Critical Incidents in Educational Leadership

An opportunity for professional (un)learning

In 2021, a white, French-language Catholic school principal was removed from his school two years after wearing a Black student’s shaved-off hair as a wig during a cancer fundraiser, and again for Halloween months later – but only once these two occurrences were reported on social media by Black Lives Matter London (CBC News, 2021). Since school improvement is unlikely to be successful without effective educational leadership (Rodgers et al., 2016), it is imperative for leaders to examine the verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities they – intentionally or unintentionally – communicate toward, or about, racialized persons through racial microaggressions. A racial microaggression is a brief, everyday indignity that (re)produces racial slights or insults toward Black students, principals, or teachers (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021; Sue et al., 2007.)

What do we know about systemic anti-Black racism in French-language education? A limited number of studies have explored systemic anti-Black racism within minoritized French-language education in Canada (Ibrahim, 2014; Jean-Pierre, 2020; Villella, 2021). These studies provide insight into how systemic anti-Black racism manifests itself within this context. For example, Schroeter and James (2015) found that Black francophone immigrant students felt that white school staff, including a school principal, give white immigrant students more help to reach their career goals. Madibbo (2021) identifies three conditions that illustrate and/or enable systemic anti-Black racism within this context:

  • A lack of equitable representation of Black people within la francophonie
  • the rejection of multiculturalism
  • a “franco-centric” approach to the social construction of race and racism.

Examining critical incidents

My PhD thesis (2021) details systemic anti-Black racism critical incidents in educational leadership within francophone Ontario and their impact on Black and francophone students, teachers, families, and community partners.

This narrative case study explored the intercultural and anti-racist competency of educational system leaders through critical incidents in leadership. A system leader, such as a school principal, is an individual who also represents a professional organization, and creates and or implements a society’s policies, procedures, and regulations (Villella, 2021). A critical incident is a positive or negative experience that affects one’s leadership by confirming it, by changing it, or by shattering it (Sider et al., 2017; Yamamoto et al., 2014).

Nine educational and system leaders, most of whom were, or had recently been, school principals, completed three semi-structured interviews and a survey. Data analysis revealed that almost all the critical incidents mentioned by the nine participants as being intercultural in nature centred around Black school community members, and mostly Black boys and men, including a Catholic priest. While their survey responses suggested that most of the nine participants’ intercultural competency was well developed, the way in which they dealt with critical incidents involving Black students, staff, families, and community members indicated that their anti-racist competency needs further development. In the case of intercultural and anti-racist competencies, little to no university courses or workshop training was reported by the participants; they mostly trained themselves through international volunteer work, reading, and personal experience sharing. As such, they mostly did informal training (Villella, 2021). It should therefore not come as a surprise that critical incidents revealing systemic anti-Black racism and racial microaggressions manifested themselves in the participants’ leadership.

What the data reveals: Multiple racial microaggressions

Below, I present and analyze four systemic anti-Black racism critical incidents (translation by the author) through Brown’s (2019) racial microaggression framework of pathologizing, cultural insensitivity, persistent devaluation of Black teachers’ competency, second-class citizenship in schools, and the myth of meritocracy. Brown indicates that such microaggressions are not only steeped in anti-Black ideology, but they are also documented reasons why Black teachers1 leave the teaching profession.

  1. Some Black principals are experiencing racism from their fellow white colleagues. A self-identifying Black male school principal explains how systemic anti-Black racism still persists in the staff room of a school where he used to work:

“I had a meeting with the principal. So, I think that there is a former colleague of mine, I will go and see him… He says, ‘[Hassan], you’re in the white people’s staff room with me here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You don’t see? The immigrant table is over there.’ So, I have to tell you that even when I was there, there were two staff rooms.”

In this school, Black teachers (and especially Black immigrant teachers) are the targets of systemic anti-Black racism in the staff room in the form of second-class status (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021).

  1. A self-identifying Métis female educational system leader details the behaviour that some Black teachers are subjected to in the classroom:

“[Students] were telling him off, I mean, plus [he] spoke with a rather pronounced accent. This was probably one of the first Black people they saw in person… it was one of the first classes that he had in Canada, because he had just been substituting in Montreal, if I recall correctly… In the corner at the back of the class [were] four young men who had fun putting him down: ‘Sir, I don’t understand anything, I don’t understand when you talk. It makes no sense.’”

In this example of racial microaggressions toward a Black teacher, there is a persistent devaluation of his capabilities for teaching (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021) by the students and as well as by the participant, but there is also racialized linguicism (Madibbo, 2021), i.e. a combined linguistic and racial discrimination toward a Black person who is also a recent immigrant.

