I recognized that she was correct and apologized to her. She was accompanied by a friend, who then reminded me that religion can also be a form of diversity. “And don't forget sexual orientation,” she said. I nodded because, of course, they both were right.
Too often, we fall into the trap of equating the term minority
with people of color. We say “minorities” when we talk about people whose skin color is not white. Such language is not only incomplete and inaccurate, but it is also offensive to many people. When we speak only to race, we are ignoring all the people who are different from the majority in other ways and the implications that follow from their diversity.
We tend to categorize ourselves and others continuously. Though this endless process of categorization is part of how we all develop, we must not forget that no one can be excluded. ~Ben
For that matter, even if we think only of race, people of color are not a minority. Worldwide, there are more people with a darkened skin color than without, and, as noted later in this chapter, this soon will be the case in the United States as well. In addition, the term minority suggests that there is a majority, that there are only two groups. When applied to race, this is not the case. There are many different hues of skin and racial categories. Unfortunately, the term minority ignores those differences by lumping all non-Caucasians into one group. That broad brushstroke fails to recognize and appreciate the differences, both inherent and cultural, among us. It also seems to imply that somehow the “minority” race needs to be assimilated into the majority race.
Finally, as was pointed out to me, when we use the term
minority to refer only to skin color or race, we are ignoring many other different kinds of groupings that can be separated into minorities and majorities. Skin color is the easiest to note because it is so visible. In addition, legislation, policies, and judicial actions in education have often addressed racial discrimination, so it is only natural that race comes to mind when we think about diversity. Yet there are far more diversities than race in society and in our classrooms.
People should be recognized and respected for who they are individually, who they are as defined by the characteristics they possess, and who they are as part of the groups to which they belong. At a minimum, when we think about diversity, we need to consider not only race but gender, religion, physical challenges, economic status, age, disability, sexual orientation, and learning differences. Indeed, some people define themselves not by their race but by one or more of these other descriptors.
Although every individual needs to be cognizant of these issues and treat all others with respect, school leaders have an even greater responsibility. Because of our positions, we set the tone and we are the role models. We need to be conscious of our actions and recognize that in this area, in particular, what we fail to do can send a message that is as powerful as any action we might take.
The U.S. Numbers
We often say that we cannot predict the future with any degree of accuracy, but that is not the case when it comes to racial demographics and school enrollment. After all, today's kindergartners were born five years ago; those born today will start school in five years. This is not higher math! As I stated earlier, the numbers tell us that the term racial minority will soon lose its significance. According to the Census Bureau, minority groups will constitute 49.5 percent of the population in 2050 (Armas, 2004, p. A1). Further, by 2050, Hispanics will increase their ranks by 188 percent to 102.6 million, or roughly one-quarter of the population (p. A2), and blacks will become the second largest minority.
Be part of the kaleidoscope, and celebrate the beautiful picture. ~Laurie
Other diversities are not easy to count, but the difficulty in tallying does not mean they are not present. Conventional wisdom suggests that 10 to 12 percent of the population is gay or lesbian. Therefore, every school likely has gay or lesbian staff members. We know that as many as 15 to 20 percent of students may have some type of a learning difference. Even though successful people accommodate for these differences and overcome them, that doesn't mean that they disappear upon reaching adulthood. Thus, even considering that teachers are, by and large, people who enjoyed attending school and were successful, it seems reasonable to estimate that 10 percent of staff members may have a learning difference. Similarly, people's economic status, physical disability, and religion will vary, but rarely will a school be without diversity in these areas. Even if a school staff or student body lack diversity, understanding and appreciating the various diversities still must be made a priority.
Inevitably, this means that tomorrow's schools will be much more racially and ethnically integrated than is the case today. Although other forms of diversity may not increase numerically or as a proportion of the population, it is just as inevitable that people's acceptance of them will increase. A good example of this is the fact that today some, although certainly not all, high schools sponsor support groups for students who are gay and lesbian. As recently as a decade ago, this acceptance and public sanction would have been unimaginable. The struggles for respect and equal rights are far from over, and the gains are often incremental. Yet if we look back and reflect upon the progress that has been made, it is clear that the gains will continue.
