Schools are legally responsible to provide an education that permits all students the opportunity to learn. To meet this expectation, schools must focus on what is fair, not on what is equal. Fairness is every student receiving what they need, individually, to reach their maximum potential. It is the responsibility of educational leaders to ensure that a high-quality education is being provided to all children regardless of race, ethnicity, mental or physical ability, or family income.
The school’s vision must support and embrace the similarities and differences that contribute to the make-up of the school and community. The school culture must be one that accepts the many dimensions of diversity, such as race, ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, physical appearance, economic status, mental and physical ability, and sexual orientation. One way to nurture this type of culture is to involve local agencies, parents, and community partnerships. Students should be exposed to different celebrations, traditions, and even social movements. School leaders can support the development of such a culture by modeling acceptance, respect and demonstrating courage as they address a variety of social justice issues.
Last year, I was the adviser for the senior class and was tasked with organizing the senior trip. During the parent information meeting a parent posed the question, “What would happen with the hotel rooming if a transgender student decided to go on the trip?” I simply informed the parents that we would work ahead of time to ensure all members of the trip feel comfortable with the hotel arrangements. I ended my response with the fact that, as a class, we have worked very hard to put together a trip that all students will find educational and enjoyable. As a leader, others look up to you to do what is right, regardless of what other people’s personal opinions are.
When working with students in the classroom, some students may have specific accommodations as stated in their IEP, 504, Intervention Plan or IHP. It is necessary to ensure that the appropriate adjustments are being made from testing accommodations to proper actions in the event of a seizure. Leaders are responsible to make certain that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the needs stated in these plans.
Not all students have a written plan of tools to use to help them learn. Teachers must be mindful of other needs students have and differentiate learning experiences to ensure all students are engaged. Teaching to different learning styles, the use of different types of grouping strategies, utilizing different types of technology resources, and working in stations are some of the ways that students’ individual learning needs can be supported. Collaboration between teachers is useful to know what others have tried or have had success with.
Differentiation must occur in all aspects of the school, not just in course materials. Leaders and teachers must approach discipline as an educational experience rather than strictly punitive. Not all situations will result in the same treatment and it must be communicated with students that fair is not always equal. Two years ago, I had a student who had a difficult time not calling out during class. He was very distracting but it was as if he had no control. Eventually I realized that if he was sent out into the hallway for a few minutes he was able to compose himself and come back in and participate without being a distraction. Other students could just simply be reminded to raise their hand or wait until it was their turn. If I continued to just speak with him, the problem would have never been solved. Teachers and leaders need to keep trying different things until they find what works.
With the necessary tools in place, students will begin to experience success. No matter how small the progress, it must be celebrated. Teachers must be celebrated as well for their hard work and dedication to helping all students learn. Celebrations can be small like a casual individual acknowledgement. Maybe a more elaborate celebration such as posting on a bulletin board, having an award assembly, or giving an entire class a reward is appropriate. Celebrations provide affirmation for the effort that was placed to achieve the success and provides encouragement to push forward.
All students have the right to feel safe, to feel respected, and have every opportunity to learn. All members of the school must model respect and encourage students to demonstrate acceptance with adults and their peers. Teaching students to work together, despite differences, is essential to prepare them for life outside of school. A school culture that celebrates diversity better prepares students to be global citizens.