  1. Some principals are removing Black francophone teachers from the classroom when a disagreement arises or their teaching practices differ from the school’s usual practices. A self-identifying white, male, Canadian-born French-language school principal describes how he responds to such incidents involving Black immigrant teachers:

“They’re unable to integrate… and that, that’s despite trying to coach them. We tried… the traditionalism is too entrenched in their practices… you get into a conflict, and that’s where there are layoffs, where there are unsatisfactory assessments.”

Here, we can observe another racial microaggression whereby a white administrator pathologizes Black teachers through his fixed vision of competency based on conformity to French-language education that can be traced back to the white ideologies historically normalized within educational policies and practices.

  1. Some hiring teams are not always examining Black teachers’ competency objectively at the onset. One self-identifying white, female, Canadian-born French-language school principal noted her critical incident:

“I’ve done interviews, and the questions we were asking, we already had an idea of what we wanted as answers… A few times, I realized that we weren’t talking about the [Black] person’s competency. Someone said, “Well, the person said this or that… and they may hit the child to discipline them.”

In this example, the racial microaggressions manifest themselves as a form of pathologizing (Brown, 2019 ; Frank et al., 2021).

  1. Finally, some teachers are not always open to seeing beyond dominant nationality and cultural norms in terms of pedagogical milestones.

“I’m doing a follow-up evaluation with… a teenager from mainland Africa… who had had very large gaps in schooling… and I had concerns about the level of work he is being given [by his classroom teacher]. Because sometimes… if a student does not know how to read, there is a tendency to pick up materials for learning to read in the younger ones… but it’s not cognitively stimulating… because I have a 15–16-year-old [male] who… is practising bobo -baba [sounds]. But this is a young person who is being treated like a… student who has a disability.”

Here, one can identify that this Black student is experiencing microaggressions in the form of micro-invalidations regarding his reading needs that are grounded in second-class citizenship, cultural insensitivity, and persistent devaluation of competency (Brown, 2019 ; Frank et al., 2021; Sue et al., 2007).

Although these are only some of the critical incidents of anti-Black systemic racism within educational leadership that emerged from my study, they are informational vignettes representing a snapshot of how systemic anti-Black racism (re)produces itself about and toward Black school-community members within French-language schooling in Ontario.

How can studying critical incidents help us (un)learn systemic anti-Black racism?

Yamamoto et al. (2014) explain that the stories we tell ourselves, share, and tell others, and once again tell ourselves regarding a critical incident is a loop allowing leaders to evaluate if they will maintain the same practices, slightly adapt their leadership, or completely change their practice in the future. As such, these critical incidents are not only formational (Sider et al., 2017), they are also informational (Villella, 2021), revealing the professional (un)learning that is required to combat systemic anti-Black racism. The question that now emerges is: what can French-language educational system leaders, such as school principals and teacher educators, learn by examining such critical incidents?

First, it is important to remember that systemic anti-Black racism is not just an Anglo-Canadian issue. It is present in education, regardless of the language of instruction.

The analysis of critical incidents in leadership in French-language education can help school administrators, trainers, school principals, and superintendent associations, as well as French-language community organizations, understand how certain practices contribute to marginalizing Black children and adults that they serve. The ways in which leaders respond to Black teachers can contribute to the reproduction and thus persistence of systemic anti-Black racism, rather than contributing to building a more inclusive educational environment and society that mitigates against it. Either way, educational system leaders send a clear message to Black students, staff, and family members about whether or not they are valued in society.

Studying critical incidents as professional (un)learning in relation to systemic anti-Black racism provides educational leaders the chance to change how they respond in future situations, in order to be proactive and reduce harm to Black community members. As such, narrative case studies can help leaders decipher systemic anti-Black racism through professional (un)learning.

What we can do now: A few recommendations

System administrators, such as superintendents, need to support all staff who wish to develop preventative strategies to decrease the likelihood of systemic anti-Black racism from being (re)produced through racial microaggressions. The provincial government and school boards/districts need to require measures that track systemic anti-Black racism incidents, and to transparently report on them. Developing a mixed approach of both qualitative and quantitative data collection is important for better understanding of the underlying issues, which should not be reduced to a case of immigration status or mother tongue language as central identifiers.

Finally, initial and continual training opportunities need to be allocated to educational system leaders at all levels who wish to be trained, or to train their school teams, about racism and anti-racism. Specific areas of needed training include: culturally sustaining pedagogy and leadership, race-based data analysis, and questioning school board pedagogical and discipline policies regarding students as well as hiring practices related to staff. Such training requires that resources not only be developed in French, but also that critical incidents of systemic anti-Black racism are based on examples collected within francophone education systems.