Human diversity is often quoted but seldom internalized. The 21st century begs for an understanding among peoples and cultures. We have a mandate to teach our charges the importance of attaining this understanding with an open mind and a willingness to challenge old beliefs. ~Rich
Progress will at times come slowly and painfully, but it will come. The need for progress makes it essential that principals play a leadership role in both their schools and communities and work to create an environment that goes beyond tolerance. School leaders must create a setting in which there is an appreciation
of diversity. We need to do so not only because it's “the right thing” to do, which it certainly is, but also because doing so is no longer an option. In tomorrow's world, virtually every setting will contain a range of hues, backgrounds, disabilities, and attitudes. As we think about how to prepare our students to succeed, it is imperative that we prepare them for that diverse world.
Diversity in Schools
New City School has gained considerable attention as a multiple intelligences (MI) school. Hundreds of educators visit us each year, and our work provided much of the inspiration for my book Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (Hoerr, 2000). Before we discovered MI in 1988, however, we were known for our appreciation of and focus on diversity. Today, after implementing and celebrating MI, we are still known as a school that embraces diversity.
Demographically, New City School is quite diverse. In 2004–2005, for example, 34 percent of our 360 students were students of color; 28 percent of our students, students of all colors, received need-based financial aid. A significant number of our students, probably 10 to 15 percent, learn differently. (Success for many of these students is increased because we frame our curriculum and instruction through MI.) A number of different religions are evident in our student body, and quite a few of our students come from families in which their parents are openly gay or lesbian. Despite the fact that we provide no transportation, we enroll students from 52 different zip codes.
My staff of 56 includes 12 people of color and 8 males (men represent a form of diversity in an elementary school). Of these 20 people, 12 are faculty members. However, these numbers only set the stage for our efforts with diversity. In presenting what schools might do to support diversity and create a climate in which all staff members and students are comfortable, I will draw upon some of my experiences at New City School.
The ability to deal successfully with issues of diversity is enhanced when a school's students and staff are diverse. A diverse student body and staff bring a variety of experiences and perspectives to issues of diversity and discrimination, and everyone in the building benefits because of this. However, numbers alone are not sufficient; it is not enough to have diverse students and staff, as important as that can be. Enrolling students who represent many diversities and having a sizeable percentage of racial minorities—whatever those minorities are—is only a piece of the diversity puzzle. (I specifically mention racial minorities because, as noted, many of our country's judicial and legislative efforts have addressed race, the No Child Left Behind Act being a recent example.) Numbers are important, but what happens once the children and adults walk through the school's doors is even more important. That is where school leaders make a difference.
School Leadership and Diversity
Too often, diversity efforts in school focus only on the formal curriculum and only on students. Although a school's curriculum is an integral part of its efforts to embrace diversity and students should be the focus of every school effort, diversity efforts will not be effective unless the entire school milieu is considered. School leaders must address the diversity climate in their schools in four distinct ways.
- They must ensure that diversity issues are an integral part of the formal and informal curriculum and are focused on throughout the year (not only in February, during Black History Month).
- They must pay attention to the physical setting and mold it in a way that raises awareness, educates, and offers comfort to everyone, especially those who represent diversity.
- They must work to help all the adults in a school community become more comfortable with and appreciative of one another.
- They must continually show their personal commitment to diversity.
The Formal and Informal Curriculum
Often, when we make plans and create strategies, we limit ourselves to focusing on the formal curriculum. Equally powerful messages emanate from the informal curriculum. In fact, a good case can be made that most powerful messages come from a school's informal curriculum.
