Listen to All Voices to Develop an Inclusive Community

“Diversity is generally done using the salad bowl approach: throw people together and mix.”

Inclusive school communities occur only after the elimination of superficial structures and procedures, and communication is focused on race, culture, differing expectations and underlying values. The entire academic community is responsible for creating an inclusive environment, but it’s the leader’s role to “orchestrate a conversation in which no one voice is heard above all others, but everyone’s voice is heard.”

At the Women in Educational Leadership conference held in Lincoln NE in October, three women spoke about the challenges of leading an inclusive school community. They were: Vernita Mickens, VP of operations for Edison Schools; Dr. Dorothy Garrison-Wade, assistant professor of administrative leadership and policy studies at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, and Dr. Jean Jackson, a principal in Las Vegas’ Clark County School District. Their wisdom easily transfers to higher education.

Inclusive environment

“The challenge of inclusiveness remains an epistemological challenge for most individuals,” said Mickens. “As leaders, we must create a learning environment where all students feel accepted academically, nurtured, appropriately challenged and celebrated.”

When a faculty member doesn’t hear all of the voices in her classroom, students become disaffected, act out or quit attending. The same holds true for administrators who don’t hear the voices of those whom they supervise.

Diversity is generally done using the salad bowl approach: throw people together and mix. A step beyond that, inclusion means maximizing the potential of every student.

In an inclusive school, all people with differences are placed in a supportive and challenging learning environment. There is no distinction between “special” and “regular,” “different” and “normal.” Each feels a sense of belonging.

There are three types of inclusion:

  • • Surface inclusion is led by changes in policies and procedures.
  • • Structural inclusion involves modifications to the school environment and curriculum.
  • • Total inclusion—the most effective type—reaches deeper cultural levels through the rituals, routines and processes of acceptance that permeate life at the school. It’s also reflected in student/faculty interactions.

Achieving the third type requires more time and investment, plus a willingness to deal with the chaos that arises when addressing people’s values and belief systems. “In an inclusive, responsive school, leadership’s voice leads the chorus for racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural harmony that eliminates all barriers to high achievement,” said Mickens. “The right to be included, celebrated and recognized for one’s individual qualities is owned by the entire community.”

Inclusive communication

What types of communication structures need to be in place to achieve the third type of inclusion? Whatever structure is adopted, the process should begin with collaborative language and active listening. Skills include pausing, paraphrasing, asking probing questions and “positing positive intentionality.”

They suggested several models of inclusion:

  • Study circles begin and end with a large group discussion. Several smaller group discussions occur between the two. During the first large group meeting, participants acquire the essential facts. The small groups then decide how they would like to study the issue. Later, all of the small groups come together to share what they’ve learned.
  • The “walk a mile in another’s shoes” model means participants look at the issue from the perspective of various stakeholders. A representative from each stakeholder group is available to question assumptions and report on progress.
  • Four separate conferences make up the conference model. A vision conference outlines participants’ ideal vision for the school or department. A belief conference discusses how the system actually works. The third conference reviews the beliefs and behaviors supporting the current system. The last conference, held at a later time, revisits the topic to determine the effectiveness of the changes.
  • The pinwheel approach identifies the problem, makes an assumption about the cause, defines the impact of the assumption on the individuals and takes action. Each concept represents one point of a pinwheel. “The pinwheel doesn’t move,” said Jackson. “And nothing will happen unless you drive it.”

For example, an LGBT student looks to a faculty member for acknowledgment that she is welcome. If she shuts down in class or stops attending, the assumption is that the student didn’t understand or like the subject matter. A committee could discuss appropriate communication styles that model inclusiveness. For classes in English as a second language class, an assumption is that students understood a lot of American slang.

But in their culture one never questions authority, and the faculty member represents authority. The students failed the class because they were afraid to tell the faculty member about their confusion over slang words. A peer could help students understand the discussions by explaining the slang.

  • “Key” conversations utilize an object to signify that the holder is the speaker at that time. After everyone has had a turn to speak, the group can dialog.

When students’ voices are heard, discussions improve. Students align their behavior with the faculty member’s goals. Conflict is decreased and communications skills are increased. A collective efficacy permeates the classroom.

Vernita Mickens
Dr. Dorothy Garrison-Wade
Dr. Jean Jackson

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