Eight Steps to Transforming School Culture: Real Talk on Race and Diversity

Eight Steps to Transforming School Culture: Real Talk on Race and Diversity
Eight Steps to Transforming School Culture: Real Talk on Race and Diversity

School Leadership//

April 11, 2021

For some schools, 2020 was the year that leaders got honest about diversity in their schools. Whether it was the first time your team dealt with challenging conversations, or another year of continuing progress, use these concrete steps to transform your school’s culture.

Honest conversations about race and diversity propel leaders toward their "why"—dispelling harmful stereotypes, increasing racial literacy and education, decreasing fear of differences, and ultimately encouraging everyone to become more kind and empathetic humans. Your “why” statement will be the heart of your diversity-based initiatives and conversations.

Now is the time to commit to change and progress. Influential speaker Eric Thomas tells the story of how so many people were frustrated after the George Floyd protests in 2020. But change takes time. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took 381 days of persistence.

Expect a lasting change in your community to take that long (or longer). Persevere through discouragement and setback. Here are eight transformative steps that will set you up for success.

Step 1—Get real about diversity in hiring initiatives.

As a school leader, you must ask yourself if your teaching staff reflects the diversity of your student body and your families. Talk with leaders in your district—including individual building leaders—to help unite everyone on your team and prioritize ongoing diversity initiatives.

Step 2—Don't rely on BIPOC staff members to shoulder the burden of diversity education.

While some staff members of color may be willing to serve as a resource, others may not want to be so involved—and that is a valid choice of their part.

Step 3—Recognize the trauma BIPOC students and staff have experienced.

It may seem like an honest and genuine conversation to ask BIPOC staff and students to discuss their race experiences within your community. Often, you are asking them to relive their trauma. This shouldn't be done lightly—and may not be the best way to educate others (at the further expense of the BIPOC staff member or student).

Step 4—Opt for lasting change over performative actions.

Don't focus solely on performative actions. Instead, integrate multiple teams and departments and encourage increased collaboration. Ask your diversity initiative team to intertwine goals and comprehensively measure outcomes. Don't wait for Black History Month to start an initiative—improving race relations and education should be for all months, not just February.

Step 5—Take a "compassionate and curious" stance.

Tough conversations about race, culture, and diversity must happen with compassionate and curious participants. To accomplish this, bring everyone back to ground zero by using and demonstrating active listening skills.

Validate emotions to create an environment where everyone is acknowledged. Use the following conversation starter to dig deeper into the more complicated issues:

"I'm just curious...I heard you say XYZ. Can you tell me more about that?"

This nondefensive stance—when combined with excellent listening skills—creates the perfect environment for defenses to come down, making room for tough conversations.

Step 6—Eliminate the idea of an "uncomfortable" conversation.

There are honest conversations, and there are fake, disingenuous conversations. Many conversations will be uncomfortable. But the entire staff needs an environment where the awkward questions—the imperfectly worded curiosities—are welcomed, not discouraged.

Strive to be a leader who pushes, demands, and craves real questions over fake pleasantries on this topic. Help your staff acknowledge the concept that racism creates an imbalanced playing field in education and white privilege is a reality all parties need to understand.

Step 7—Don't avoid talking about our justice system and the role of police.

2020 brought to light deep inequities and beliefs in our country about our attitudes relating to law enforcement and police. In the past year, multiple instances of police brutality have exacerbated the unrest between BIPOC Americans, supporters, and police officers. What is your school’s position on this?

In one school, honest race discussions inspired a teacher—who strongly supported the police and had multiple family members on the police force—to remove the "Thin Blue Line" flag from her classroom because of its association with anti-BIPOC movements.

This teacher's choice made the classroom feel welcoming without sacrificing her stance and beliefs about supporting the police.


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Step 8—Expect push back as a sign of progress.

Sometimes, staff won't want to sacrifice long-standing beliefs and political opinions for the sake of school diversity progress. There will be pushback, defensiveness, and resistance. All of this is normal on the path to change and doesn't mean your initiatives are wrong or invaluable.

It should be an expected and welcomed sign that you are inspiring authentic and difficult conversations that must take place to move forward. Remain constant and vigilant as you pursue your initiatives—all while keeping your goals as everyone's focus.


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