The informal curriculum consists of the routines, practices, policies, and culture that guide our behavior; it is what we do. We may teach that the U.S. Constitution holds that all men are created equal, but what do our actions say about how we value individuals who are gay or lesbian? We may teach that the Holocaust was a terrible event, but does our school accept and support a range of religious beliefs? Is this respect evident when looking at events and holidays in the school calendar? We might say that we value human diversity, but what do the papers and work samples on the bulletin boards and walls indicate about which kinds of students and behaviors are esteemed? We may say that all individuals warrant respect, but are all the members of our staff treated with equal dignity? Such examples represent the informal curriculum, which guides attitudes and behavior. The messages sent by the informal curriculum are very obvious, and regardless of age, students (and their parents) are savvy at watching what we say and comparing it to what we do.
People in power have a responsibility to recognize and embrace the differences among us. They cannot be ignored. ~Tamala
The formal curriculum is what we say. It is what is in a school's scope and sequence documents, curriculum guides, and textbooks. Report cards reflect progress made with the formal curriculum. The formal curriculum indicates at which level students study the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., at what grade they learn that Columbus didn't really discover America after all, and in which classes they talk about bigotry and the Holocaust. Teachers and principals share the formal curriculum at open houses and parent-teacher conferences. The formal curriculum is so important because it determines the content that will be addressed and for which teachers will be accountable.
Diversity should be addressed throughout our curriculum as we seek to promote an understanding and awareness of one another. At New City School, for example, diversity is an integral part of each grade's curriculum. Our 5th graders take three field trips to the first cemetery in Missouri that was dedicated to black slaves. While there, our students engage in community service by helping to clean the grounds. They also learn about the history and the culture that went into creating this cemetery. Why was there a separate black cemetery? How did these people live? What can be learned from what is written on the tombstones and in other documentation? What attitudes might be reflected by what is written?
Similarly, when our 3rd graders study Native Americans, they do it from a much richer perspective than basic U.S. history. The differences between the Native American tribes and the U.S. government are seen in the context of different cultures and how those cultural beliefs influenced attitudes and behaviors. Likewise, the differences among the Native American tribes are used as a way to help students see and understand differences in lifestyles, homes, traditions, and attitudes. Looking at these questions through a Native American perspective as a 3rd grader sets the stage for looking at the civil rights struggle as a 5th grader.
I could offer more examples from every one of our grades, and each would reinforce the same point. It is easy to view social studies as a compendium of facts and information (and particularly tempting to do so when test scores play such an important role in how schools are perceived), but doing so ignores the unique role that history and geography can play in raising and addressing issues of human diversity.
The difference I perceive in my fellows enriches me. ~Brian
Students need to learn that man's actions (man's, intentionally) in passing legislation, maintaining traditions, and waging wars invariably reflect negative attitudes about others who are different. We can see this in the lack of opportunities available to women and those not born into wealth, and we can study this in the civil rights movement, the woman suffrage movement, the Irish Potato Famine, the history of U.S. immigration policies, and the Japanese internment camps. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on.
Regardless of the topic or era being studied, every teacher has an obligation to raise and support issues of human diversity, as appropriate. Granted, it is definitely easier for a social studies teacher than a math teacher to do this, just as it is easier for a teacher of literature than a chemistry teacher. The math and chemistry teachers may have to work harder to find nontraditional mathematicians and scientists (those who are not Caucasian males) who made a difference. But just as every teacher takes it as a personal responsibility to teach the scholastic skills and understandings that students need, each teacher needs to recognize the responsibility to help students understand and appreciate others who are different from themselves.
The formal curriculum must include an understanding of prejudice and discrimination, both historically and today. For example, is the Native American Trail of Tears journey studied in U.S. history? How might the actions of Rosa Parks be compared to those of Sir Thomas More? Do students learn that discrimination, in many forms, is still a part of life in the United States? In a developmentally appropriate way, it is essential that the formal curriculum address these kinds of issues and that students learn that there are multiple perspectives on every issue. It is also important that they learn that each of us has a role in helping make the world a better place.
