Inclusion, Diversity, Culture, Equity….tell me, what do you think when you hear these words and how do you define these concepts? Depending on your background, these words may take on various meanings. When you discuss these topics do you feel happiness, fear, joy, or confusion? Perhaps you think here we go again or haven’t we gotten past this by now? When I hear these words, I think, what are we doing to make these words become more than just words on paper?
Last fall, I participated in a webinar with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) on equity. It was three part series about how to ensure that we are providing our students with positive experiences that will lend to ensuring that all students are included and respected. Part One of the series challenged us to examine our own biases. This seemed like an easy task, but we were then told to share stereotypes we had heard (not our beliefs, but what society has said) about black boys and white girls. I began to see stereotypes pop up on my computer screen such as, BLACK BOY: SUPER PREDATOR and WHITE GIRL: DUMB BLONDE, along with many others. As I read these words, tears began to stream down my face because I am raising a black boy who is not a criminal and many others in my classroom who deserve to be more than just our stereotypes, and I teach white girls who are not dumb, but who are bright and deserve to be given a fair chance without our unintentional biases that we may bring into our schools. As I went through this three part series, I wished all educators could take part in this important training. Yet, I had to acknowledge that I bring my experiences in the classroom with me. I celebrate everyone, and I am a huge advocate for equity; however, this webinar forced me to reach back into my own experiences of growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and being told go back on YOUR side of the street, of my adolescent years of moving to the inner city and being afraid of people who looked like me, or of my time in the military living in Kentucky and being told we don’t serve your kind here.
That is what I am comprised of – all of those experiences are a part of my makeup. Many of us have preconceived notions about people who do not look like us and even those who do. Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved” (Fenig, 2014). Like me, educators bring many different life experiences into their classrooms all over this country, but we have to be willing to have uncomfortable dialogue to move forward – together.
So how do we do this? How do we ensure that we leave our biases at the door, create a climate of inclusion, and celebrate ALL of our students’ diversity while ensuring that we provide them with an equitable education?
Acknowledge our own biases:
Daniele Massey, Jemelleh Coes, and Monica Washington of NNSTOY state that we have to acknowledge that we all have biases, both intentional and unintentional; however, by acknowledging those biases, by replacing our stereotypes, individuating, and creating more opportunities for positive contact with others, we can overcome those biases and shift the atmosphere (NNSTOY, 2016).
Create an environment where intolerance is not tolerated:
As a school leader, you have to set the tone and the atmosphere. A leader should be a thermostat and not a thermometer. When issues arise, it should be used as a teachable moment. For example, the day after the election, many students were displaying behavior that was not tolerant to those who had different views than they did. There were even students spewing stereotypes about others based on the way they looked. Although I was discouraged with the situation, I consulted with my instructional leader, and the next day, had the students stand around in a circle and discuss the ways that we are more alike than different. We committed to learning more about each other, and even completed various projects that exposed us to the backgrounds of others. We embraced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and therefore brothers” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Strength to Love). We learned that it did not matter what we looked like because we all were valued.
Create multiple opportunities for interaction:
As I have travelled into various schools across multiple states, nothing bothers me more than to walk into a classroom or a lunchroom and see students segregating themselves, sitting only with those who look like them. In society, we have a tendency to gravitate towards the familiar; however, school leaders must seek to create an environment where heterogeneous interactions are a part of the norm. A way for this to happen is to structure curriculum in such a way that it exposes our students to a variety of cultures, encourages back and forth dialogue with people who may not share their views, and forces them to take multiple perspectives into consideration. Leaders and educators should also be intentional about creating interactions through heterogeneous grouping and seating, and planning lessons where students can see themselves and others who do not look like them reflected in their learning.
Lead by example:
A leader must lead by example by modeling the behavior that he or she would like to see displayed in his or her school. I recently visited The Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the promising practices that the founder, Ron Clark along with the co-founder Kim Bearden, have their staff do each summer is to learn the names of every child along with every person (even pets) living in the child’s home. The teachers have to take a test prior to the beginning of the school year with 100% accuracy. Simply knowing our students can create an environment where they know they are valued. I would also strongly encourage educators to visit the homes of students they teach. Learning where our students come from is another powerful tool in creating a culture where students are valued. School leaders should also create opportunities for their staff to have positive interactions with each other so that students can see the adults in the building respecting and valuing the unique differences that they have.
Inclusion, diversity, culture, and equity – can be so much more than words on paper – if we want them to be, they can become our reality, our normal, and our ingrained values. Moving our culture from an idea to a reality is not something that will happen overnight. School leaders must be committed to wanting to truly bring about systemic change within our schools. Undertaking this work will be uncomfortable. It can expose some of the ugliest parts of ourselves that we would rather not deal with, but the only way to move from the abstract idea of diversity to a concrete reality is to face our biases head on and acknowledge them, to confront and address intolerance, to seek positive interactions with people who do not look like us, and finally, to not just talk about the way we want our culture to be, but be the way we want our culture to be and display those values for others to see.
Fenig, E. (2014). Why both Mark Cuban and Jesse Jackson are frightened by blacks wearing hoodies. Retrieved from <http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2014/05/why_both_mark_cuban_and_jesse_jackson_are_frightened_by_blacks_wearing_hoodies_.html>
NNSTOY. (2016). Inward and Onward: Examining Personal Bias. Retrieved from <http://www.nnstoy.org/webinars/inward-and-onward-1-examining-our-personal-bias/>
The King Center. Strength to love. Retrieved from <www.thekingcenter.org>
Kelisa Wing is an 8th grade Language Arts Teacher and AVID site team member for Faith Middle School in Fort Benning, Georgia. She is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader, the 2017 Department of Defense Education Activity State Teacher of the Year, and a Flocabulary Master Certified Educator. She is also the Continuous School Improvement Chair for her school. She is an Army veteran, a proud graduate of the University of Maryland University College, and the University of Phoenix where she earned her Educational Specialist degree. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering in the community and spending time with her family. *All thoughts are her own. You can follow her on twitter @kelisa_l2teach.