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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

Creating a Community of Difference

Staying focused on relationships, understanding, and dialogue can help leaders deliver academic excellence and social justice to all students.

I sat in the principal's office while she described some of the challenges of Southside School. Located in the lower mainland area of British Columbia, it had the highest poverty and transiency rates in the district. Ninety-seven percent of the students lived in low-rent apartments and more than half spoke a home language other than English. Marlene, the principal, suddenly added, “I almost forgot—a parent assaulted a student today; I'm sorry, but we may be interrupted if the police officer arrives.”
I reflected on her words and on some of the other challenges I'd learned about over the course of my research—the press for accountability, market forces, high-stakes testing, e-learning, growing diversity, changing enrollment patterns, higher expectations for parental participation—and I was reminded of the complex role of the education leader. The following day, a new principal asked me, “How do education leaders keep from losing their way?”
Phrased somewhat differently, the question becomes, How should a leader lead in tough times? My response may seem beguilingly simplistic: Ground yourself in the bedrock moral principles of social justice and academic excellence for all students and pay careful attention to relationships, understanding, and dialogue.
A successful education leader must attend to both social justice and academic excellence because one implies the other. For example, Marlene could not boast about the excellence of her 5th graders' achievement if all of the aboriginal students in the class had dropped out or been suspended. In today's context of diversity—whether of ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or socioeconomic circumstances—teachers can ensure that all students feel accepted and included in the school by considering the potential of what I call communities of difference (Shields, 2003).
Although we generally think of community in terms of what binds participants together—shared norms, beliefs, and values—communities of difference are based not on homogeneity but on respect for difference and on the absolute regard for the intrinsic worth of every individual. Members of such communities do not begin with a dominant set of established norms but develop these norms together, with openness and respect, as they share their diverse perspectives.

Relationships As the Cornerstone of Community

The deliberate and moral creation of a community of difference requires building relationships with each member of that community. I think of Sonny, a tall, handsome boy who sat silently in the back of my 7th grade French class in my first year of teaching. He refused to respond. He never did his homework. I cajoled, threatened, yelled, pleaded, ignored, gave detentions—nothing worked. One day in desperation I said, “Fine. If you won't work here, then come to my house after school and we'll work there.” To my surprise, he agreed. I made him a cup of hot chocolate and we sat at the dining room table, declining the verbs être and avoir. Suddenly he blurted out, “My mother was married Saturday and I wasn't invited!” He told me about his father, a U.S. serviceman who had been stationed in Labrador, and his mother, an Inuit woman. They had never married. Sonny's father was long gone and his mother had had a series of boyfriends. After a minor disagreement with his mother's fiancé, Sonny had been banished to a shed behind the house in the minus-40-degree temperature of the Labrador winter. Social Services found him and moved him 25 miles away to a school dormitory.
Usually when the Sonnys of the world come to mind, educators shake their heads sadly. How can we expect Sonny to do well in French? After all, he has no parental support, no role models, no quiet place to work, no one who really seems to care for him. Once I might have joined in the litany of despair. But now I urge education leaders to reject such deficit thinking. When I took the time to get to know Sonny as a person and develop a respectful relationship with him, he began to respond. I had met some of his basic needs for affirmation and belonging simply by listening and being there for him. He began to answer in class and complete his homework—not just in my class, but in other classes as well. He did not become a star student, but he passed all of his courses.
Sometimes “Sonny” is a teacher like Mr. Jay, who is longing for retirement, bemoaning the “good old days” when students automatically respected their teachers; or a principal like Ms. Cooke, who is so focused on running the school smoothly that discipline becomes preeminent. To create a community of difference, education leaders must take responsibility for developing a meaningful relationship with each person they encounter—student, teacher, parent, board member, or legislator.

Developing Understanding of Bedrock Moral Principles

Some educators claim that social justice and academic excellence are antithetical; I believe they are inextricably intertwined. Education must promote academic excellence, defined not simply in terms of scores on standardized tests, but by high-quality performance indicators on a wide range of outcomes. Moreover, for a school to claim academic excellence, success must extend equally to members of advantaged and disadvantaged, dominant and minority groups. To create communities of difference grounded in social justice and academic excellence, education leaders and community members together must develop shared understandings around certain criteria to guide both short-term and longer-term decision making—criteria such as justice, caring, democracy, and optimism. Together, these concepts can guide education leaders who are trying to navigate today's difficult times.

