Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of serving and educating students in Indianapolis who recently arrived in the country as immigrants and refugees. These students have joined together to create a diverse student body with the hopes of learning English and assimilating to the American educational system.
It has been an honor to witness this diversity and consider its influences on their learning and education as a whole. While diversity is often referenced in the realm of education, it seems we often gloss over the reality of how it impacts or influences learning.
As we all continue through the first months of the school year, it is impossible not to recognize diversity at play in our schools and classrooms in some capacity each and every day. I believe it is important to reflect upon our attitude towards it and the resulting value that can be found in it when applied to our learning as individuals, growth in relationships, and development of community.
At times, we seek to oversimplify diversity by using specific labels, but it truly reaches beyond racial, ethnic, linguistic, economic, educational and religious boundaries. It is always present in our classrooms, communities and society as a whole.
Diversity encompasses each person’s unique life experiences, the shaping of their worldview, and the subsequent influence on their interactions with others. This mixture of experiences and resulting beliefs is specifically present with both students in the classroom as well as teachers who instruct throughout each district.
Education provides an exceptional environment in which all of the community unites through influences from families, organizations, school administrators and teachers to grow and develop students. As we identify diversity, we cannot stop at its mere acknowledgement but must consider its value and impact on our educational work.
While it has the power to confuse and frustrate through miscommunications and misunderstandings, diversity also has the power to unite and strengthen through compassion and self-sacrifice. This is important to note as we, the educators, prepare to lead in instruction.
In the classroom, teachers face diversity in a very real sense each day. Even beyond the more apparent distinctions in life, such as racial or linguistic differences, diversity among students can be present in the sometimes more easily concealed ethnic or family values. It can be seen in the simple way that students communicate differently with one another or share different family values as a result of their personal upbringing.
With a society that becomes increasingly independent and isolated, we must be conscious of the need for students to grow in understanding others and benefitting from diversity, rather than being surprised by it.
Knowing that there is great diversity in our classrooms, the question becomes how educators should respond in their practices. The first response to diversity is acknowledging and appreciating the innate value of each individual.
With particular biases or beliefs, we may unintentionally undervalue some contributions to our classroom or the society in general. If we begin with the core truth that every person has inherent value, we will more readily see the different ways in which every member can contribute to the community as a whole. We must unite in valuing others, even in the midst of diversity and appreciating life in different ways.
Additionally, we must recognize the value of others’ experiences in life. It is easy to value our own experiences and discount the experiences of others, particularly if they are not valued in a particular society or culture.
When we step back and recognize that our cultural interpretation is one among many, we are far more ready to find value in others. There is much talk about “tolerating” in diverse groups, but I believe that we should reach beyond tolerance and extend to appreciation. If we appreciate differences in one another, each of us will grow to be thankful for the greater fullness and richness of a life united in differences.
With great diversity in our classrooms, we should model this perspective and attitude in our teaching. We must demonstrate for students a way to acknowledge differences with respect. We cannot change the actions of others, but we have the ability to lead others through our actions. If we are sacrificing our pride and comfort to understand better and serve others, we can shift our community’s mindset on diversity as well.
Success in diversity begins with personal efforts and sacrifices, leading to larger community changes, not the contrary. If we seek to know others and be known truly, even a diverse community can grow stronger together. This is how we lead a community from a place of tolerance to a place of appreciation and growth.
In the end, diversity has great rewards. It is often easy to find pride in the diversity that we know and experience, but this is not where the true value lies. The value in diversity is not the sentiment, but in celebrating the gifts and challenges that diversity brings.
With diversity, we are challenged to reassess our presuppositions and find a greater richness in life that comes from seeing new perspectives not common to our points of view. As we continue throughout this year in the classroom, take advantage of opportunities to acknowledge diversity, challenge yourself and others in the midst of it, and appreciate the differences that allow us each to grow together.