I love my job as an educator and I love spending time with kids, especially teenagers. I believe each child should feel a sense of belonging at school, that is why I champion the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ). However, it is not only for our students but also for our colleagues. If our colleagues don’t feel that they belong, they will not be able to serve our students well. This is what makes the job of a DEIJ leader in schools important and challenging at the same time. Experience over time has changed the way I see and do this work. Through frustrations, disappointments, failures, and good wins as well, I’ve grown to see DEIJ work as a complicated marriage worth fighting for. On the one hand, it’s conflict work and on the other hand, it’s relational work.
To deal with conflicts, we have to maintain an open dialogue where the goal is not proving that we are right but making things right. To maintain a good relationship, we have to constantly work on it. It’s not linear, but cyclical, and just because we have already dealt with an issue, does not mean that we will not deal with it anymore or re-adjust our expectations as we grow and change. It also means that, oftentimes, we will take one step forward and three steps back. Consequently, as DEIJ practitioners, we constantly negotiate and regulate expectations, norms, and practices, which can take a toll on us and affect us negatively if we are not careful. I’ve thought about a few guidelines that can help us maintain our sense of self and wellbeing so that we can continue to do this important, complex, and rewarding work.
Guide One: Get To Know Yourself as Much as Possible
It can be difficult to get to know yourself, especially when people are constantly evolving; but in this context, it’s an important task to undertake in order to effectively extend your thinking and make you a better version of yourself. Without personal introspection and understanding, unprocessed emotions and insecurities can interfere with your growth. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people think, wanting or even needing other’s approval and validation. But these external affirmations can put too much emphasis on the ego and without regular praise, you may begin to question your values and self-worth. Good, constructive feedback from knowledgeable and experienced people can be beneficial to your personal growth. However, if you don’t have a strong sense of self, rather than truly listening to and learning from this feedback, you may get caught up in hurt feelings, pushing back, or even trying to prove you’re right or justify your position.
When you are getting closer to knowing who you are, you will understand that serving the cause is more important than belonging to the cause. When the importance of belonging to a cause outweighs the importance of the cause, you are more focused on finding and creating opportunities that validate your choice of doing this work and belonging to the cause rather than truly serving the cause. In other words, you spend more time trying to show and prove to people that you’re right. Your focus then becomes things that are out of your control and that leads to burnout. But if the focus is on serving the cause, and in the case of DEIJ work, creating a culture of belonging and inclusion for all, then the focus is not on an individual's vision. The cause is much bigger than that. You’re learning to know who you are and who you are becoming, and you don’t need to prove that to anyone. What actually matters is looking at how we can fix the problems we face. How do we get to a resolution? How do we find common grounds so we can all be part of the solution?
Guide Two: “The First Step to Engagement is Disengagement” (Simon Sinek)
As DEIJ leaders, we often face difficult conversations with our colleagues, particularly those who are resisting change, and sometimes this leads to insensitive comments that can trigger strong emotions. Here we have a choice. We can either act on those emotions and be confrontational with our colleagues and ultimately lose them, or we can stop, take a step back, listen, sit with our own emotions, and get curious. Why am I feeling this way? What is it that was said that got me this upset? What are my emotions telling me? Acknowledge and unpack these emotions. Once you know what’s going on, you can deal with them and then move on. Whether it takes 30 minutes or two days, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we work through this process, otherwise these unprocessed emotions become a distraction to our goals. Once our emotions are processed, we can then shift our attention to our goal and ask ourselves, what do I want from this conversation? Why did I go to speak to them in the first place? It’s only then that we can disengage ourselves and listen from our colleague’s frame of reference and not our own because the highest purpose here is progress or resolution. This is when we say to our colleague that “in the interest of building a safe place for everyone at work, I would love to have your thoughts. I want your input because I want you to be part of the solution. We need everyone, including you. Help me understand!”
Guide Three: Know Your School Community
As we get into these roles and settle in, it’s good to communicate and exchange with other DEIJ leaders from other schools to learn from each other, but we need to remember that our schools are different. Comparing and contrasting schools and wanting to do the same thing as another school did can be detrimental to our work. “The process is too slow and we’re not making progress. I need to push and challenge more, just like it was done at X school.” These are some of the thoughts I’ve had before. But X school’s DEIJ journey, as well as its environment, might be different from your school. If we think of DEIJ work as a complicated marriage that’s worth fighting for, then working on your marriage using someone else’s marriage toolkit might not work. You need to find your own toolkit and that requires spending time trying different tools until you figure out which ones work for you in your context. In order to find the right tools, it is important to get to know our own individual school cultures and members. Hearing and learning from other DEIJ leaders are important as long as we remember that our situations are different.
