An inclusive culture is one that involves the full and successful integration of all people into a school or workplace. When we think about an inclusive school culture, we consider what it takes to provide a supportive and quality education to an increasingly diverse student population, including students who are often marginalized due to dis/ability, gender, socio-economic status, cultural heritage, language preference, race, and a host of other factors. A lot of work goes into developing the structures and routines for a fully integrated educational experience in which all students participate in the general education curriculum with their grade level peers. But the school culture isn’t fully inclusive unless the students and adults within the system embrace the fundamental tenets of inclusive practice: belonging, connection, and meaningful engagement for ALL.
As models of inclusivity, school districts should embody leadership practices that model the best we want for students.
As school districts embark to support inclusive school cultures, it is paramount to make sure inclusion is part of the overall strategic plan. Like students, employees want to feel included, heard and valued, and they will go above and beyond if the essential need of belonging is met. Yet in my experience working with school districts across the country, I’ve noticed key employees left out of important discussions and decisions related to systemic change. In fact, many of these employees hold leadership roles in departments such as special education, language acquisition, and equity; and much like the students they serve, the system has not fully embraced their meaningful engagement. In some instances, leaders in these departments are set apart from those leading general education programs due to their specialized knowledge, and are deemed less important to the overall mission of the school district because this specialized knowledge is specific to only a percentage of the overall students being served. This approach is short-sighted, as it serves to reinforce a perpetual cycle of marginalization. As models of inclusivity, school districts should embody leadership practices that model the best we want for students. We must create avenues to allow everyone to have a voice.
Inclusive leadership is forward thinking, and necessary for schools and districts to thrive in today’s increasingly diverse 21st-century work- and marketplace. Research demonstrates high-impact benefits when employees work with and for an inclusive leader. These include improved collaboration, higher performance and productivity, greater engagement and loyalty, increased motivation, and greater innovation and creativity. When individuals (students and adults) feel included, they have a greater sense of satisfaction in their work, produce better outcomes, and possess a greater sense of loyalty to the vision of the school, district, or program. If our goal is improved results for all, then it makes sense to embrace inclusive leadership practices to achieve these results.
To reap the benefits of inclusive practice, the spirit of inclusion needs to infiltrate the culture of the entire system. The following questions may help individuals and teams get started:
- What are your core beliefs about equity?
- How do you consistently demonstrate your commitment to inclusive leadership?
- Who are those you’ve invited into your decision-making circle?
- How might you bring the ideas and insights of others into your circle?
- How are you holding yourself and others accountable to a culture of inclusion?
- To what extent is inclusive practice a part of your strategic plan?
In our work as inclusive leaders, we not only focus on building relationships among team members, we begin to transform the definition of an inclusive culture, and delineate what that looks like within our schools and across our school districts. We understand the balance between being and doing, and recognize the development of personal dispositions leading to “aha” moments can be powerful in creating positive systemic change for equity. In the end, what’s good practice for employees turns out to be good practice for our students and vice versa. It’s about leading change so ALL members of the school and district feel a sense of belonging, connection, and meaningful engagement. It’s also about investing the time and resources so trust, value, and inclusion are the underlying foundation for all decisions made.