Aspirations for inclusion and equity are forefront on educational agendas around the world today. Research identifies a clear relationship between an inclusive and affirming learning environment and student learning success and achievement.
The October 2016 Journal of Staff Development highlights case studies in which staff members successfully addressed existing inequities, re-organized structures, schedules, programs and reflected on attitudes. The result being that over time, there were noticeable benefits for students, including increased achievement, improved attendance, participation and attitude toward learning.
Creating and leading a school-wide inclusive learning environment that recognizes and celebrates the strengths inherent in its diversity requires strategic and deliberate collaborate action from all members of the school community. And, as with so many other initiatives, the principal is the primary driver.
Participants in the 2014 Report on the Future of the Principalship in Canada, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Principals and the Alberta Teachers’ Association, spoke of the importance and value of an inclusive and equitable learning environment. However, they acknowledged that schools today are frequently confronted with competing demands and lack the capacity to deal effectively with the increasing diversity and complexities of student needs.
Saskatchewan respondents added that the diversity of student needs requires not only academic but also social and economic support. They also identified the need for long-term and committed resources as well as ongoing professional development support.
It seems leaders today are somewhere between a rock and a very hard place. School leaders are confronted with the difficulty of building the capacity of their teachers and staff to create a school where every student experiences success while simultaneously attending to multiple managerial and administrative tasks.
Yet the realities of a sense of accountability to our communities and our stakeholders and a deep commitment to our profession and our children can work to propel and inspire our efforts.
Russell Bishop (2011), well regarded for his contributions to the successful integration of Maori culture into the New Zealand curriculum, asserts that school leaders are the key drivers of educational and social justice reform efforts which reduce barriers for Indigenous and other minority peoples.
When asked, “what do leaders need to know and do to support teacher practice that raises achievement at the same time as reducing disparities?” Bishop advises that motivating, encouraging and supporting teachers is the most effective place to start. Succinctly, successful leaders assist teachers to view student achievement as the result of “specific, teacher-implemented, instructional actions and planning processes” (p. 37).
Successfully embedding the values of inclusion and equity within a school’s culture requires leadership that:
Blending Bishop’s ideas with a framework recently developed by Finnish education spokesperson Pasi Sahlberg and colleagues (2011), principals committed to and working towards goals of inclusion and social justice, strategically and simultaneously attend to three processes:
Undoubtedly, the challenges of leading for inclusion and equity are complex and may be, at times, deeply personal. Leaders must be actively examining their own thinking and beliefs regarding inclusion and equity before they can engage others. The work of creating culturally responsive learning environments so that all students achieve success requires a relentless focus on developing and sustaining respectful relationships, providing a culturally responsive curriculum and a deep sense of professional and social responsibility.
Each leader’s path for inclusion and equity in his or her school is unique and closely tied to context and community. However, in a rapidly changing world, each small step on this path contributes to greater inclusion in our schools and greater success for our students and communities.