I like to know that a leader will look at all sides of an issue and will not be ruled by his or her emotions. ~Mary
School leaders must ensure that both the informal and formal curricula reflect an awareness of diversity issues and considerations. They can accomplish this by helping faculty members understand how important it is, by referring to diversity issues before and after classroom observations, and by asking questions that lead to faculty introspection.
Finally, although I have focused on curriculum, it is important to note that not only what we teach but also how we teach has implications for diversity. Our instruction should support another diversity: the recognition that people learn in different ways. The works of Carol Ann Tomlinson (2001), for example, or Robert Marzano (2001) and colleagues offer varied approaches to achieving this differentiation, as does the implementation of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (Faculty of the New City School, 1994, 1996). Whichever model of curricular and instructional differentiation is embraced is far less important than having differentiation be the expectation.
The Physical Setting
Years ago, the New City School Board of Trustees was discussing our efforts to support diversity. At one point, a black board member asked, “This is all well and good that we value diversity, but what message would I receive if I were in the school at midnight? Would I know how much our school values diversity?” We were all silent for a moment, stunned by her questions.
This board member had pointed out a lost opportunity. For although our walls and halls were adorned with student work—work that was of high quality, work that was definitely “in progress,” and work that represented all the intelligences—there wasn't much that spoke directly to our appreciation for and our efforts toward diversity. Our intentions for diversity were pure, but this wasn't reflected in what we posted and what we shared. This realization led to a fascinating discussion on the need to ensure that our values were apparent in our building at any time of day or night.
Soon we will understand that the human diversity inside the classroom is not a problem; it's a solution. ~Monica
Today, one of our stairwells has a giant diversity mural (approximately 30 feet by 15 feet). The mural was created by our students under the direction of our art teacher, and it portrays people who have overcome discrimination of various sorts. Mahatma Gandhi is featured there, as is Helen Keller. So, too, are Harriet Tubman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Braille, and Miriam Oldham, a St. Louis civil rights activist. One cannot walk down our hall without being struck by the dedication of space and the power of the image. But that is just the beginning.
We have learned that it is not enough for the halls to entertain; they must also affirm, and they must educate. Every student, faculty member, parent, and visitor who walks down our halls learns a bit about us and sees what we value. We use these spaces to show that we believe in MI and that our students are smart in many different ways. We also proclaim that we value human diversity and show some of the things that we do to develop this diversity in our students. We have learned that posting students' work does not suffice, however rich it may be; we must also offer an explanation. As a result, every display of student work posted in our halls is accompanied by a narrative. This explanation offers the rationale for the exhibit and helps the reader put the students' efforts into context. The displays educate the reader. Recently, for example, the following displays were posted in our halls:
- A bulletin board that compared kindergarten students' skin colors to the colors of familiar materials (brown sugar, bran flakes, cocoa, bananas). The students' names were placed beside the colors in a vertical array, which became a bar graph. This activity and display took students' range of skin color and made it a comfortable and discussable topic.
- An analysis of a poem about deer hunting. Half of the students wrote from the perspective of the deer and half from that of the deer hunter. An important part of preparing students to live in a diverse world is to help them “appreciate the perspectives of others, particularly those of other races and cultures.” (This wording comes from the first page of our report card; it is something on which we assess our students.) It is easy for children to think of every deer as Bambi, so causing them to look at this situation from the perspective of the hunter forces them to widen their thinking.
- A photo display of student-created puppet shows that captured some of the tensions in the U.S. South prior to the Civil War. Students were given three characters—a slave, a slave owner, and a free person who helped slaves—and were asked to write dialogue that depicted issues that they would have discussed and how they would have felt.
- Murals accompanied by written pieces that illustrated one of the “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism, or lookism, which refers to when people are discriminated against because of their physical appearance). Students used their spatial intelligence to show the discrimination happening and then wrote about how they felt.
The Adult Community
Although curriculum and students should be an important focus, we cannot ignore the human context in which curriculum is taught and students learn. When we think about what must be done to create an environment in which everyone feels safe, comfortable, and appreciated, we must consider all the members of a school family. Our efforts toward diversity must include all the adults in the building, even those who rarely enter the doors.