In their book School Culture Rewired, Gruenert and Whitaker offer a list of things that convey a school culture. They suggest we look at “the social glues that hold people together, the way things are done, deeply embedded beliefs and assumptions, the pattern behavior that distinguish us from them as well as a set of behaviors that seem strange to new employees” (2014). These things will indicate what ought to be celebrated, ignored, and ultimately what to anticipate. Spending time learning about our school communities will best prepare us for our roles as it will give us the knowledge we need to make a strategic plan with actions specifically designed for our schools and communities. But this can only be effective if done, planned, and mapped in conjunction with heads of school and senior leadership where questions, apprehensions, and negotiations will inform our work ahead, which brings me to the next point.
Guide Four: Have a Shared Vision and Values
It is important that DEIJ leaders and senior leadership have a shared understanding of the job responsibilities and challenges. It is essential to sit down with senior leadership and decide on shared values and a vision of what DEIJ work will look like and how it will show up in the community. Without shared values and a shared vision, it is easy for cliques to be created. It might seem to some that only a certain group does the work and others are viewed as “not willing” to do the work. This creates division and ultimately slows down the process and progress. Remember that our job is to bring people together and avoid the “us versus them” mentality. Moreover, without shared values and a shared vision, we end up being the only ones trying to make the marriage work, which never works.
Discuss what you want to see in your institution with senior leadership before going out on the field. For example, if one of your core values is to “embrace and respect the uniqueness of each individual of our community,” discuss what that means practically and how this shows up every day. Does that mean that we encourage everyone to live their authentic selves and show up as their true selves? Great! Do we have structures and systems put in place for people to be their true selves however they define it? This is important because we cannot ask people to be their true selves if the environment itself is not ready for people to see and support them. For example, if we have a teacher who shows up and asks everyone including colleagues, students, and parents to address them as “them” and “Teacher Smith” or “Mx Smith” because they are non-binary, are we going to be supportive? Will we as an institution be able to stand up to parents and other shareholders who express discontentment and say, “This is who we are and aspire to be. We are an inclusive school, and we embrace and respect the uniqueness of each individual of our community. We believe it is good for our students to be exposed to a great diversity of people and perspectives.” Can we as an institution do this, knowing that we might lose enrollments and the board might get involved. Does the board share our vision and values? This is only one example of the kinds of courageous discussions that we need to have before we tell people that they can be their true selves. If our answers to the questions above are no’s, see that as a first step in the right direction. We have had these important discussions and realized that we have work to do as an institution, and that is fine. What is not fine nor fair is to expect the DEIJ leader to fix an institutional challenge by themselves. Instead, a collective effort spread throughout the different parts of the organization led by both the DEIJ leader and senior leadership is required, so our school can live up to its vision and values.
This is a hard task to do. It is not only a step but an ongoing process, a strategic plan that represents mid-to-long term goals. It is both the foundation and frame of our DEIJ work. In other words, it is what will make or break our continuous efforts for making our schools a safe and inclusive place for all.
Guide Five: Explore Emotions
DEIJ work is both conflict and relational work and as such, emotions have a great role to play. When dealing with implicit biases, it can feel as if our identities are challenged and being confronted with the idea that we have either contributed directly or indirectly to systems that have harmed and left many people behind can be hard to take. Much harder is when, as educators, we come to realize that there is a chance that some of our students that we deeply care about were left behind due to our own implicit biases. In this case, grief, remorse, shame, and anger are only a few emotions that can be experienced. As DEIJ leaders, it is important that we recognize and understand this.
Susan David, in her book Emotional Agility, explains the importance of facing emotions with acceptance and generosity. If we want everyone to be part of the solution, it is important to give time to people to feel and validate their feelings because “when we don’t attend to emotions, they metastasize and they grow and when they grow, they can take over.” Consequently, we arm ourselves even more, and this can mean that we disengage completely and don’t do the work because it is very hard and painful to deal with our own emotions (David, 2016). Let’s say that we see a micro-aggression behavior. We should respond to that and speak to the person in private. I personally believe that a private conversation is always more effective than a public one (although debatable, depending on the act itself). As we’re having these conversations, we need to keep in mind that the purpose is not to shame the person, but to make space for a discussion on implicit biases and its impact on our students and staff. If the conversations become emotionally charged, it’s okay to give people space to feel and let them know that you understand. You can say something like, “I can see you’re upset. It’s hard. Yes, I know! And what I just said might feel like who you are is being challenged and that’s okay. I understand that this was never your intention. In some cases, like these, we need to move away from intention and focus more on the impact. Doing this work means that we’re just not going to feel good at times and that’s okay because it is through discomfort that we grow. We need everyone, including you, to make this school a place where everyone can belong. I am therefore asking you, as hard as it is, to fight the discomfort and not me.” You can even invite your colleague to circle back within the next few days and revisit this conversation. The point here is to keep people in the conversation and make them aware that it takes all of us to make it happen and that feeling the emotions we feel is part of the process for us to grow. As DEIJ leaders, coaching is part of our job as well.
