By Stephanie Filio
Building an inclusive culture means creating an environment where all participants feel welcome and safe to be themselves. These climates foster engagement, creativity, and productivity through collaboration, because all people can feel their value in the larger system. People in an inclusive environment are supported and appreciated for the unique perspective and personal gifts they have to offer others. In a school, the culture includes students, staff, family, and visitors. Each person offers something unique to the overall group, allowing members to feel personally valued.
The Dreaded “Us and Them”
No one likes to feel like an outsider. When we’re treated like one, we wonder what it is about us that is wrong or offensive to others. We try to change, we question things we had never even noticed about ourselves, and we see everything others do as right. In this thinking, we ultimately retreat from others. The true beauty of an inclusive school culture is that everyone is the “us.” By identifying what makes a school special, based on the individuality of each person, we can build a program that includes a place for all participants.
Using Our Wide Reach
School counselors are the perfect people to be at the center of building an inclusive school culture. Our job is to serve all students and anyone who invests in student success. We have training in large-scale needs assessments, we can spot someone who needs extra resources, we are expert listeners (and can see between the lines), we know how to organize a program for emotional well-being, and we are committed to a code of ethics that would rival any other profession.
Large-Scale Needs Assessments
There are many ways to administer assessments, which can give you an idea of what the school community needs. By uncovering these specifics, you can get an expansive view of your community.
- Use your tech tools for student outreach and have your student body answer a questionnaire about what they hope to experience or see over the school year during homeroom, study block, or core classes.
- Have teachers fill out a survey based on what their classrooms feel like and what their feelings of satisfaction were for the prior year.
- Use student leadership clubs to administer focus groups where students might feel more comfortable speaking freely with peers.
Spotting Needs for Extra Resources
We know our kids and coworkers and can sense when something is wrong. Build a community of openness and show you care by digging a little deeper when needed.
- Data is always a great place to look for places where behavior might be masking an emotion that needs tending to by leaders in the building.
- Allow for collaborative moments with students and staff so the members of your community feel that they can share and their input is valued.
- Make sure community resources are shared with everyone, so everyone can be a helper.
Just ask! The hallways, teacher workrooms, school counselor’s office, and lunch bunches have all the intel you need to make sure that your school is inclusive and that everyone is feeling fulfilled.
- Being present in the hallways builds rapport, allows you to spread your shining spirit, and gives you ample time to see students in their social element. The hallway is also a great place to spot teacher-student interactions, note observations, and respond with supports where needed.
- Enjoy lunch away from the computer and eat in your teacher workrooms! You get to build relationships with all teachers, ask burning questions about their well-being, and get a better feeling for what their days look like behind the doors of their classrooms.
- Want to know who has the scoop who hangs out in the background? Your registrar! They are so hard to see behind their hordes of new families that we often forget they’re around. Rest assured, however, that they are keeping the pulse of the school going by answering questions from families and staff, fielding calls to counselors, and getting to know all the new kids before anyone else.
A comprehensive message for the school ensures that all participants are thinking about the same inclusive concepts. Schoolwide programs are perfect for building relationships, responding to needs, and celebrating new lessons together.
- Play short videos or have guest speakers from the school offer a quote or deep-thinking question during the morning announcements.
- Use boards or signs to challenge students to do something to get to know each other (leading questions or “find a new friend who” prompts).
- Find common times when you can mix kids up and have them do a quick icebreaker, such as in homeroom, at lunch, during physical education class, or in a study block.
- Ensure that diversity-centered activities are celebrated and highlighted for maximum exposure (think announcements, awards nights, assemblies, newsletters, and fundraiser nights).
Commitment to Code of Ethics
Share the ethical code of helpers so everyone knows how to support one another. By encouraging inclusiveness as one of the most important character traits, everyone can aspire to do better and lead more!
- Have classrooms come up with their own set of rules for respecting others.
- Have common-language practices, such as PBIS, so the culture of the school is easily defined and well-known.
- Allow agency by having participants reflect on what is important to them and by building their needs into the school culture.
- Ensure that school leaders are examples of inclusiveness by diversifying school clubs, partnerships, committees, and events.
The end of the year or summertime is a great time to establish a full-year plan that will roll out different goals to ensure that your school is building or strengthening an inclusive culture. Constant spot-checks throughout the year help you know whether you need to make alterations or add more inclusive activities. This includes recognizing student groups that may be underrepresented or providing professional development or teacher forums in areas where staff might be struggling.
I am in a school of 1,600 middle school students. As you can imagine, a growl easily becomes a roar—quite literally, because we are also Lions! So having strong proactive supports is very important to maintaining a positive and inclusive school culture. Being proactive doesn’t mean planning for things to go wrong; it means identifying the strengths of your community and exploiting them for all they are worth, using specific, intentional practices.
An inclusive school culture is like going to a party with all your best friends and family members every day. Making sure that you invest in inclusive practices for your school is not only an equitable and ethical standard within educational institutions, it also makes students and staff excited to show up and engage in their day!
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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