This belief is not unlike Barth's (1990) contention about faculty collegiality: If we want the children to grow and learn, the adults must grow and learn (discussed in Chapter 2). Similarly, if we want our students to understand their differences and appreciate one another, the adults in the building must understand their differences and appreciate one another. Such appreciation is, alas, much easier said than done. Personal values and political leanings aside, adults are often far less comfortable than children are in dealing with issues of diversity or race. (Of course, this unease makes it almost impossible for them to address issues of diversity or race with their students.) In addition, sometimes such efforts meet opposition from the faculty because “That is not what we're here for” or “We don't have time for these kinds of games” or “My job is to teach children how to ...” As school leaders, however, we cannot let this reluctance deter us from our goal. If we want a school environment that prepares students for an increasingly diverse world, we have an obligation to work on issues of diversity with all the adults in our school.
Faculty. There we were at an inservice meeting, all our faculty members standing in the gymnasium in a large circle, maybe 60 feet in diameter. Linda, one of our teachers and the chair of our faculty's Diversity Committee, stood in the center and led us in a social identifiers activity. “This is a silent activity,” she said. “There will be a time to talk later. I'll read all the categories within a grouping so that you can hear them, and then I'll read them a second time. After that, please move to the spot that best describes you in relation to the category.” She announced a title and began to read different categories within that group, pointing in a wide arc around the room. On her second reading, when we heard a description that most accurately fit us, we moved to that part of the circle.
After announcing the category of birth order, Linda read the choices. “Stand there,” she announced, pointing to her left, “if you are the oldest child in your family.” She paused. “Stand over here,” she said, pointing a bit to the right, “if you are a middle child.” Pointing straight ahead, she continued, “Now stand here if you are the youngest child and stand over there if you are an only child. Stand on my far right if you are neither the oldest, nor youngest, nor middle.” She waited a moment. “Look around. Notice who is part of your group. Notice who is not. Think about how you feel being a part of the group.” It was interesting to distribute ourselves and fascinating to see who went in which group, who was in the same group, and how some groups were quite large and others very small.
Leaders inspire confidence, are flexible, and bring out the best in others. Number one, though, I think, is inspiring confidence. ~Kathy
We sorted ourselves by comfortable categories like hand dominance and birth order; we also addressed tougher issues such as religion, the socioeconomic status into which we were born, and the socioeconomic status in which we currently place ourselves. Examples of categories that can be used in this exercise are found in Figure 10 on p. 150.
Figure 10. Social Identifiers Activity
- New Englander
- from another country
- African American or black
- European American or white
- Latino or Latin American
- Middle Eastern
- Multiracial or biracial
- Native American
- Pacific Islander
- South Asian
- oldest child
- middle child
- youngest child
- only child
- neither oldest, youngest, nor middle child
Socioeconomic situation growing up:
- low income
- working class
- middle class
- upper middle class
- upper class or wealthy
Socioeconomic situation today:
- low income
- working class
- middle class
- upper middle class
- upper class or wealthy
- glasses or contacts
- no glasses or contacts
Family structure growing up:
- nuclear family
- single-parent family
- family of divorce
- blended family
- extended family (being raised by a grandparent or other relative)
- family with another configuration
Family structure today:
- nuclear family
- single-parent family
- family of divorce
- blended family
- extended family (living with a grandparent or other relative)
- family with another configuration
- meat eater or nonvegetarian
Familiarity with gays and lesbians:
- Someone in your immediate family is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning.
- Someone in your extended family is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning.
- A close friend is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning.
- One or more acquaintances are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning.
- As far as you know, no family member, friend, or acquaintance is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning.
- not now or not always fully able-bodied
- always fully able-bodied
I was surprised a few times at how individuals identified themselves on certain issues. Once, a teacher with whom I had worked for years placed herself in a different racial category than I expected. This sorting process was repeated more than a dozen times, taking about 30 minutes. As noted, we were not allowed to talk during this exercise. The silence kept us on task and also allowed a myriad of reactions and questions to ferment in our minds. I remember thinking that I really wanted to talk with someone about what was happening.
