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Six Ways To Help Your Schools Be More Inclusive

This resource is provided by ACSA Partner4Purpose FranklinCovey Education and was written by Stephen M.R. Covey. 

It’s time we learn how to leverage the amazing impact of an inclusive culture within our schools. The work done in schools today is increasingly collaborative, innovative and creative, and diversity can drive all of those things. Interestingly, simply having a diversity doesn’t guarantee performance, in fact, many studies say just the opposite. It’s true that great strength is born out of differences. But research consistently shows that, without trust, diverse teams and organizations frequently underperform – unable to leverage the inherent and incredible value that comes from our differences. Here’s the key: without trust our differences are divisive. When we have trust however, our differences become our strengths. High-trust chokes out divisiveness. Try creating true inclusion in a low-trust culture, or with a boss that isn’t trusted. It won’t work.  True inclusion is a natural, unforced result of a high-trust culture where differences are embraced, and even sought after. You can behave your way to a high trust, inclusive school that values and celebrates differences, and sees those differences as a powerful advantage for performance.

It takes courage to stand up to bias and advocate for a welcoming and fair culture at your schools. But courage alone won’t ensure that you actually make a difference.

Here are 6 strategies that can increase your chances.

1. Model fairness and inclusivity in your own behavior.

It feels good to support a cause and think, “I’m an ally,” but beware the common trap of thinking that just because you’re in favor of reducing bias, you’re doing all you need to.

Some diversity experts suggest that the most effective thing you can do to address unconscious bias is to focus less on changing others’ behaviors and more on changing your own.

So, where in the course of your work could you be more vigilant about disrupting bias-prone behaviors? Maybe you could reconsider the people you ask to give input on an initiative, those you choose to invite to meetings, or the way you word an email.

As with any skill, identifying bias and becoming more inclusive takes ongoing exploration and practice. When you find a strategy or intervention that works for you, share it with others to spread your positive impact (see #4 for more).

2. Show support for and learn from people who have been the target of bias.

One of the most powerful ways to understand the insidious and harmful nature of unconscious bias is to hear the personal, real experiences of people you know. Just about everyone has a story.

Simply hearing these stories doesn’t fix things, but it does give you the opportunity to show support (e.g., “I’m sorry that happened to you”) and raise your awareness of the kinds of behaviors you should watch out for in yourself and others.

And while it’s not fair to expect people from target groups to teach you how to address bias, sometimes it does make sense to seek their expertise.

Books are a wonderful way to learn from others’ stories. When is the last time you audited the book stacks in your classroom or school libraries? Celebrate diverse authors and seek books that depict inclusively in gender, sexuality, race, culture, class, and ability.

Seek to understand the diversity in your school and avoid grouping people based on simple commonalities. For example, one principal spoke of the English Language Learners and their families in his school community. While a large portion of the students and families spoke Spanish, they originate from very different Spanish-speaking countries with diverse cultural backgrounds.

“We think we see the world as it is, when in fact we see the world AS we are.”
-Stephen R. Covey

3. Develop a few responses you can use when you encounter instances of potential bias.

Publicly calling out students or adults as biased is much more likely to make them feel defensive or ostracized than it is to inspire them to change their behavior. A subtler, more effective approach is to ask people to clarify or reconsider a comment or behavior in a way that gives them a chance to save face (after all, most people don’t intend to be biased).

Think of a few helpful responses ahead of time so you don’t draw a blank and say nothing or say something in the moment that you regret. Good options include questions you ask in a genuinely curious tone and phrases that share your own experience and that assume positive intent (e.g., “I don’t think you meant it this way, but…”).

A few examples you could use or modify for the setting and age group:

  • “I’m not sure I understand. What do you mean by X?”
  • “Do you think this is a problem with the person, or could it be a perception problem? Is there something else that we aren’t aware of?”
  • “How did you come to that conclusion?”
  • “I haven’t experienced that with this person. Do you perhaps mean assertive rather than abrasive?”
  • “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but some might find your comment hurtful.”
  • “I realize that some people might be okay with that term, but I’m uncomfortable with it. Would you be open to using instead?”

Naming bias, both unconscious and explicit, is a proactive measure to reduce potentially harmful instances of bias.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”    -Winston Churchill.

4. Foster a strong sense of belonging for all members of the school community.

Creating an inclusive culture means intentionally creating an emotional environment where all people feel welcomed and valued.

  • Seek out and amplify others’ good ideas.

Sometimes all it takes is one good listener to stop a group from overlooking or co-opting a person’s good idea (e.g., “Hae-Won brings up a good point. Can we discuss it?).

When you amplify good ideas from diverse sources, your group has the power to shift meeting culture from one where the loudest or most powerful voices prevail to one where the best and properly-credited ideas prevail.

  • Value and connect with families as partners.

When planning inclusive family engagement opportunities, pay special attention to access, native language, work schedule, and family composition.  One principal spoke of their, “Donuts with Dads,” yearly event.  “We realized the name of this event excluded children whose family environments did not conform to this one family model. We now call the event ‘Family Leadership Day.” Inclusive engagement strategies may mean redefining traditional engagement and inviting participation in ways that celebrate their genius and honor their story.

  • Empower voices and teach inclusiveness.

Develop systems that ensure all voices are heard and affirmed, including co-created classroom and school mission statements.  Leadership roles foster a sense of belonging for all. The physical and emotional environment should allow for all abilities to feel celebrated and welcomed. Audit your programs like Special Education to ensure all students feel safe and included in your school community.

Be intentional about teaching students and staff about how to value diversity and inclusion.  Lean on effective SEL curriculum, like the student and professional learning resources available through the Leader in Me process.

5. Speak with colleagues, students, and families about the importance of diversity and inclusion in education.

What can one person do against systemic ills, such as systematic educational inequities, a lack of diversity in hiring, or just plain apathy toward diversity and inclusion? More than you might think, especially if you’re persistent.

It all starts with talking about the issue and encouraging others to do the same. In certain environments, speaking up carries political risk. Choose your battles carefully, make your good intentions clear, and team up with others in order to both reduce risk and increase your chance of success.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • If your school or district has a survey, use it to give detailed feedback.

Particularly if you feel left out, you may cynically disregard employee surveys. But they provide an easy, anonymous way to share your unvarnished views with leadership. And if several people mention the same issue, it’s much harder to dismiss.

  • Flag exclusionary policies and practices.

Let’s say you notice that the Student Leadership Team is comprised of all boys or that the school website does not spotlight any special needs students. It’s worth sharing your observations with those heading up these efforts, along with your well-intentioned reason for raising the issue (e.g., “It’s important to signal that our schools value inclusion for the sake of our students and families”). Even if nothing changes right away, you’re planting seeds that will grow when the next person raises the issue.

  • Ask for statistics — and transparency — on diversity.

Is your school or district collecting data on hiring demographics, pay, or promotion disparities? If not, suggest that it start. If so, ask for those results to be published — research suggests that disclosure leads to gap reductions — and share your reasons for asking (e.g., “That way, we’ll all be able to take pride in what we’re doing well and be empowered to help improve the areas where we’re falling short”). The same goes for engagement survey results from staff, students, and their families. Even a question as simple as “Do you feel like you belong here?” can help gauge whether your school or district has an inclusive, healthy culture, or one in need of support. If your engagement survey doesn’t have inclusion-minded questions, you might send some ideas to your leadership team.

6. Be careful not to overcompensate — which can invite additional biases.

As you become more invested in shaping an inclusive culture around you, you may, ironically, become more susceptible to new bias pitfalls, such as:

  • Assuming a level of familiarity that’s unprofessional.

Just because you participate in diversity initiatives or have a diverse student population, doesn’t mean that you can tell a joke based on stereotypes or use a group-specific term at school. What you see as perfectly fine and within your comfort level, can be biased and hurtful in someone else’s eyes.

  • Giving fellow allies and people from underrepresented groups a pass for poor performance or behaviors.

It’s easy to favor students or colleagues who you’re close to or who align with your views. But it’s not fair or helpful, especially if you consistently judge them by a different standard, or shy away from providing helpful critical feedback.

  • Overattributing behaviors to bias.

When a decision or action seems unfair, it could be the result of bias but it could also be the result of poor communication, misaligned expectations, or any number of other factors not visible to you. When in doubt, ask questions about the situation before jumping to the conclusion that it’s simply a matter of bias.

Important note: This guide does not cover responding to illegal behaviors, such as discrimination and harassment. The line between unconscious bias and these illegal behaviors isn’t always clear. If someone’s behavior may have crossed this line, be sure to review your organization and state policies on harassment and discrimination, which may require you to report the incident, or contact HR for clarification.

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