What is the best way to create an inclusive school culture? How can a school leader promote a feeling of belonging for everyone in that school community: from the dyslexic second grader to the sole African-American in sixth grade, from the student whose parents speak Chinese at home to the divorced teacher trying to raise three children on one teacher’s salary, from the part-time worker in the cafeteria who struggles to pay his bills and has to work two jobs to do so to the elegantly dressed tutor who can afford to work part-time? Each child and adult in a school community has a different story to tell. Each one longs for connection, validation, affirmation.
Teachers strive to create classrooms where children feel valued and safe. One of the ways they do this is by building individual relationships with each of their students. To do this is much easier when their students have much in common with their teachers. White middle-class teachers understand white middle-class children more easily than they understand children with different physical features and different backgrounds, because they have more in common with them in terms of life experience, culture, and manners. Similarly, teachers who did well in school relate more easily to students who are doing well in school, just as teachers who struggled in school relate more easily to students who are struggling. Teachers who recognize this know that they must work harder to understand and connect with children who have less in common with them.
Unfortunately, not all teachers realize that children who are different from them in some way need more understanding. Some teachers unconsciously equate difference with something lacking in the child or the child’s family. If they start a relationship with a child from a sense or belief that they are somehow better than that child, it is difficult for that relationship to result in the child feeling valued and safe. When a school leader recognizes that some teachers devalue children unintentionally because those children are different in some way, he or she seeks ways to address that, especially if the goal is to have an inclusive school community. School leaders are in a uniquely powerful position because they can bring learning to teachers. They can bring training to their schools to help teachers and staff to recognize their unconscious judgments and learn ways to overcome these biases.
One teacher training program that is highly effective in giving teachers deeper awareness of their own attitudes toward others’ differences, while offering techniques for addressing these attitudes in positive ways that breed positive outcomes, is LivingSideBySide®, a training program offered by Legacy International. For further information, visit www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside