How to Promote Cultural Diversity in Schools?

Written by Scott Wilson

Promoting cultural diversity in schools is an ongoing process that encourages respect, introspection, and education in the value of every individual and culture. Standard practices in diversity, equity, and inclusion training are used in many schools to develop this important process.

hands demonstrating cultural diversity

The fight to develop genuine intercultural respect and tolerance has reached a new pitch in American education. And school leaders, from district superintendents to teacher mentors to librarians, are front and center in the debate over why race and culture matter in schools from coast to coast.

Movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo have highlighted once-suppressed issues of disparity and systemic discrimination in America. It’s been a time that has been both exciting and traumatic for both educators and students. And it’s also one that is fraught for educational leaders—according to a 2021 NBC analysis, some 220 school districts in the U.S. were facing backlash over diversity and equity initiatives.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s Diversity Index jumped by more than six percent between 2010 and 2020. And that index is much higher in some states than others, hitting 76 percent in Hawaii. Even the least diverse state, Maine, comes in close to 20 percent.

And that measure only accounts for race; many other types of cultural diversity also come into play in schools today, from religious belief to sexual orientation.

Cultural diversity and mutual tolerance and respect aren’t subjects that can take a back seat in schools anywhere in the country today. And the responsibility for promoting those values falls larger to school leaders.

Building on the Cultural Diversity that Exists Within the School Community

playing together in their classroomIn some ways, cultural diversity in schools just comes with the territory. Particularly in public schools, the range of races, beliefs, and other cultural markers will reflect the communities where schools are located.

And it’s tough to shift those perspectives. Educational leaders have their teachers on site for eight hours a day, five days a week; kids may be in classrooms for five or six of those hours. And that’s only for half of the year. The rest of their days, they are immersed in the social and cultural context of their own family and friends.

Although developing a strong and shared school culture is the goal, no principal should be under the illusion that they are calling all the shots. Every single individual that shows up in the building brings in their own unique and diverse experiences, social standards, cultural heritage, and perceptions of others.

So promoting cultural diversity in schools is really more about promoting a respect for and celebration of all those multitudes than creating them in the first place. Encouraging tolerance, support, compassion, and appreciation are the keystones of this effort.

College Administrators Have More Challenges in Promoting Cultural Diversity

grads in gownsAttendance at the primary and elementary levels of American schooling is mandatory. Whatever part of the country you are in, you’re going to get the same mix of cultures in rough proportion to the demographics.

When you get to the post-secondary world of college educational administration, however, the diversity calculations shift. College attendance is both optional and biased in favor of wealth and social status.

So college administrators, and to some extent private school principals, have a very real role to play in promoting cultural diversity in their schools.

Many schools have a dean or associate dean dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. They focus not just on boosting equity in treatment and outcomes, but also on the issue of recruiting and retention to build a more diverse student body. Building a rainbow of cultures is a benefit in any college, but it takes a level of intentionality to make it happen.

Why Is Cultural Diversity Important in Schools?

While everything that you do as an educational leader to prepare students for life after graduation is important, helping them navigate the tough waters of diversity and inclusion might have the greatest long-term impact. That’s because basic respect and appreciation of cultural diversity is something students will tap into in daily situations for the rest of their lives.

Advanced trig might never come up again after college; and today’s students may never need to compose a formal business letter in their entire adult career. But they certainly will always benefit from developing a deeper familiarity and appreciation for the people and cultures of this world.

In 21st century America, you can’t get away from the bloom of amazing global and regional cultures and the broad rainbow of race and orientation. In every community, in business, in politics, in entertainment, and daily life, your students will encounter people of different races and cultures. How they handle differences of taste, perspective, and values will rest in large part on what they learn from you.

Secondary Effects from Racial and Cultural Diversity Also Land on Principal and Superintendent Desks

getting the jobPromoting cultural diversity in schools isn’t just for the benefit of students. With a larger responsibility in their community and to their staff, school principals and superintendents also have larger diversity considerations on their plate.

