How Do You Change a Culture?

Combatting everyday bigotry in schools and society

September 12, 2016
How Do You Change a Culture?

As I settle into a new school year, I find myself wrestling with a persistent question: What do you do when colleagues or supervisors make offensive, off-hand comments? It's a question my educator friends and I wonder and worry about, over late-night dinners and weekend afternoons, as we rehash some of the seemingly casual asides we've heard in schools.

“There’s not much we can do; that boy is just retarded."

"That girl is shy, but watch out for that other girl — she sleeps around."

"A student was crying this morning because they are afraid their family might be deported." Another staff member responds: 'Well, they shouldn't be here anyway.'"

Ugly and offensive, such remarks read as starkly bigoted or surprisingly insensitive. But they're often made in passing, almost as if coworkers don’t realize how harmful their words can be.

It's hard to know whether these comments reflect deep-seated beliefs, or whether they're a way of venting, one that has somehow become acceptable in particular settings. Regardless, such statements are destructive to our students and our schools. They are antithetical to our roles as teachers and mentors. The stereotypes they reinforce can permeate classrooms and eat away at trust and respect, and, as a Stanford study showed, can have a measurably negative effect on student learning and self-esteem.

But I am ashamed to admit that I don't know how to respond. My friends express the same concerns. While clear in our convictions, we are unsure what we can say to help make constructive change in our communities.

In such moments, we are often acutely conscious of our standing. We are young — often in a community of older staff; many of us are woman in a community of predominately older men; and a number of us are relatively new to our jobs, where many are veterans of 10 years or more.

Over the last year, I've written on a variety of educational topics, exploring ideas to increase civic learning, support teen mothers, rethink teacher licensure, foster professional collaboration, and ensure undocumented students’ access to college. In each case, I have tried to propose solutions.

Here I have no solutions to offer. Only questions.

So as I embark on another year of teaching, I've gone out in search of workable strategies and advice, seeking the answers that I can’t find on my own. 

Silvia Diazgranados Ferráns, an instructor and doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offers strategies for developing a rich peace-building curriculum that promotes empathy, kindness, and voice.

Meira Levinson, a political philosopher and faculty member at Harvard, details an approach to addressing race and bias in the classroom in her book No Citizen Left Behind.

More directly, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance Project offers two handbooks: Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry and Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias, and Stereotype. These resources present concrete examples and possible steps:

  • Ask questions: “Can you tell me what you mean by that?” “Can you tell me more about what you are trying to say there?” Instead of accusing, questions encourage the person to become more aware of what they are saying and how it might be hurtful.
  • Take time: It might not always be productive to speak to a colleague in the moment, perhaps during a large meeting. Indeed, in the moment we sometimes don’t have the words. Waiting for a private moment to establish a dialogue, hours or even days later, may bring a more positive result.

These strategies are great for those one-off encounters, but long-lasting institutional change requires an entire culture being willing to be reflective. Kate Nehring, president and founder of Infused, a leadership organization trying to create more inclusive school and nonprofit cultures, argues that change begins only with exploring and understanding personal histories and identities — and finally becoming aware of one's own biases. Such change must be supported and championed at the top, since leadership teams have a powerful impact on school culture — and since a failure of leadership can leave employees rudderless and allow "venting" to devolve into something far worse.

Everyday stereotyping is hardly a problem unique to schools. According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 30 percent of people in the workforce say they've heard racial, ethnic, or sexist bigotry in the past year.

A friend in the legal profession shares stories of a boss telling women associates not to mess up their career prospects by getting pregnant; a friend in medicine tells a story of a doctor saying, in an aside, that a young Hispanic girl should have graduated from high school instead of "having a litter"; a friend in business shares a story of colleagues mixing up the name of two African American associates, then saying "Well, they're basically the same person." Time and again, I hear friends admit, "I didn’t know what to say."

We need more open and honest conversations about how to systematically, concretely, and effectively address such comments when we hear them in our school halls, meeting rooms, or street corners. I, for one, don't want to feel unsure anymore.

I hope you will join me in starting this conversation.

Author's note: As in my previous posts, all identifying details in this series will be altered, for the confidentiality of my students, their families, and my school peers. The focus of this blog is the testing of ideas, rather than the telling of individual stories.

About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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