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Considerations for Creating a Culturally Inclusive Environment in Schools

By Kenya J. Washington

Initiating the Shift

Some institutions believe that if they hire faculty and staff from various parts of the world, this demonstrates their commitment to diversity. But what about those potential colleagues who are internationally minded but may have never worked overseas? They may have little to no international experience but do exemplify international mindedness.

When hiring, we can often fall into the idea that working in several international schools equates with being internationally minded, and therefore, makes such candidates natural contributors towards creating and maintaining a culturally inclusive environment. This, I would argue, is a falsehood. 

As mindful educators, we understand the power of modeling attributes related to inclusivity and how we hope to see our students learn to do the same. These attributes or behaviors include looking for the missing voice or perspective and being self-reflective educators and leaders. On-going reflection and action towards further inclusion is essential as we look to create a culturally inclusive environment. But how do we create such an environment?

Here, I would like to consider the elements that make up a culturally inclusive education system, suggesting that it begins with individuals. What would it mean to move away from a checklist of items we can simply include in our schools and classroom space, shifting away from celebrating diversity with food, flags, and festivals? How powerful would it be to move towards systemically acknowledging who is in our schools, classrooms, hallways, and offices, and who among them sits at the table to help make important governing decisions? 

Tone. Choice of words. Nonverbal communication. Intentionality.

I would suggest there are three areas educators and leadership might consider when building and seeking to maintain a culturally inclusive environment:

Engaging in ongoing self-reflection

As someone, like many of you, who works in an international school setting, I often find myself thinking about who I am in relation to my students, colleagues, and the families I support. It can sometimes be second nature to acknowledge our positive professional impact on the schools in which we work. Paradoxically, we can often shy away from that impact and acknowledgment when it comes to our cultural identities and personal narratives.

I would argue that our narratives are intertwined with the professional impact we have. Our identities carry weight in how we interact with and how we are perceived by our constituents. Consequently, our experiences factor into how we perceive and, in turn, deliver information, as educators and leaders. Your gender, race, socioeconomic status, languages spoken or linguistic ability, sexual orientation, religious/spiritual belief systems—just to name a few—help form perspective. When we truly acknowledge this, we can continuously engage in assembling the building blocks necessary for a most authentic experience of inclusivity that will be felt not only by us, but by our most important constituents: our students.

Think about how we show up in the classroom, at faculty/leadership/team meetings, department meetings, student events, or in the hallways. When it comes to curriculum-based decisions, do we think about the most salient concepts we want our students to understand as globally minded citizens?

In instances where we can have influence, we might want to consider how the curriculum is implemented. What about decisions that involve classroom management or discipline? In my current role, this often comes to mind, as a young woman of color, U.S.-born, English native speaker positioned to develop and implement policies around discipline and student life. For me, ongoing and purposeful reflection is key as I consider what fairness and equity look like to my constituents.

At times, I have dealt with disputes in which race or religion were at the heart of the conflict. I am reminded: it is crucial to be ever cognizant of the role I play in helping to resolve a dispute and of my position within an institutional power structure that I might represent in the eyes of the students involved. Let’s not underestimate the current generation: students are cognizant of this.

Considering possible power dynamics 

Whether we are teachers, teaching assistants, heads of department, or deans/year heads, it is helpful to think about our roles within the school’s organizational structure, and how students understand themselves in relation to that structure. Here we can begin to think about our communication and leadership styles, and about the interplay between these approaches and our own cultural perspectives.

Managing nuanced communication with colleagues, families, and students is often seen as integral to our work as international school educators and leaders. Skilled and appropriate communication is considered as the “it” factor of successful leaders in this sector. Why is what we say and how we receive information relevant in our learning communities? When communicating or messaging, how might we reconsider our tone, choice of words, and non-verbal cues? Is our choice of words (i.e., the use of neutral language) creating a more inclusive feel? Do we at times subconsciously support points of view that heavily echo our own biased belief systems and ideals?

Owning our shortcomings and making the shift

It is often assumed that working in diverse settings naturally leads to the development of cultural competence and therefore decreases prejudicial behaviors and assumptions. This, however, is another unfounded belief (Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, & Christ 2011). Continuous work on understanding our own personal biases and intentionally shifting away from received thought patterns is required if we are truly committed to doing better.

Let’s admit it: we all have biases! These biases are often harmful, causing us to engage in the unintentional stereotyping of our colleagues—or even our students—through the words we choose, or if we even choose to intervene when faced with students engaging in identity-based bullying. Because the intentionality of our actions, or lack thereof, may not be of malice, it is easy not to own the fact that we may have engaged in bias-related assumptions or inaction. This denial, therefore, can make it more difficult to make an intentional shift towards a more inclusive environment. 

How do we consider messaging and the power of words as we make the shift towards further inclusivity? From self-reflection should come questions such as, “Why did I…?” and “What was the visible impact?” or “What impact might have gone unnoticed?” 

Engaging in ongoing self-reflection and inventory work, considering one’s cultural lens and the power dynamics at play, and making the intentional shift—this is the hard work. In taking it up, we ought to be closer to creating and maintaining a culturally inclusive experience for all.

Kenya J. Washington of the United Nations International School in New York City has over 15 years of secondary school experience in international education in the areas of student support services/counseling and administration and leadership. 


Jean Haar and Jerry Robicheau, Mankato State University, MACTE Fall 2007 Conference

Presentation “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Key Principles and Practices,” Dr. Ken Springer, professor of education and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Methodist University

Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, & Christ. April, 2011: Recent Advances in Intergroup Theory.

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