Recent research by Google found that the single most important factor contributing to innovation by teams was “psychological safety,” a sense of confidence that members of a group will not be embarrassed, rejected, punished, or ridiculed for speaking up. In other words, interpersonal trust and mutual respect aren’t simply nice-to-haves, but are vital to healthy collaboration, an essential 21st-century skill.
So creating safety and inclusion for all learners is a vital role for educators, and that requires mediating between students of various sexual orientations and ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. And the fact that over 80 percent of American teachers are white underscores how uncomfortable conversations about race can be at school—but also how necessary. Avoiding conversations on race will not make racism go away, and holding space for difficult conversations will allow learning, healing, and unity-building to begin.
The suggestions offered here range from simple to complex, and anyone can start to create the ripples that shift classroom and school culture.
Building Safety and Inclusion in Multicultural School Settings
1. Focus on how you might personally experience deep empathy. We all learn differently, so your empathy-building process might entail watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, or Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk “We Need to Talk About an Injustice.” Or you could look for curricula on race and racism. Since there’s no shortage of resources, try to discover first-person experiences. Take a deep breath, imagine yourself in those shoes, and withhold judgement. Share and model your inquiry and learning with students.
2. Curate your newsfeed, engage, and listen. Stay up to date with a few influencers, like Dr. Joy DeGruy or Professor Christopher Emdin, and news sources that inspire and challenge you to honestly confront difficult conversations on race and bias, from NPR’s Code Switch to The Root. But limit these, so you don’t get overwhelmed and shut down. Follow key hashtags like #Educolor on Twitter, to be aware of social justice and equity conversations. Spend time learning and listening to the conversation before opining on it.
3. Build your social justice vocabulary. Learn the meaning as well as application of terms like false equivalency, microaggression, Jim Crow, culturally responsive, white privilege, and allyship, among other terms. Watch out for coded language and call out prejudicial talk. As Professor Howard Stevenson says, “By practicing racial literacy, we can learn to not be so fearful and learn to problem-solve together, rather than run away from conversations about race.”
4. Value stories and perspectives. Encourage your students to articulate their narratives, starting with learning the stories of individuals in their community. The Out of Eden Walk can serve as a framework for noticing the stories around us and discovering our own. Ensure that your classroom book collection and curriculum include high-quality stories that represent all the students in your class. Practice noticing who’s writing the articles and stories you read. If you don’t know where to begin, consult your librarian or simply search “diverse books.” The Global Education Toolkit includes an appendix with 326 multicultural book titles for grades pre-K through 6.
5. Display your class values prominently. Establish ground rules for active listening in class. Take the time to reflect on values so they don’t feel like a laundry list. Students can respond to prompts like: “What do you stand for? How might we demonstrate that in our classroom or daily lives?” or “What might loving-kindness (or empathy, respect, generosity) in our classroom look like? How do we get there?” If there’s enough safety among students, they can share their writing in pairs.
6. When welcoming new students, learn to correctly say their name. If possible, visit families in their homes at some point in the year to deepen your relationship. The start of each school year can come with special anxiety for kids whose names are perceived as different—I know this too well. Your small effort to pronounce the name correctly, and not look perplexed while taking attendance, can offer a great relief and be incredibly welcoming.
7. Practice visible learning routines. Try See, Think, Wonder and Think, Pair, Share. Engage groups of two to three students in discussing prompts like “I see _____” (about something they’re observing), “I think _____” (about what they think might be going on), and “I wonder _____” (which allows students to engage their curiosity). Or reserve time for quiet thinking before pairing and sharing ideas, which builds critical reasoning and safety among learners of different temperaments, cultures, and capacities, and illuminates diverse perspectives through group work.
8. Build global competence. As long as we keep isolating global learning from diversity work in schools, these priorities will both be minimized. We can connect these efforts through many techniques, like the Global Competence framework, and by encouraging professional collaboration across interest areas.
9. Relax and focus. Use relaxation strategies centering in mindfulness prior to conducting difficult conversations on Monday morning—these discussions require their own, set-aside time—to start the week and help unify students.
There’s no shortage of techniques that can build safety and inclusion, and your willingness to try any of them sends a strong signal to your students, that their learning, engagement, and voice really matter.