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Creating Spaces for Belonging in Schools Through Courageous Leadership

By Ariane Baer-Harper
Creating Spaces for Belonging in Schools Through Courageous Leadership

Having worked in schools in different countries over the course of the past two decades, one thing has become incredibly clear, everything from how students feel they belong to staff development and retention, and even parent satisfaction, is improved through good organization and communication. It seems simple enough and yet we don't, as leaders, always allocate thoughtful time, processes, and space for these managerial tools. In turn, we run the risk of leading schools where people are assuming their roles and responsibilities without clarity and, because of this lack of strong ownership, don’t communicate to stakeholders what they are working on. For all of us who have worked in schools, we know how important it is to invest in building a positive and collaborative culture. Leaders who don’t focus on inclusiveness and staff development create spaces, often unwittingly, where mistrust ensues and people feel frustrated, unseen, and undervalued. When faculty and staff can’t feel that they truly belong then they will not feel safe enough to be their best. As school leaders, we need to create the right spaces for belonging so that everyone can thrive and perform at the level for which they were hired. The framework for this begins with organizing personnel and allocating resources to them so that they can build out strong policies, and it ends with ensuring that these systems have been properly communicated with consistency and transparency to all stakeholders.

The first part of this framework, which deals with organizational management, is to understand that every person in the school has value to offer. Find out what that is, be curious about it, and be willing to lean into what might be unfamiliar to you but may benefit the whole community. We need to be excellent listeners, and we need to have the courage to hear what others have to say, even if it is not what we want to hear. This latter point is often the most difficult part of the process because there is an underlying trepidation about hearing what people with strong opinions have to say. We need to be willing to lean into the possibility of change emerging from these conversations and putting our own egos aside.

Courageous leadership is being able to say to someone coming from a different background than yours, "I value your perspective and I want to hear it. Together, by valuing the voice of everyone, we can create a new reality where people are partners in growth and change.”

Secondly, once we have clarity on the value people will bring to a particular role, we must make sure that we have systems (policies and metrics) to ensure that the person can best do their role. Hiring someone for a particular role and then letting them assume what their responsibilities are without clear guidance and structure for development and growth is like asking a pilot to build a plane in flight and then being surprised that they can’t efficiently reach their destination. Not only is this laissez-faire management style unfair to the employee, but it also absolves the leader from any real ownership. No matter where your role lies in the hierarchy of an organizational chart, I believe that everyone needs some sort of management, whether it is in the form of regular feedback sessions, yearly performance appraisals, or transparency around new changes that will impact their role.

Courageous leadership is being consistent with those who look to you to lead, authentic, caring, and vulnerable. It is being willing to hear the different perspectives that may have long-term positive impact.

Once we have recognized the value people bring and have given them systems to thrive, the next step in creating an inclusive school culture is to allow them a voice to communicate, with transparency, how their role will impact the overall vision. When we trust people with the responsibility we have given them and provide them with tools and resources to do their job well, the next step is to make their role visible so that others can come to depend on what they bring to the table. In doing so, stakeholders are provided spaces to have a voice, be collaborative with each other, and have understanding of the common goals that will drive a school culture forward.

Courageous leadership is being able to empower others because we have taken the time to understand their value and allow them the ownership to create spaces of belonging and communication for those who need their support.

School governance has a responsibility to ensure that their school leaders are leading courageously so that school culture will naturally evolve into strong organizational structure and communication, curiosity about others, and supporting each other. To address tough questions, we must be ready to hear tough answers. And similarly, if we are asking the right questions, we are prepared to find the right answer. In school culture there is no room for the expression “perception is reality” because it is limiting, and schools are places of growth. It doesn’t give people the opportunity to do better when it comes to questioning their unconscious bias. It doesn’t give people the opportunity to lean into new perspectives and ideas. While perception may be reality, if we are creating a positive and inclusive community then it doesn’t have to be. As school leaders, we have a responsibility to regularly question what school culture we are creating and making a reality for others, and we need to ensure that everyone under our care feels safe, seen, and heard.


Ariane Baer-Harper is a school leader with over 20 years of experience in international education. She has launched schools in Africa and Europe, overseen school acquisitions and transitions and designed global programming and curriculum for schools K-12. A lead educator with the International Baccalaureate Organization, she has led school evaluation visits and worked with schools on how to develop their programs around the areas of scope and sequence, assessment, and diversity and authentic leadership. A public speaker who is passionate about creating inclusive school culture, Ariane speaks three languages and has worked in schools on almost every continent. She has been superintendent, head of school, associate head of school, director of global engagement, and has taught every grade from PreK - university. She has most recently been elected as head of school for Austin International School in Texas, United States of America.

LinkedIn: Ariane Baer-Harper 

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