Expert Q&A | Julie Landsman
Q: What should educators do to address the needs of an increasingly diverse community and foster inclusive schools?
A: I once asked a fine teacher I knew what the three most important things in connecting to students of all kinds were for her. She answered, "Relationship, relationship, relationship." At the heart of providing a safe, challenging environment for children and youth is having all students know you care about their success, will challenge them, assume their intelligence, and will connect to their communities and parents. We learn from our students, and we need to listen to them to understand where to ground our teaching. If students express interest and concern about their neighbourhood or if they want to know about a waste deposit site proposed close by, this can be the subject for a rich curriculum.
But we can't know what these concerns are if we don't listen. Once we build a bridge to our students, we can go on to the hard work of research, study and critical thinking together.
Many sixth and seventh graders have told me that there are some classes where they do not feel safe. They see homophobic slurs go by, or the n-word spoken, with no response and they know that if they were the object of such a slur they would receive no support.
One of the worst things we can do is to become wed to policies simply because it has always been this way.
Teachers must be vigilant about this. Without an environment that is structured and built on the assumption that all kids are valued a nd that there will be consequences for any racial, ethnic, homophobic or sexist put-down, the greatest multicultural curriculum in the world will not create a vibrant classroom where students question and engage in important dialogue.
Students also need to see the cultures they come from clearly represented every day: in the faces of those who teach in their schools, in the literature they read, in the historical perspective they hear and in the examples they are given. By inviting speakers of colour from the area and by searching out poems and stories, journals and texts from the point of view of many different people, students will excel for a firm, caring teacher.
Finally, teachers need to be aware of what it means to have white skin; to engage in exploring white privilege. This requires reflection, honesty, a willingness to be vulnerable and an effort to engage in tough discussion.
Q: Is there a limit to accepting diversity? If so, how can educators balance that with the need to be tolerant and accepting of difference?
A: Each case is unique. One of the worst things we can do is to become wed to policies simply because it "has always been this way." Flexibility and patient nurturance of community and parental connections and voices are essential. When the issue involves safety along with valuing every student's potential, teachers and administrators can be creative in how to advocate and work for their students. The importance of dialogue applies to policies around safety too, and is best when it includes parents, teachers and staff in reaching decisions. A district in Minnesota has just gone through three lawsuits because of the bullying of gay or perceived gay students. If the policies of this school were centred on safety for all and action was taken to monitor that safety, the extensive legal involvement would not have happened. When there is no safety issue, there are ways to work around the situation.
A willingness to be flexible in solutions and yet firm in expectations goes a long way.
Q: What is diversity's role in promoting the success of students and schools?
A: I often remind teachers who teach in predominantly white schools that using a diverse curriculum and bringing up historical examples that involve many perspectives are just as essential for their white students as they are for students of colour. Our individual world is a global one in every sense now. All students will need to be open, flexible and patient in their relationships with people who are not like them, be it their boss at a bank or their doctor or the clerk in a store.
It is a disservice to students, white or black or brown, not to have open dialogues around race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. I have found that high school students and even middle schoolers want to engage in such discussions. It is the teachers who are hesitant, afraid or unwilling. For the sake of us all, I hope teachers can become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Inclusivity adds a great deal of richness, excitement and enjoyment to any school.