If our school environment seems fairly homogenous, if we rarely hear of violent incidents in our school, it may be easy to assume that we do not need to address issues related to equity and inclusive education with our students. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
In a school that is not socially safe, many differences may be camouflaged, or muted, with repercussions for the individuals who must live with secrecy. Young people growing up in environments with less diversity may have fewer naturally-occurring opportunities to develop the tools and awareness that are needed to create an equitable and inclusive school environment. Teachers in these school settings may need to make a particular effort to ensure that their students are exposed to these issues. Their paths may well take them to other places that challenge them to look beyond their own standpoint. All members of the school community may be touched by inequity or feel excluded, including students, parents, colleagues and administrators.
As with bullying prevention, in order to create a climate of fairness and belonging the whole school needs to be involved at every level.
Racism, sexism and homophobia (and other equity issues) are distinct from bullying and it is important to name them in order to interrupt them. When bullying behaviour targets an aspect of an individual’s social identity, pervasive attitudes that are prevalent at every level of our society are reinforced. Expressions of hatred and aggression against members of marginalized groups are also profoundly connected to bullying. In both cases, attitudes of contempt and superiority are at their core (see Fawzi, Miyanda, and Tadelesh).
Homophobia, sexism and racism share certain characteristics. They may take the form of active, explicit and aggressive expressions of hatred (see David). They may be shrouded in spoken or unspoken stereotypes and prejudices resulting in unfair or discriminatory practices (see Kate). Often, our exclusion of some groups of people takes more passive, indirect or covert forms which may be either conscious or unconscious (see Aisha). We may exclude others through our silence or through our assumptions about what is “normal” (see John). We may use language or adopt behaviour that create divisions, pitting certain groups against others, setting them up as “us” and “them” (see Pierre). Or we may lose sight of someone’s individuality in the face of their group identity. (see Aisha).
Whatever the specific manifestation of inequity and exclusion, those of us who are left out, overlooked or unfairly treated due to our social identity may share certain experiences, to varying degrees depending on the situation. We may feel invisible, silenced and without a voice. We may be filled with feelings of shame. We may feel angry, lonely and powerless. In some situations, we may be afraid and stressed. Areas of concern for many schools, such as chronic absenteeism, low academic achievement and student violence are signals alerting adults to the need to look more closely at what is going on. Extreme disciplinary measures such as suspension and expulsion of students often represent a failure at many levels of society to engage and include youth (see Kevin).
Social inequity and the exclusion of some can create privilege for others. Understanding how we may benefit from the status quo and reproduce these negative social dynamics in our relationships with our students is the first step toward change. We can choose to learn to use our power and privilege to offset the imbalance. Understanding the issues can help us develop the personal and professional tools to create a climate of fairness and belonging (see Becoming an Ally).
Ultimately, feeling valued, respected and fully accepted for who we are is a fundamental human need. It enables us all – students, parents, teachers, administrators, citizens – to live authentically and to engage with others and with our work, our play and our studies. For students who are in a phase of discovery about themselves and the world around them, achieving this may well be a precondition to learning the curriculum.
To start creating a climate of fairness and belonging in their school, teachers can: