Leading in a Diverse Workplace: ED Staff Learn How From Award-Winning Teachers

“In an increasingly diverse world, it is important for teachers to have the skills to reach every student in the classroom and close the achievement gap,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello, at the Department of Education to help lead a conversation about diversity. The Department invited Costello, along with the 2012 Teaching Tolerance Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching Awardees, who were in D.C. to receive their awards. They engaged employees in an extended conversation on diversity, helping employees to understand their effective classroom practices and to translate their experiences and insights into lessons about leading, whether in classrooms, schools, or federal agencies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a storied “nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.” For 20 years, Teaching Tolerance has worked to reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations, and support equitable experiences for the nation’s children. “This awards program recognizes teachers who excel at teaching students from diverse backgrounds in a way that promotes student achievement,” said Costello. The five awardees are:

Lhisa R. Almashy
Park Vista High School
Lake Worth, Fla.

Anna E. Baldwin
Arlee High School
Arlee, Mont.

Darnell Fine
Atlanta Neighborhood Charter Middle School
Atlanta, Ga.

Robert P. Sautter
Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School
San Francisco, Calif.

Laurence Tan
122nd Street Elementary School
Los Angeles, Calif.

Putting terms like “tolerance” and “diversity” into action

Costello acknowledged that it is very difficult to say what “tolerance,” defined as culturally responsive teaching and curriculum by the Teaching Tolerance project, looks like. Out of this difficulty grew the teaching awards program. The four teachers who led the conversation gave the audience powerful examples of teachers who turn differences to an advantage for learning. One said teaching is beyond a job—it is not something you do but rather something you live. To be successful at it you have to know your constituents as individuals, build connections with their families, and come to know the neighborhoods where they live.

Describing the value of knowing students’ families, another of the teachers posited that, in addition to learning so much every day from his students about how to teach them well, this learning is multiplied 10-fold when he has a relationship with their parents. His effort to accomplish that is a model with a high bar: He calls every family before the start of the school year to invite them to school to talk about how they can work together; he tries to connect with them every day; he calls their homes; and he makes home visits to families who want him to come. His purpose is centered by this challenge: Be a road block to our students’ learning in our school, or help them get on board. He is now a trainer for “educators of equity” at his school, which means, for example, that he helps to raise awareness among the staff about what white privilege means.

Taking that goal as a cue, another of the teachers defined “diversity” as defining identities in relation to a dominant culture and giving integrity to difference in order to equalize it. As an example, he asked “What is ‘intelligence'”? and pointed out that standardized testing privileges certain populations over others. Under that parameter, someone who is intelligent could be defined as not so. This led to the question of what diversity contributes to integrity, probably the highest value in any workplace. The answer: Meet people where they are, recognize each person comes to the table with something different, and raise people’s consciousness about the different people at the table.

Tomorrow’s great teachers are in today’s classrooms

The conversation turned to the key issues of teacher education and attracting potentially great teachers to the profession. All of the teachers agreed with Costello’s summary of the discussion: To create the next generation of great teachers requires that the current generation of students have great experiences in school now—exactly like these award-winning teachers ensure their students will have every day in their classrooms.

ED staff who participated in the discussion took with them valuable lessons for paying attention to both the gifts and needs their colleagues bring every day to the workplace.

To read more about the individual awardees and see videos of them in their classrooms, click here.