A Just and Caring Education

Education that is just and caring attends to both the contexts and the outcomes of the learning experience. It considers students' opportunity to learn as well as their achievement; it provides opportunities for students to make sense of such complex topics as color or ethnicity, creating places where they may share their lived experiences and encounter one another's realities with honesty and respect. Just and caring education addresses the needs, abilities, and interests of all students by offering a range of programs, including advanced classes and college prep and vocational and technology programs. Moreover, access is free and open to all students. It is patently unjust for educators to make assumptions about appropriate placements on the basis of such markers as race, class, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity rather than on individual abilities and interests.
All students must have the opportunity to graduate in similar numbers, with similar high levels of achievement, and with opportunities that enable them to follow their dreams. Conversely, we must not be so fixed on achievement that we neglect students' social and emotional needs. Education that is just must also be caring—not in a fuzzy, “feel-good” way, but in terms of being committed to the welfare and success of every student. Justice and care require us to persevere with students like Sonny, to develop relationships with them, and to find pedagogical approaches that help them succeed.
To engage students in their own learning, educators must take account of difference. Sometimes, in well-intentioned attempts to be kind, we focus on achieving a “color-blind” society, without really considering what that means. When we say we are color-blind, we are denying the very difference that motivated the statement in the first place. Moreover, to remove race and ethnicity from the discourse is to deny the richness of the community. This approach does not increase tolerance but shuts down the dialogue, making it impossible to address potential tensions and misunderstandings. Acknowledging differences within our school community enables us, for example, to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, or to discuss the social pressures that created the Chinese underground community in Pendleton, Oregon, during the completion of the transnational railway.
It is not easy to acknowledge difference, for in doing so we often risk being misunderstood; but when we ignore difference, we are rejecting huge chunks of some students' lives, denying them the opportunity to become an integral part of the community of difference. And this is true not just for ethnicity, but for such characteristics as religion, class, socioeconomic status, and gender orientation.
To create just and caring schools, we will take seriously Grumet's (1995) clarification that “curriculum is the conversation that makes sense of things” (p. 19). Educators will talk with students about various lived experiences—about what it means to be poor, what it was like to live in a refugee camp, what racism feels like in their experience, or perhaps, for some, what privilege feels like. Such a curriculum means that educators will help students explore difficult subjects in safe, sensitive, and respectful environments.
Education leaders must help their staff explore how to develop such environments and understand the implications of working with parents and community members. We cannot simply teach facts; we must encourage students to bring their own experiences to the sense-making conversation.
I still sometimes hear teachers, even in schools with predominantly American Indian populations, say, “Columbus discovered America.” We know that for some students, however, this version of the “discovery of America” is simply not true. I have also heard teachers speak of Brown v. Board of Education as though the decision ended segregation and racism in the United States; yet we know that many students suffer the continued effects of racism. Ignoring students' varied experiences sends the message that they have something about which they must remain silent, perhaps even ashamed. To develop communities of difference, we must create the spaces in which subject matter is informed by just and caring conversations that allow all students to share their lived experiences without feeling that the only acceptable norms are those of the white middle class. If we neglect the conversation, we fail to make our schools relevant, meaningful, and accessible to all students.

A Democratic and Optimistic Education

Education that is democratic and optimistic opens doors of opportunity to all students. A democratic education includes safeguards that protect minority rights. Hence, an education leader does not simply issue an invitation to participate but makes certain that everyone knows what this participation entails. The leader acknowledges that although many parents know the norms and practices of the school system, many others do not. Translating newsletters or invitations to parent-teacher interviews into other languages may be only a first step. Education leaders must also ensure that the parents know what is expected of them. For the parent-teacher interview, for example, parents need to know whether their child should accompany them, how long they should stay, and how they should dress. Such information better permits everyone to participate on an equal footing, without fear or embarrassment.
In our public schools, students whose parents are able to provide such advantages as travel, private lessons, and magazine subscriptions are sitting in class with students whose parents struggle to put food on the table and clothes on their children's backs. Educators know too well that the achievement gap between these groups continues to widen, in part because the advantaged group starts with knowledge that is often more congruent with education success. Sometimes we shrug our shoulders, protesting that educators cannot be expected to fix the inequities of society at large. Yet schools are part of that society. Educators need to remember that our education systems are generally designed in ways that advantage middle-class students and disadvantage others. We cannot accept and perpetuate inequities but, instead, must work to overturn the barriers and eliminate gaps in student achievement.
An optimistic education provides all students with opportunities to learn regardless of the knowledge they have accrued outside school. Having had prior opportunities to learn and having the ability to learn are two different things. Thus, we might need to provide one student with additional computer and Internet access or invite another to join us on a trip to the post office or public library. Educators must do whatever is necessary to provide all students with meaningful opportunities for participation and success.
A community of difference is inherently optimistic. It includes all students and their families regardless of their backgrounds. It legitimizes the experiences of those whose lives are different from those assumed by dominant norms and cultural values. It acknowledges that students and parents do not all have the same resources or the same goals; moreover, it takes different realities into account, never assuming that parents who do not or cannot participate in school life are unconcerned about their children's success. A democratic education is optimistic because it permits the full participation of all students and prepares them equally for choices and challenges beyond school.

