you in this community that I'm serving.
A Sense of Belonging
Scott: Is there anything you can share about the content that will be covered in your upcoming book?
Eakins: Yeah, my new book is going to be all about a sense of belonging, I think, at the end of the day, and it's going to be more from a leadership perspective. So my first book, Leading Equity: Becoming an Advocate for all Students, was more for teachers. The second book is going to be more for school leaders because I am a big proponent of your school leader. Your district leaders are your chief diversity, equity, inclusion officers. Even if you have a designated position that says this is the DEI person, it doesn't matter. Whoever is in charge, your leadership, your top is your chief diversity, equity, inclusion officer.
And over the years, after I've done all these podcasts and all the research I've done and all the information I've gathered and learned, it all boils down to relationships. You cannot have relationships without a sense of belonging. If you don't feel included and feel like you belong in an environment, you're not going to have a great relationship. I've come across a lot of research in regards to how certain characteristics, a certain identity, such as coming from poverty, for example, you're less likely to make friends, or you're going to struggle to make friends when it comes to socialization, when it comes to social economic status, right? Who has the latest shoes, who's popular because they always have the latest shoes or best clothing or a new cell phone or all these different things impacts a child's ability to make friends, to gain entry to social groups. I'm going to be talking about affinity spaces, the importance of having designated and intentional spaces for students. But it's all going to be centered around a sense of belonging. It doesn't have a title yet, but that's what the book will be about: how to create a sense of belonging for your students.
About Health and Well-being
Scott: I notice that you are incorporating health and well being into your personal and professional activities. What can you share about this and how it fits into a career as an educational consultant and advocate for equity?
Eakins: All right. Definitely. Health and fitness have become a staple in my life. Three years ago, I jumped on a fitness journey. I had gained a lot of weight. I was well over 220 pounds. I'm five foot eight. I was obese. I let myself go. I was not keeping up with my body, but I never got sick or anything. Sometimes, people start being more health conscious when something physically happens to them where they deal with going to the hospital or some life changing event. For me, it was more of my personal beliefs or view of myself, the confidence that I had and the self esteem that I had.
I decided, let me hit the gym. I started hitting the gym, but I wasn't focused on my diet. I was just going to the gym and I was seeing some results. I lost a little bit of weight, and you could see some muscle definition coming in, but I felt like I had plateaued. I felt like, man, so maybe I lost 20 pounds, or maybe I'm not 220 anymore. I'm 200. And I'm like, okay, but I'm not seeing anything. And about a year ago, I decided to get a coach, and I decided I was going to create some goals.
So it's not just going to be going to the gym every day, but I want to take this to the next level up. So I hired a coach and I decided I was going to pursue a bodybuilding competition, men's physique competition. So I trained, started eating right, I had meal plans. I had to weigh, started weighing my food out, not just eyeballing everything, oh, yeah, this seems like enough. No, I literally would weigh out six ounces of protein and 100 grams of carbs. I got very intentional, and the weight just started to come off like crazy. I'm now 160 pounds.
So over the last three years, I've lost 60 pounds. Okay. So not only was working out important for me, but also my diet was very important for me, which has given me more energy on stage. I didn't want to be on stage doing keynote addresses and be up there huffing and puffing, barely able to move around. I want to be able to keep up with my children and be able to run and go to the playground with them, and go to the little trampoline parks and jump with them, go to the swimming pool and be able to swim with them and not be too embarrassed to take my shirt off. Right.
The point is, health and fitness has been very helpful with my energy. Now I feel like I can sit at my computer and do the work that needs to get done. I have so much more energy and I feel healthier, which has allowed me to be more active, not just physically, but also I can be active, more present in certain situations, and participate in organizations, in conferences and engagements.
Keep Learning and Learning and Learning...
Scott: I would be thankful if you could answer any questions that I might have missed with greater relevance to readers interested in education and in the use of technology for teaching and learning purposes.
Eakins: What I would say is a couple of things. If you're interested in learning something that you're not familiar with: One, I would tap into your local institutions of higher ed. A lot of these institutions have clubs that are free and open to the public. When I lived in Oregon, the local University of Oregon had a film school or a film degree and they had a film club. And I remember the film club was open to the public and I would go there every week and I learned how to edit videos, I learned how to work microphones and audio and technology, all these different things. I learned all that stuff for free by joining their club and just participating and being a member of the club. So not only was I learning, but I also got connected and networked with various people. So when I wanted to start doing my own little projects again, I was trying to figure things out because I had already done some little projects of my own on YouTube.
I had a network of folks that I could reach out to, students to reach out to, so I would look there. So whatever technology you're interested in, see if there are free courses or clubs that are available in your local community. The second piece is there's always YouTube University. At this point and day and time, you can literally learn whatever you want to learn via YouTube. There's a video out there for you. I always tell people, even if you feel like you're not tech savvy, even if you feel like, you know, sometimes people give me barriers and excuses (because I coach people and I help them) I say, hey listen, this is how you start a podcast, this is how you do this, this is how you do that, this is how you create a website. This is how you create videos, and this is how you edit videos.
These are all the tools that I utilize. And people will give me excuses, oh, I'm not tech savvy, or I just need Johnny to graduate from high school, or I need this to happen or that to happen. And I always say, don't be five years from now saying, I wish I had started five years ago. I can help folks if they do consulting on the side. For those who are looking to learn more about technology or looking to get into a world of online marketing and businesses and online courses, podcasts and content creation, I do offer those services. So feel free to shoot an email to me. I'll be happy to help.
Sheldon@leadingequitycenter.com, or you can follow me on Instagram at sheldon eakins. That's my social as well.