5 Ways to Cultivate a Culture of Acceptance

The other day, I sat in a conversation with a student and a DHS worker who had come to take her into custody.
She was no longer able to stay at her host home and would be moving back to a shelter till a new home could be found. In the meantime, she would go to a different school.

As she sat in tears listening to the news, she said to the DHS worker, “No offense, lady, but DHS has done nothing for me. I’ve been from home to home, in and out the shelter, and from school to school. This was supposed to be my fresh start.”

In situations like this, we are all subject to the law. It didn’t matter that this girl was in my school and wanted to stay. The decision had been made, her history was long and complicated, and she would soon be off to another place.

Even though I know the realities beyond my control, it doesn’t make situations like this any easier to face. And this scenario was particularly hard to bear because of what she said next.

“I mean,” she went on, “When I came here, the other kids weren’t mean to me. Some actually shook my hand in the hall when they met me. I haven’t had anyone bully me or treat me wrong here. This is a place where I have felt safe. There won’t be another school like this one.”

I had to turn away for a moment and gather my composure.

A Culture of Acceptance
I know our school is not perfect, but we are intentional about developing a culture of belonging.

Although it is hard to put a finger on the tangible ways this kind of culture can been encouraged, here a few actions we have taken over the years toward that end:

1. Fostering a school-pride
I know encouraging school-spirit may seem a thing of the past, but I have found it unifying to remind students they belong to a group of which they can be proud. When I refer to our students as Bulldogs, for instance, I want to remind them they are a part of a community of people cheering each other onto higher achievement. Creating a sense of belonging first means helping students find pride in community to which they belong.

2. Modeling respectful interaction
As a leadership team, our principals and counselors make it a priority be in every classroom at the start of each school year. It would be much easier to talk to 750 of students in a school assembly, but we like the opportunity to see them in smaller settings. In classroom meetings, you can still look them in the eyes as you talk about school expectations. And you can model to them by how you address them the ways you expect them to address each other.

3. Celebrating students and teachers
We are not a “Great Expectations” school, but our teachers have adopted many of the same philosophies of that program in interacting with students.

These include celebrating students who excel, try hard, and reach goals. It also means celebrating teachers who go the extra mile to serve students by highlighting teachers of the month.

As you recruit and hire new teachers, you should make it goal to find teachers who instruct with excellence AND care deeply about students.

4. Encouraging student-driven initiatives
A few years ago, we approached our student council with the question: how could students encourage students in treating everyone in our school with respect?

They began to brainstorm and came up with an idea they entitled STAND–Students Tolerating Absolutely No Discrimination.

By partnering with a local non-profit, they began hosting assemblies, classroom chats, and freshman-focused seminars. They lead the discussions and conversations about treating others with dignity.

5. Office climate = school climate
You can’t expect students to respect one another if adults don’t do the same. One of the values you should talk about among office staff, for instance, is treating every person who visits as a guest.

No matter adult or child, background or social status, every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. So make it a goal to model that in your office first.

What happens in the office is often contagious in the rest of the school.

As heart-wrenching as it was to watch a student led away by DHS, it was also a good reminder of how important it is to encourage positive interactions for all students at our school.

My school is certainly far from perfect. Like every school, we still have instances of bullying. Just recently, we had to meet with a group of students to talk about offensive behaviors they were displaying at a public event.

But these set-backs should not deter us from reaching for the ideal. Cultivating a positive school culture happens when you encourage school-pride, model respectful interaction, celebrate strong students and teachers, allow student-driven solutions, and set a tone of respect from the front office to the classroom.

It makes a difference in the overall health of students — for those who will graduate from our schools or for those who may only be with us for a short time.

Now It’s Your Turn
What are ways you are encouraging a culture of acceptance where you serve? Share with the rest of us!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker