Often times, in the field of education, ‘inclusive’ can be used to denote a classroom in which children with disabilities learn alongside their “typically developing” peers in an integrated classroom. So, to clarify, I use the term much more broadly. When I think of an environment as truly “inclusive,” I like to imagine a place where all people can show up as their whole selves, a place in which no one has to hide any part of their multi-layered identities (religion, race, sexual orientation, abilities, class, sex, etc.) in order to thrive, be accepted, supported, advocated for, etc.
RB proceeded to make a beautiful analogy between this type of school culture and the principles of Universal Design, namely, environments that are inherently accessible to all people and in which all people—regardless of age, size, and ability can operate at their fullest potential. Additions to buildings such as ramps for the sake of accessibility are a good start, but designing a structure/environment in which everyone’s needs are met from its inception is even better!
So, what would an inherently accessible, inclusive school look like?
What does a liberatory environment in which ALL people can work at their highest potential and fulfill their cosmic tasks look like? Perhaps none of us have the perfect answer at this very moment, but I have been trying to consider the following questions in earnest:
(1) What are the critical building blocks for transformative schools?
(2) What are the biggest challenges in creating such an environment?
Isms in Schools:
Business As Usual
We discussed the many layers of discrimination and biases that often permeate school/organizational culture. A few (of countless) examples include:
(1) Discriminatory HR Policies or notions of professionalism, which might be entrenched in racism, xenophobia, classism, and other ‘isms’ (e.g.-the assertion that black women’s natural hair is ‘unprofessional’).
(2) Evacuation plans that do include children with disabilities (ableism).
(3) Deeming cultural practices of students and families that vary from ours “rude” or “deficient.”
Does Silence=Loyalty to the Method?
We began discussing the Montessori world in particular. Of course, these issues are not limited to Montessori schools, but our schools are supposed to be more loving, more peaceful, more accepting.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”-James Baldwin
How dare anyone criticize the Montessori Method/Movement? Well, precisely because we love it (and we want it to be better)! That which is essential to the method will not explode into a billion pieces if we are to acknowledge that Montessori worked in a different place and time and that we need to put on our collective anti-bias lens and start to do some critical re-considerations right now.
There are many instances (both in my experiences as a student and an educator) that made me feel like schools are often not safe, inclusive spaces for all teachers and students. A few examples of painful/challenges situations in schools: (A) when a boss tried to discourage me from reporting suspected sexual abuse of a child in my care (against the law, by the way, as teachers are most certainly mandated reporters)—in case there was nothing going on—ya know, so we didn’t upset the family and lose their tuition or (B) when I heard fellow teachers making fun of black names in the teacher’s lounges of majority black schools or (C) hearing administrator’s say “these parents just don’t care about their kid’s education!” or “they just have no home training!” The tendency to focus on perceived inadequacies and deficiencies within marginalized groups instead of acknowledging the structural inequities that oppressed groups face is troubling to say the least. (I have so many stories to share. Stay Tuned!)
Teachers, Administrators, we simply must do better. As our schools become increasingly diverse, anti-bias, culturally responsive practices are more essential now than ever. Our staff, students, families, and communities deserve safe, inclusive, equitable schools!
So, what actions can we take now? A few things we discussed, in short:
(1) The journey begins with us, as adults. We have to engage in some critical self-reflection, get to know our own multi-layered Identities and acknowledge/work to dismantle our own biases (yes, we all have them).
(2) Create a safe space to discuss the often-uncomfortable topics of racism, xenophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Invest in staff development training in anti-bias, anti-racist practices.
(3) Involve parents, caregivers, and families in meaningful ways. Get to know them. Establish trust. Build partnerships. Listen to their needs. Involve them in decisions that affect policy and the daily life of the school.
(4) Home visits can be a great strategy for getting to know more an individual family culture more deeply. Of course, they must be carefully executed. All staff members should be coached through the process and obviously the families must be willing. They will not be required to participate against their will. We understand that some of them are not yet comfortable.
(5) Hire staff members who reflect the communities and families that your schools serves. Recruit and retain teachers of color (consider offering scholarships for training for people of color!), from all social classes, with varying abilities, etc.
(6) Read my three part series on Building Inclusive Schools Culture on Bee Line Consulting’s blog in its entirety here: https://beelineconsulting.net/culturally-responsive/
It if often difficult for educators to share their stories for fear that discussing their respective experiences in schools across the country would alienate them in the community. I made an enormous investment in time, energy, and money for this training in this field that often doesn’t feel like a safe space in which to work, learn, and grow. If our stories remain unheard, if our voices are silenced, we cannot truthfully say that our system does not perpetuate oppression. Since I’m fairly certain us peace-loving Montessori teachers are not yet willing to openly admit that we partake in a system that further oppresses the oppressed, let’s get the dialogue rolling. Let’s make some changes. The time is now.
Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! I look forward to learning and growing with you!
*I have consciously chosen not to publish the names of any institution with which I have been professionally affiliated so I can share my stories in an anonymous manner.