After we had sorted and resorted ourselves, the next step was meeting in groups of five. We were given an hour and 15 minutes to debrief what we saw and felt and to speculate about the implications for us as educators. When Linda gave us this assignment, I remember thinking, Seventy-five minutes? We don't need that much time—and I have other things to do! I was wrong. In fact, precisely because we had more than an hour, we talked and talked and talked. There were some awkward silences, but they led to productive interactions. Because we had so much time to talk, we moved beyond the superficial (“I was surprised to see that there were so many vegetarians”) and were able to talk about some significant issues. We discussed, for example, how it affects our faculty that so many of us came from intact homes. Are we perhaps less sensitive to children of separation and divorce? Or are we overly sensitive?
We also wondered about the implications of so many of us being the oldest child in the family. Most of the faculty members were raised in a middle-class setting, and we talked about how this might affect how we deal with families who are from wealth or poverty. Race was a topic, and we talked about the racial composition of our staff and student body in comparison to the racial contexts where we grew up, went to school, and live today. We talked about the various categories that were called out and speculated on how difficult it might have been for others to self-identify. We also shared how, occasionally, it was hard for us to do so. There was a higher comfort level in sharing in the small group than was present in stepping out in front of everyone.
Afterward, I talked to individuals who met in different groups, and there was one constant: All the conversations were fascinating and open. This social identifiers activity caused us to look at one another in different ways, facilitating our appreciation and understanding of one another. It also set the stage for us to talk about our backgrounds and characteristics, both the salient and the hidden, and their possible influence on us as individuals and as educators.
As productive as this activity was, we made a mistake in doing it only with teachers and administrators. Several of us agreed that we had missed an opportunity by not involving the rest of our staff. Better late than never, we repeated the process a few months later with our remaining staff members. Once again, I participated, but the teachers who had taken part in the activity in the spring did not. The goal remained the same: raising differences in a positive way and helping us begin to understand and accept one another. Their feedback about the activity was equally positive. Later, we did this activity with members of our board of directors, mostly noneducators, and the results were also quite good.
A faculty should love, learn, cry, play, and grow together. ~Angie
I don't mean to overestimate this activity; after all, it was but a couple of hours during one inservice session. I cite it here, though, because it stems from an attitude that all school leaders need to have. Once we recognize the importance of pushing diversity issues with adults, it is our responsibility to find ways to help our staff grow in this area. As in so many other areas, though, even the best school leader needs the assistance of others. I have found that an active faculty Diversity Committee is essential in this quest. At New City School, this group helps frame the inservice activities that support diversity (planning the social identifiers activity, for example), talks about issues of diversity and how our school can improve, and often supports a diversity book club. Last summer, the group chose The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. During the previous summer, we read
Boys and Girls Learn Differently and A Mind at a Time. The group has also read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?; Daughters; White Teacher; Warriors Don't Cry; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These titles were also noted in Chapter 2 when I discussed forming a book group as a tool to pursue collegiality. Collegiality is always the goal, but sometimes a title is chosen that also furthers our appreciation for and understanding of an issue, in this case diversity.
Staff. With diversity issues, as with so many other areas, our staff members are crucial to our success. They represent the front line in dealing with students' parents; they often interact with our students; they always deal extensively with faculty members. They need to know that an understanding and appreciation of human diversity is important. This means that they should be included, as appropriate, in inservice activities. Although it doesn't make sense to have a secretary and custodian attend a presentation on teaching phonics or preparing for AP tests, it does make sense to include them in any dialogue that addresses diversity.
We need to consciously include all staff members in holiday parties, showers, birthday celebrations, and the like. One of my favorite philosophers and authors, J. K. Rowling, notes this in
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). When speaking to Harry Potter, Sirius says, “If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals” (p. 525). I find the word inferior objectionable, but Sirius's point is a valid one. We must make our staff members, typically the lowest paid people with the least glamorous jobs, feel valued, respected, and appreciated.
Parents. Parents need to understand how hard a school is working on diversity, and they should be invited to be part of the effort. For years, for example, we have hosted a Diversity Dinner and Dialogue (DD&D). The motivation for this dinner stems from the realization that working and playing with others of different races is usually easier for our students than it is for their parents. Most of our students' parents grew up in segregated areas, and most of them work and live in settings that are not especially diverse, certainly not as diverse as our school. The DD&D started with the recognition that despite their differences in skin color and economic status, our students' parents and our staff members often share similar interests.
Parents and staff members were invited to come for dinner and chat about issues of their choosing. On each table was a large sign to indicate what would be discussed that evening. Choices included politics, sports, gardening, automobiles, cooking, travel, books, working out, movies, and hobbies. Parents chose a topic/table and chatted over dinner. Note that racial relations was not offered as a topic. We felt that this topic would be on everyone's mind, given the stated purpose of the evening, and we didn't want to inhibit conversation by offering a potentially contentious issue. Of course, people at many of the tables did wind up talking about race in one way or another.
The DD&D was a wonderful success. Afterward, people told me that they really enjoyed talking in-depth to others who were of different races and backgrounds than they were. Many of these same people, of course, had seen one another in the halls or stood next to one another on the soccer sidelines for years.
We've discovered we need a “Civility Plan”; we need to offer respite for the generally positive people from the generally negative. ~Barry
After a few years of using the DD&D to facilitate conversation, the event evolved to inviting speakers to talk with parents, faculty, and staff about issues of diversity over dinner. These issues ranged from Jew-Arab relations in the Middle East, to responding to 9-11, to segregation in the United States, to gays and lesbians. Recently we began to offer a second diversity event each year for parents, with more of an entertainment focus.
A couple of years ago, our faculty Diversity Committee planned an inservice day to address gay and lesbian issues. A panel composed of New City School parents who are gay or lesbian spoke with the faculty about what it was like to grow up homosexual. I share this information here, in talking about building relationships with students' parents within the context of diversity, rather than in Chapter 10, which deals with parental involvement, because we used the activity as a tool to let our parents know what we value and what we do.
The morning of the inservice session, prior to hearing from the panel, our faculty confronted a large sheet of paper, divided into a grid. The purpose was to elicit our personal experiences and comfort levels with people who are gay or lesbian. We were each given small adhesive circles and were asked to place them in the cells that best described our experiences with gays and lesbians. The categories are shown in Figure 11.
Figure 11. Interactions with Gay and Lesbian People
I do not know anyone who is gay or lesbian.
I know people who are gay or lesbian.
I have a family member who is gay or lesbian.
There are gay and lesbian members of my religious community.
I have gay and lesbian neighbors.
I am close to someone who is gay or lesbian.
Responding to this simple chart accomplished two important purposes. First, it set the tone for the day by causing each of us to reflect on our own experiences and by enabling us to see how we compared to others on our faculty. Second, after the inservice day was over, this large piece of paper was posted in our front hall for our students' parents to see, with this explanation: “Last week's faculty inservice day dealt with homophobia. We began by indicating our experiences with gays and lesbians and then heard from a panel of New City School gay and lesbian parents. Our goal is to create a school in which everyone feels safe and valued and in which all of us appreciate and respect one another.” I also noted the day's focus in my weekly Friday parent letter. Communicating what we are doing widens the circle by bringing more parents into the conversation.
As with so many other areas of leadership, though, we cannot judge our effectiveness on whether or not we please everyone. If we are good, then for sure we won't please everyone. This realization is captured in a continuation of a previous story. Earlier in the chapter, I talked about the meeting in which the New City School board member asked what she would see if she were in the building at midnight. “Would I know how much our school values diversity?” she asked. I shared that a rich discussion ensued and that we agreed that our physical setting needed to portray our values. I didn't share how the discussion ended, however.