One of the most important of those is ensuring that they are hiring teachers and staff reflective of that community. Students need and deserve to learn from strong role models. They need to see a representative range of race, culture, and perspective among their teachers.

Diversity in hiring is high on the to-do lists of many educational administrators.

Yet debates over cultural diversity are also increasingly a cause of staffing problems in some American schools.

Legal efforts in many states to quash diversity training or even the mere mention of various cultures has had a chilling effect on teachers, administrators, and librarians. Coming at a time when schools were already struggling with staffing from the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend makes cultural diversity a genuine consideration for administrators trying to keep jobs filled.

And new rules over how diversity itself can even be discussed make it tough for leaders at every level to get the message of tolerance and respect across.

How Principals and Other Educators Take Responsibility for Cultural Diversity Leadership in Schools

sitting at her deskThat has made diversity training a hot-button issue in many schools and school districts in America. It’s a function that rests squarely on top of some of the most unstable cultural fault-lines in the country today. Brushing across the raw nerves of various social groups is inevitable for any educational leader grappling with the task.

Unfortunately, a lot of the advice given for promoting cultural diversity is terribly simplistic and far too general to deal with such a complex topic. It’s easy to say something along the lines of “Practice cultural sensitivity” or “Incorporate diversity in lesson plans.” But there’s very little guidance on how to do those things.

That’s where a degree in educational leadership can pay off. Future principals, superintendents, and teacher leaders can get specific training in DEI. You will be learning directly from professors with on-the-ground experience in the field. It’s the best way for you to get genuine, detailed ideas on conducting effective culturally diversity training.

With advanced programs such as a Master of Education in Educational Administration, or even the doctoral-level EdD (Doctor of Education) in Educational Leadership, you will find opportunities to advance cultural diversity studies yourself. Each of those programs comes with extensive independent research and experiential learning requirements. Through them, you can uncover your own effective tools in diversity training and share them with the community.

Just as important, you’ll come away with a ground-level perspective on the society and cultural norms in your area. Teacher and administrator practicum placements tend to be regional, so your training will all be relevant to the challenges you face on the job.

How Educational Leaders are Taught to Promote Cultural Diversity in their Schools

teaching at the whiteboardWhat exactly does cultural diversity training look like in these degree programs?

One thing you can count on is that it will change and evolve with both culture and evidence. Some of the latest research, shaped by both professors and students, will quickly be integrated into DEI courses.

Today, students in educational leadership programs are prepared with an essential grounding in empathy, communication, and cultural sensitivity training. They learn to analyze their own biases and expectations.

heading into the schoolFuture leaders also learn how inclusive, diverse school environments can benefit all students, not just those in minority groups. Decades of research into racially integrated schools has shown that even non-minority students that attend have better learning outcomes. And the social and psychological benefits can improve their productivity in diverse workplaces later in life.

Programs also teach leaders how to establish yardsticks in an area of famously fuzzy sociological constructs. Meeting inclusivity goals requires putting metrics in place to see the progress you have made. But the very act of defining someone by socioeconomic or racial background risks reinforcing the very problems that you are trying to solve. So careful coursework in meaningful diversity analysis is critical.

Future principals and leaders learn concepts like culturally responsive teaching, designed to empower students through making cultural connections.

Principals and leaders like curriculum and instructional specialists are also educated in how school curriculum can be adjusted to better serve culturally diverse groups. Faculty leaders, special education specialists, librarians, and even coaches, benefit, too. Each will find coursework that offers specific techniques and ideas for improving diversity within their fields of expertise.

Finally, educational leaders are trained to be trainers themselves. It’s the responsibility of teacher leaders and principals to mentor staff in effective DEI practices. They also serve as on-tap resources for tough diversity issues and culture clashes in the classroom. With their additional training and experience, even the most challenging cultural issues can be resolved.

As you’ll learn in those programs, promoting cultural diversity isn’t something that is done once. It’s a generational task. What you achieve will make a mark on the future of the country and the world.

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