Thousands of students in many of the English school boards will begin the new school year tomorrow. Like all beginnings, the school year welcomes new possibilities, opportunities and ways to think more critically about how to engage diverse identities and experiences.
How a child experiences school can have a tremendous impact on their well-being and sense of belonging. The new school year is an opportunity for educators to foster that sense of belonging, and to celebrate the diverse identities that comprise their school communities.
If I could choose a concept to nurture difference without our schools, it would be through the lens of an equitable and inclusive education. This concept has been central to education policy in Ontario. The Ministry of Education defines an equitable, inclusive education system as “one in which all students, parents, and other members of the school community are welcomed and respected, and every student is supported and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations.” Equity is “a condition or state of fair, inclusive, and respectful treatment of all people.” It does not mean treating all people the same. It acknowledges individual differences while ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed.
An inclusive education is one that is based on the principles of acceptance and inclusion of all students. A critical component of this is the ability for students to see themselves reflected in their curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment. An inclusive education honours the breadth and depth of our diverse society, where all individuals are respected.
How do these concepts unfold in a school setting? As a child, I remember my first day at a new school in Canada. My teacher took attendance and when he said my name out loud to the class, he mispronounced it. I tried to correct him, but I was a shy child. So instead, I quietly nodded and slid into my seat. I had an African name, which was foreign to most people (although very phonetic). He gave me a name that was easier for him to pronounce and made it easier for me to assimilate into my new school environment. For years, people called me by that name until, as an adult, I began to correct them.
I grew up in a school environment where I didn’t see myself represented in the classroom materials, books in the library, or posters on the school walls. My teachers, except less than a handful, were all white. I didn’t think much of this, except it reinforced a subtle message that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t important enough, and that I was invisible. I didn’t have many role models at school to look up to. I do recall one career day in middle school when a Black professional came to talk about her career. I was enamoured! I had never had someone at school to look up to, to aspire to become. It was the first time in my academic experience where I felt validated and proud. More importantly, I believed I could do something great with myself.
“There is so much teachers can do to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for our children, where every aspect of our children’s identities is honoured and celebrated. It requires teachers to have the cultural competencies to deliver a curriculum that is truly equitable and inclusive.”
As a parent, I see the many ways educators discount my children’s identities and experiences at school. My children are racially diverse in a predominately white school environment. For years, they have struggled to see images of themselves in the curriculum or learn about the history of Canada. Last year, on meet the teacher night, I asked my oldest child’s teacher if the class would be learning Indigenous history, to which she simply replied, no. As someone who also didn’t learn about First Nations, Métis and Inuit identity, culture and history in school, this was a missed opportunity to teach students the full history of Canada, the legacy of residential schools, the sixties scoop and colonialism.
Later in the year, my daughter learned about ancient civilizations, in particular Roman and Greek empires. She came home one day and told me that she asked her teacher if the class would learn about African civilizations. The response again was “no”. According to the teacher, there are insufficient resources to teach about African civilizations. The failure, and essentially the refusal, to present a curriculum that reflects the different identities of students is short-sighted and problematic for many reasons. A child who does not see herself reflected in the curriculum feels silenced and invisible. It also limits the opportunity for other students to learn about, and be exposed to different cultures and histories beyond the traditional Eurocentric curriculum.
There is so much teachers can do to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for our children, where every aspect of our children’s identities is honoured and celebrated. It requires teachers to have the cultural competencies to deliver a curriculum that is truly equitable and inclusive. Simple gestures can have significant impacts on a student’s self-worth and sense of belonging.
On the first day of school, when taking attendance, consider asking each child to identify their pronouns. For the student who identifies as non-binary, you are telling them, “I see you!” They will feel heard and validated. So-called “unconventional” names may be hard to pronounce. Make a genuine effort to pronounce each student’s name correctly. Perhaps ask them how mom and dad and other family members pronounce their name at home. Don’t try to shorten their names. Mohammed is not “Mo”! If you can’t get their name right the first time, commit to correctly learning their name throughout the year. Honour the identity that child’s parent bestowed on them.
Audit the materials in your classroom. Do the posters on your wall represent the diversity of Canada’s population? Do the images and characters in your books and classroom materials celebrate different family structures, religions, gender identities and expressions, disabilities?
Are you intentional in honouring reconciliation with Indigenous people? A land acknowledgement every morning that recognizes the relationship with the Indigenous people of this land, and its history should be reinforced with a commitment towards reconciliation.
For me, as a parent, a true sense of accomplishment in the school year is not about excelling academically. If my child can finish the school year with a greater sense of well-being, awareness about the world, acceptance of difference, than my child has succeeded.
Educators are central to developing and defining these experiences as the school year unfolds. I hope they do so with a greater appreciation of what it means to foster equitable and inclusive learning.
Check out our Diversity Library with a list of back to school books for the new year!