After 15 to 20 minutes of that discussion, someone asked, “This conversation is great, but how will we know if we are successful?” One of my wisest board members responded, “We've just heard from a black parent who was uncomfortable with how our school looks, and it is clear that we have been remiss.” He paused for emphasis. “If we are successful in making her comfortable, which we want to do, then my guess is that we will know this because some of our white families will feel that we are doing too much.”
We need to respect others' opinions, listen to understand, and know that healthy tension builds a good team. ~Michael
The room remained quiet as we all grappled with the insight he offered us. As in so many other complex areas, there is no solution that satisfies everyone. Trying to make everyone happy is a sure road to frustration and failure. Instead, we need to decide what is important and move forward, recognizing that any action will cause some reaction, angst, and discomfort. The job of the school leader is to constantly push forward and be prepared for the inevitable repercussions. The goal is not to avoid such feelings but to minimize them and to ensure that they occur where they are appropriate. For example, in a predominantly white school such as mine, if the goal is to help everyone be comfortable around issues of race, we need to realize that some people, those at each end of the attitude continuum, are going to be unhappy. As my board member pointed out, some whites will feel that we are doing too much; some blacks will feel that we aren't doing enough. Knowing that these tensions will exist and being willing to accept them puts us in a position to be successful.
Personal Commitment to Diversity
School leaders are always on display. What we do is noted, dissected, and analyzed. This scrutiny means that the big things are important, and the little things often become the big things. Do we make a point of greeting everyone with the same degree of enthusiasm? Do we chat with everyone? It is important that every parent feel known, and it is even more important that those who are in the minority feel this way. If we don't have enough time to be everywhere and greet everyone, do we make a point of ensuring that those we do talk with are not just the wealthiest or the most powerful or those who share our racial or demographic profile? When we deal with issues of diversity, do we make a point to hear all sides?
We spend so much time supporting students and parents that sometimes people forget that we need that support, too. ~Sheryl
One of the characteristics that sets effective school leaders apart is their willingness to accept diversity as an issue. That means, as I've described, that they must be willing and comfortable in considering diversity—the diversity of diversities—in almost every situation. They must consciously work to see how others, others who are different in some way, might look at a situation because, in part, of that difference. School leaders must recognize that even if they believe that their school is perfect in the diversity arena (and, of course, no school is perfect in any arena), others may not see it that way, particularly those whose history rightfully causes them to be wary. It is imperative to put race on the table and for a school leader to talk openly about racial aspects of situations and how people of different races will see situations from varying perspectives. Solutions often do not come easily for issues that intersect with diversity, so it is of the utmost importance that the principal be aware of the tensions and history that can accompany them.
Because this issue is so important and because the school leader's plate is so full, one consideration is to appoint a faculty member to be a Diversity Coordinator. Without abrogating any of the principal's responsibilities, this individual can play the moral compass role, ensuring that everything at the school—from the hiring process, to the design and placement of advertisements, to the formal and informal curriculum, to the school calendar—is done with an awareness of its possible effect on diversity issues. This person could be the principal, of course, but there is something to be gained from having another faculty member live and breathe the school's diversity issues. If another person plays this role, it must be clear to everyone that the Diversity Coordinator has the ear of the principal and that her recommendations have clout.
Infusing diversity issues into our schools and diversity awareness into our leadership styles is not an option. If we are to prepare students and lead teachers, we have to spend time and energy to create a setting in which human diversity is understood and appreciated. If we fail to do this, our message is that “everyone is the same”; of course, that is ludicrous. That attitude is costly to everyone. When issues of diversity are ignored, they simply accumulate and tensions increase. By treating all people as if they are the same, we respect no one's unique contributions. Whenever we homogenize people, we all lose. If schools are to become settings in which everyone, children and adults alike, can grow, they must be places in which everyone, children and adults alike, feels safe, comfortable, respected, and appreciated.