Senior leadership needs to be in agreement on this practice because one thing that could ruin our efforts is that after this conversation, our colleague turns to leadership who then discredits the work done before. Which, on the one hand, takes away the opportunity for that person to lean into discomfort and to learn and grow. And on the other hand, perpetuates and safeguards exclusionary practices in our institution. This goes back to Guide Four. It is important to understand that by trying to reduce or avoid people’s discomfort, it can reinforce inequities.
The importance of knowing who you are and disengaging so that you can engage are even more important here because, as DEIJ leaders, we have to “be the bigger person.” Being a bigger person does not mean that we do not have boundaries. On the contrary, being a bigger person means that we understand that our mission is bigger than ourselves and that the highest purpose is improvement, not being right. It means that sometimes “we are way-seeking rather than truth seeking,” so when we have conversations with our colleagues, “we can instead look to tell, with them, the stories of their best future selves” (Alchin, 2022).
Guide Six: Make Parents Your Partners
Every parent wants what’s best for their child and, of course, they are willing to stand up for that belief. We, educators, may not always agree with what parents are fighting for or against but, ultimately, we have the same goal. We all want to develop well educated, thriving students. Oftentimes, we label parents as difficult, entitled, bigots, etc. when they push back against DEIJ work. But, what if instead of labeling them, we include them more in our conversations and initiatives? There’s a good chance that parents are afraid of a new initiative simply because they are misinformed, afraid, or have assumptions that might be wrong. It is up to us to reassure them and give them space to ask questions and hopefully relieve their fears. For example, if as a school we think it is important for our students to learn more about LGBTQ+ education, it might be a good idea to invite parents and share our plans with them. They might think that we are forcing on their children a certain set of values that is not ours to teach, but this will be our opportunity to set the record straight, discover their fears and apprehensions, and figure out together as partners how to deal with it while keeping in mind that we are preparing our students to become empathetic global citizens and that in our community each child should be treated with dignity and respect by everyone regardless of their backgrounds and identities.
If as a school, we believe in multilingualism and the importance of using translanguaging in our classes, teachers whose native language is not English are a great asset. Having parents’ meetings and informing them of our plans might remove the assumptions of some who believe their child won’t master English if they are not only taught by native speakers of English. Instead, we offer them another perspective informed by research and give them the opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns. This way, we can potentially change the narrative, inform parents, and hopefully bridge the gap between what parents think DEIJ work is and what we, as a school, believe it is.
Informing parents of any major new initiative will create important dialogues, get them involved, and inform us of what to anticipate and where the roadblocks are. More importantly, this will foster a relationship that can only be beneficial to making our schools more inclusive.
Guide Seven: Find Your People
Having a support system is very important as the work is extremely demanding and can take a toll on you. It is, therefore, important to be surrounded with uplifting, diverse, critical, honest, loving, and fun people to accompany you on this journey. You will need these people to swear, offload, to laugh, and feel loved; to hear that you’re doing the right thing and that they’re proud of you; to hear when you’re wrong but also to hear, “Here’s another perspective.”
These guides help me navigate the world of DEIJ, a world that I am passionate about and continue to learn from. However, this is only my perspective, and I am forever open to other perspectives.
Alchin, N (2022). Authenticity - what’s really going on? Retrieved from https://nickalchinuwcsea.blogspot.com/2019/08/authenticity-whats-really-going-on.html?q=authenticity
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York: Avery/Penguin Random House.
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: how to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, Virginia USA, ASCD.
Also Inspired by the work of Simon Sinek, TD. Jakes, Brene Brown, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Emmanuel Acho, Adam Grant, Anne Laure Buffet, and the amazing support from my People wherever you are in the world. My TIE editorial family and the many many conversations I’ve had with educators, students, parents, heads of school, support staff, and more. Thank you!
Doline Ndorimana is a passionate educator dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) and advocating student voice and agency. She is a DEIJ Workshop Leader, Middle Years Program Language Consultant, an Accreditation Evaluator for the Council of International Schools, and a member of the TIE editorial team.