Dialogue: The Lifeblood of a Community of Difference

We education leaders can find our way through these tough times by understanding that we are not powerless—that, indeed, we hold power to make decisions that profoundly influence, for good or ill, the lives of teachers and students in our schools. An education leader who wants to create a community of difference will use that power deliberately and morally to promote meaningful relationships and deep understanding. A primary way to accomplish these goals is through dialogue.
Dialogue is not just talk. It is a way of life—a way of encountering others and treating them with absolute regard. Dialogue is the basis for understanding difference, for celebrating the diversity of our school communities, and for creating community within difference rather than ignoring difference. It is the lifeblood that grounds a community in the bedrock principles of social justice and academic excellence for all.
In Martin Buber's terms, dialogue implies an I-Thou relationship. As Paulo Freire emphasized, it requires treating the other person as a Thou, or Subject, not as an it, or object. Freire (2000) described the relationship of dialogue to education in this way:Dialogue is . . . a relationship between two Subjects. Each time the “thou” is changed into an object, an “it,” dialogue is subverted and education is changed to deformation. (p. 89)
When I focused solely on Sonny's performance in French class, I deformed him. When I opened the doors for a relationship with him, I took the first steps toward transformation. When Marlene took a call from the spouse of the offending parent and patiently explained why, in the interests of safety and respect for all students, she had needed to call the police, she was trying to transform an unfortunate incident into an opportunity for learning and new relationships.
School leaders can avoid inequities and injustices in their decision making by first considering this question: Who may be —alized, disadvantaged, or excluded by this decision, policy, or practice—and whose voices have we not heard? If education leaders are to transform rather than deform, then the dialogue that occurs in schools must focus on social justice by bringing the experiences of all students and their families into the sense-making conversation. It will focus on academic excellence by ensuring that students in all programs are expected to achieve to high standards in meaningful ways that will open opportunities for them beyond school. It will focus on education that is just, caring, democratic, and optimistic for teachers, students, and all members of the community.

Transforming Our Schools

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the best leaders operate on the souls of their followers” (Temes, 1996, p. 80). Good leaders get to know their followers, learn from their perspectives, understand their values, respect their beliefs, take time to treat each person with absolute regard, and bring them together in community. The challenges are abundant, the responsibility awesome, and the need for moral leadership incalculable. If we are to avoid deforming the souls of the students, we must steer through the many distractions that assail us from all sides. We will lead morally, deliberately, and dialogically to achieve both social justice and academic excellence for all the students entrusted to us.

Freire, P. (2000). Education for critical consciousness. In A. M. A. Freire & D. Macedo (Eds.), The Paulo Freire reader (pp. 80–110). New York: Continuum.

Grumet, M. R. (1995). The curriculum: What are the basics and are we teaching them? In J. L. Kincheloe & S. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Thirteen questions (2nd ed., pp. 15–21). New York: Peter Lang.

Shields, C. M. (2003). Good intentions are not enough: Transformative leadership for communities of difference. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Temes, P. S. (1996). Teaching leadership/teaching ethics: Martin Luther King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In P. S. Temes (Ed.), Teaching leadership: Essays in theory and practice. New York: Peter Lang.

End Notes

1 Names of schools and individuals are pseudonyms.

Carolyn M. Shields is head of the Department of Educational Studies and director of the School Leadership Centre at The University of British Columbia.

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