Although some educational leaders may be more aware of systemic anti-Black racism incidents related to their leadership, such critical incidents still exist and persist. That said, we should not be dissuaded nor discouraged from developing inclusive and equitable French-language education systems. Instead, these incidents should cause educational school and system leaders to reassess how to better build relationships with each Black student, staff member, and community partner, and how to go beyond the deficit thinking and stereotypes that lead to racial microaggressions. That process begins and continues with fully participating and engaging in decolonizing professional (un)learning. The knowledge then needs to be applied within local communities to create more equitable and inclusive spaces of belonging for Black students and staff, and for those from other equity-deserving groups within la francophonie. Not only do Black students need Black educators, so does the rest of Canadian society. Inclusion is, after all, meant for each and every one.


Suggested Reading

For the most effective self-study experience, read in the order presented.

Canadian Statistics

  • Canadian Race Relations Foundation & Environics Institute for Survey Research. (2021). Race relations in Canada 2021: A survey of Canadian public opinion and experience. (The link leads to an introductory page about the survey, with links to the final report and other study documents.) www.environicsinstitute.org/projects/project-details/race-relations-in-canada-2021
  • Statistics Canada. (2019). Diversity of the Black population in Canada: An overview. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-657-x/89-657-x2019002-eng.htm
  • Statistics Canada. (2022). Black History Month… by the numbers. www.statcan.gc.ca/en/dai/smr08/2020/smr08_248-1


  • Ibrahim, A. (2014). The rhizome of Blackness. A critical ethnography of hip-hop culture, language, identity and the politics of becoming. Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Madibbo, A. (2021). Blackness and la Francophonie. Anti-Black racism, linguicism and the construction and negotiation of multiple minority Identities. Les Presses de l’Université Laval.

Black francophone experience

  • Pierre-René, M. C. (2019). Hey “G!” An examination of how Black English language learning high school students experience the intersection of race and second language education. [Doctoral thesis, University of Ottawa]. uO Research. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/39108

Critical race theory

  • Thésée, G., & Carr, P. R. (2016). Triple whammy and a fragile minority within a fragile majority: School, family and society, and the education of Black, francophone youth in Montréal. African Canadian youth, postcoloniality, and the symbolic violence of language in a French language high school in Ontario. In A. A. Abdi & A. Ibrahim, (Eds.), The education of African-Canadian children (pp. 131–144). McGill-Queens University Press.

Additional French-language resources are listed in the French version of this article


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, January 2023



1 While the Brown (2019) study focused on Black teachers, Frank et al.’s (2021) study focused on Black math teachers specifically.


Brown, E. (2019). African American teachers’ experiences with racial micro-aggressions. Educational Studies, 55(2), 180–196. doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2018.1500914

CBC News. (2021, May 31). London, Ont., principal removed for wearing Black student’s hair like a wig says he’s sorry, ‘ashamed.’ CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/luc-chartrand-black-student-wig-apology-1.6047068

Ibrahim, A. (2014). The rhizome of Blackness. A critical ethnography of hip-hop culture, language, identity and the politics of becoming. Peter Lang Publishing.

Jean-Pierre, J. (2020). L’appartenance entrecroisée à l’héritage historique et au pluralisme contemporain chez des étudiants franco-ontariens. Minorités linguistiques et société/Linguistic Minorities and Society (13), 3–25. doi.org/10.7202/1070388ar

Frank, T. J., Powell, M. G., & View, J. L. (2021). Exploring racialized factors to understand why Black mathematics teachers consider leaving the profession. Educational Researcher. doi.org/10.3102/0013189X21994498

Madibbo, A. (2021). Blackness and la Francophonie: Anti-Black racism, linguicism and the construction and negotiation of multiple minority identities. Les Presses de l’Université Laval.

Rodgers, W. T., Hauserman, C. P, & Skytt, J. (2016). Using cognitive coaching to build school leadership capacity: A case study in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 39(3). www.jstor.org/stable/canajeducrevucan.39.3.03

Schroeter, S. & James, C. (2015). “We’re here because we’re black”: The schooling experiences of French-speaking African-Canadian students with refugee backgrounds. Race, ethnicity and education, 18(1), 20–39. doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2014.885419

Sider, S., Maich, K., & Morvan, J. (2017). School principals and students with special education needs: Leading inclusive schools. Canadian Journal of Education, 40(2). http://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/2417

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M. et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. American Psychologist, May-June. https://gim.uw.edu/sites/gim.uw.edu/files/fdp/Microagressions%20File.pdf

Villella, M. (2021). Piti, piti, zwazo fè niche li (Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid) : le développement d’une compétence interculturelle et antiraciste de neuf leaders éducatifs et systémiques d’expression française de l’Ontario, formateurs bénévoles en Ayiti. Unpublished thesis. University of Ottawa. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/42728

Yamamoto, J. K., Gardiner, M. E., & Tenuto, P. L. (2014). Emotion in leadership: Secondary school administrators’ perceptions of critical incidents. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(2), 165–183.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Mélissa Villella

Mélissa Villella, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Education, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. Her research interests include anti-racism, educational and systemic leadership, interculturalism, and inclusive education.

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