I took this course on Inclusive Leadership on edX earlier this year and had so many thoughts about how to apply the learnings as a teacher and teacher trainer.
But first, I want to tell you a story. A teacher was once summoned by her manager. A summon is in itself fairly ominous but the manager started the discussion with a forced smile and casual chit-chat which convinced the teacher she was in trouble for ‘something’. She tried to stay calm and smile but in her head, she was feverishly running through the events of the last week, trying to figure out what she might have done, where she may have slipped, which student may have complained.
All she could think of was how she had walked into the school after a holiday and the receptionist had welcomed her with a huge smile and said, “Welcome back sweety! Your students missed you – I’ve had so many come and ask when you were coming back.”
And then finally, the teacher’s manager came to the point. “You don’t smile enough. I saw you walking down the corridors with a student the other day and you looked very serious. The other teachers seem to be smiling and talking to their students and I think you should try to do the same.”
Some questions for you to ponder:
- What do you think may have happened here?
- How do you think the manager felt?
- How do you think the teacher felt?
Of course there are many unknowns in the story, and you may feel ill-equipped to answer some of these questions. But think about the unknowns for the manager, for the teacher? What were their ‘unknowns’?
What is Inclusive Leadership?
A lot of companies nowadays talk of being equal opportunity employers. That is Step 1 to inclusivity – to not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender, race, color, religion, sexual orientation. The phrase ‘equal opportunity’ is usually brandished at the hiring stage. (Actually, I’m quite grateful for this because this means my job application doesn’t get rejected simply on the basis of my name or nationality.)
But what happens after one is hired and becomes part of the organization? In the case of schools, the academic managers, senior teachers and principals usually have unconscious biases that affect the way they manage their teams. So Step 2 of inclusivity is to become aware of one’s unconscious biases and accept them mindfully. I don’t say one should reject these biases because human nature often makes it very difficult to do so. In fact, being aware is a powerful step towards realigning our biases and much more effective in trying to subvert them.
After self-awareness comes action. Step 3 of inclusivity is to value both the commonalities and the differences of others. This is most vital because it determines how school leaders behave, how they interact, and how they manage.
Step 1: Do not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color, religion, sexual orientation etc.
Step 2: Become aware of our unconscious biases towards team members.
Step 3: Value both the commonalities and differences in others.
How do you think the manager in the story earlier could have been more inclusive in her leadership?
The manager was responding, ostensibly to the lack of smiles, but probably to what she felt was a more general seriousness of attitude. She contrasted this with the other teachers’ light-heartedness in their interactions with students. What she ignored was:
- the teacher’s state of emotional well-being.
- what may have happened with that particular student?
- whether the teacher’s seriousness takes away from the quality of work.
It is possible that the manager held any unconscious biases? Here is a suggestion for a more inclusive way to have this conversation:
- Ask the teacher how they are doing. Find out if there are any work or personal stressors in their life that you may be unaware of.
- If there are stressors, offer them help – either through personal coaching or by redirecting the teacher to available in-company or external resources.
- Find out what happened with the particular student with whom the teacher had been noticed.
- Say, “I noticed you looked preoccupied / unhappy / frustrated. Is there something you would like to talk about?”
- Emphasize that the teacher’s personal, professional, and mental well-being is top priority and it affects their students, the staff, and the morale of the workplace, and that you are open and can be approached in case the teacher would like to talk about anything.
Do you think such inclusive leadership would make the teacher feel welcomed, part of the tribe, and encourage them to be a team-player and more innovative at work. Would you suggest anything else?