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March 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 6

The Principal Connection / Affirming Diversity

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Students' needs are obvious when they are hungry, tired, or afraid; we can see it in their faces. But children have less obvious needs that must also be met. Because it's not measured in percentiles or included on achievement tests, we may forget that a student's sense of personal identity must be strong if she or he is to be receptive to learning. Children need to feel valued for who they are, both as individuals and as members of a particular group. Whether a student's group identity stems from race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, or sexual orientation, that identity must be affirmed. We cannot control what happens outside school, but we can validate students within our schools by ensuring that we show respect for all groups students claim as their own.

An Affirming Formal Curriculum

A school should start by ensuring that its formal curriculum—the officially presented materials, lessons, and requirements—conveys appreciation for diversity. Are a range of racial and ethnic groups represented in materials used throughout the year, for example, or does celebrating Black History Month imply that African Americans are absent from the curriculum the rest of the year? Is history presented only from a Eurocentric point of view, or do teachers consciously show how other cultures might see key events? Is the expansion of the United States presented as an inexorable march of democracy, or are the viewpoints of indigenous people considered? Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel can serve as a great resource.
Do your school's halls shout that people of every race achieve? I visited a school last week whose assembly space featured huge representations of Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. A mural in my school's hall depicts Maya Lin, Helen Keller, and Thurgood Marshall, among others. Displays like these make a statement about the values a school embraces.
What authors are assigned reading in your classrooms? Pre-20th-century British men have certainly produced enough stellar writing to fill libraries. But what's our message when dead white guys are the only sanctioned readings? Do Harriet Beecher Stowe, Amy Tan, and Margaret Atwood not count? What about Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison—or Alan Say for younger readers?
When students realize that the leaders a school values look both similar to and different from themselves, they get the message: All groups have value, and each individual is important.

. . . And Informal Curriculum

The formal curriculum is easy to implement, relatively speaking. Just as important, however, is the degree to which a school's informal curriculum—its enrichment activities, the accomplishments that the school spotlights, and the manner in which people are treated—supports diversity. Indeed, the informal curriculum often communicates the most powerful messages.
We may talk in school about the fact that equality is the fundamental principle of the United States. But does our school promote a student diversity club? What about a gay/straight alliance? Our school motto may be “Where all children are smart,” but do we offer students diverse ways to learn and show what they know? Do students who excel in art or music receive the same accolades as students on the honor roll? Within our staff, are some employees called by their first names, whereas others are addressed by Mr., Mrs., or Dr.? Are parking spaces reserved for administrators? Students discern nuances quite well, and they know that what school leaders do is far more important than what we say.

Initiating Dialogue

Engaging in dialogue with minority groups goes even further than shaping the curriculum in showing each student how much we value the group with which that student is affiliated. When is the last time you spoke with representatives of a group that is in the minority in your school, however that minority is defined? It's easy for those of us in the majority to assume that everyone sees things the same way. That's not likely to be the case. “How do we define minorities at our school” and “How should we define them?” would be great questions for a faculty meeting. One way to begin to identify such groups is to look at those who are not in the mainstream: Which kinds of students don't participate in extracurricular activities? Of course, defining minorities is only the first step.
I've met with groups of staff members and parents who were racial minorities at my school and with a group of gay and lesbian parents. I came away from each meeting with new insights and a greater appreciation for what it is like to be a minority in the United States and within New City School. I learned that where I perceive evenhanded treatment, minorities may believe that decisions are being made on the basis of other variables. It's natural for people from minority backgrounds to wonder whether their minority status played a role in education decisions, so open communication is key. The very fact that these meetings occurred and that I attended them sent a powerful, diversity-affirming message to everyone in our school community.
If you think your school doesn't have a minority group—or two or three—look again. Then start talking!

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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