Fostering Cultural Diversity in Your School

Cultural Diversity Starts at the Top

Cultural Diversity in Schools
Teacher Standing by a Map of the USA in a Classroom. Digital Vision/Getty Images

Cultural diversity as an issue wasn't even on the radar of most private school communities until the 1990s. To be sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part, diversity was not at the top of the list of priorities back then. Now you can see genuine progress in this area.

The best evidence that progress has been made is that diversity in all its forms is now on the list of other issues and challenges facing most private schools.

In other words, it is no longer a detached issue requiring resolution by itself. Schools seem to be making well-thought-out efforts to attract and retain faculty and students from a wide variety of societal backgrounds and economic sectors. The resources under The Diversity Practitioner on the National Association of Independent Schools' site show the kind of proactive approach which NAIS members are taking. If you read the mission statements and welcome messages on most schools' websites, the words 'diversity' and 'diverse' appear frequently.

Set an Example and They Will Follow

The thoughtful head and board members know that they must encourage diversity. Perhaps that has already been done at your school. If so, then a review of where you have been and where you are going should be part of your annual review activities. If you have not addressed the diversity issue, then you need to get started.

Why? Your school cannot afford to turn out students who have not learned the lessons of tolerance. We live in a multicultural, pluralistic, global community. Understanding diversity begins the process of living in harmony with others.

Communication enables diversity. Example fosters diversity. Every sector of the school community from head and trustees on down through the ranks must be proactive in listening, accepting and welcoming people and ideas which are different from their own.

This breeds tolerance and transforms a school into a warm, welcoming, sharing academic community.

Three Ways to Communicate Diversity

1. Hold Workshops for Faculty and Staff
Bring in a skilled professional to run workshops for your faculty and staff. The experienced clinician will open up sensitive issues for discussion. She will be a confidential resource which your community will feel comfortable turning to for advice and help. Make attendance mandatory.

2. Teach Diversity
Embracing the principles of diversity taught in a workshop requires everybody to put diversity into practice. That means reworking lesson plans, encouraging new, more diverse student activities, hiring 'different' teachers and much more.

Communication imparts knowledge which can breed understanding. As administrators and faculty, we send dozens of subtle messages to students not only by what we discuss and teach but, more importantly, by what we do NOT discuss or teach. We cannot embrace diversity by remaining set in our ways, beliefs and thoughts. Teaching tolerance is something all of us have to do. In many cases, it means shedding old practices and altering traditions and modifying points of view. Simply increasing a school's intake of non-Caucasian students will not make a school diverse.

Statistically, it will. Spiritually it will not. Creating a climate of diversity means radically altering the way your school does things.

3. Encourage diversity
One of the ways you as an administrator can encourage diversity is to require compliance with school policies and procedures. The same kind of strict adherence to policy and procedure which makes cheating, hazing and sexual misconduct taboo should apply to diversity. Your staff must become proactive when it comes to encouraging diversity. Your staff must know that you will hold them just as accountable for your diversity goals as you will for teaching outcomes.

Respond to Problems

Are you going to have problems with diversity and tolerance issues? Of course. How you handle and resolve problems as they arise is the acid test of your commitment to diversity and tolerance.

Everybody from your assistant to the grounds keeper will be watching too.

That's why you and your board must do three things to promote diversity in your school:

  • Decide on policy
  • Implement policy
  • Enforce compliance with policy

Is It Worth It?

That nagging question does cross your mind, doesn't it? The answer is a simple and resounding "Yes!" Why? Simply because you and I are stewards of all that we have been given. The responsibility for shaping young minds and inculcating eternal values has to be a major part of that stewardship. Our abrogation of selfish motives and embracing of ideals and goals which will make a difference is really what teaching is all about.

An inclusive school community is a rich one. It is rich in warmth and respect for all its members.

Private schools say they want to attract more teachers of different cultures in order to achieve diversity. One of the leading authorities on this subject is Dr. Pearl Rock Kane, director of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University's Teachers College and professor in the Department of Organization and Leadership.

Dr. Kane admits that the percentage of black teachers in American private schools has risen, to 9% today from 4% in 1987.

While this is commendable, shouldn't we go beyond 25% in order for our faculty lounges to begin to mirror the society in which we live?

There are three things schools can do to attract black teachers.

Look outside the box

Private schools must go outside the traditional recruitment channels to attract teachers of color. You must go to colleges and universities where these students are being trained and educated. Contact the deans and career services directors at all of Historically Black Colleges, as well as other colleges that focus on specific cultures and ethnicities. Develop a network of contacts at those schools, and take advantage of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, which make networking efficient and relatively easy.

Be prepared to attract faculty who do not fit the traditional teacher profile

Teachers of color have often spent years discovering their roots, developing a keen pride in their heritage, and accepting who they are.

So don't expect them to fit into your traditional teacher profile. Diversity by definition implies that the status quo will change.

Create a nurturing and welcoming atmosphere.

The job is always an adventure for a new teacher. Starting in a school as a minority can be really daunting. So create an effective mentoring program before you actively recruit teachers.

They must know there is somebody in whom they can confide or to whom they can turn for guidance. Then monitor your fledgling teachers even more carefully than you usually do to make sure that they settle in. The result will be a mutually rewarding experience. The school gets a happy, productive faculty member, and he or she feels confident in the career choice.

"The true make-or-break issue of hiring teachers of color may be the human factor. Independent school leaders may need to re-evaluate the climate and atmosphere of their schools. Is the school truly a welcoming place where diversity is tangibly honored? The human connection that is offered or not offered when a new person enters the school may be the single most important moment in efforts to recruit teachers of color." - Attracting and Retaining Teachers of Color, Pearl Rock Kane and Alfonso J. Orsini

Read carefully what Dr. Kane and her researchers have to say on this subject. Then begin your school's journey down the road to true diversity.