We all have unconscious biases that can be influenced by the cultural environment we find ourselves in, our background, cultural environment, and individual experiences. It is important we are aware of unconscious bias and how it affects us as it will impact learners and how it brings the curriculum to life.
We need to bring examples of people from all walks of life into the curriculum, so that learners see themselves represented in the classroom from day one, but they learn to understand all kinds of people and their personal values. ‘You cannot be what you cannot see.’
Everyone needs to feel like they belong, especially young people and children. If they do not feel represented, respected, valued, celebrated, it will impact their learning. If those learners do not feel able to be themselves at school, it can have a negative impact on their ability to build meaningful relationships with classmates at the very least and might lead to serious low self-esteem, self-worth, low levels of self-confidence and has led to self-harm and suicide.
This will inevitably impact their mental health and well-being for years to come, leaving an impact that could last a lifetime.
In fact, I would say, the ability to be yourself at school is a safety need as well as a belonging need. When looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for me it comes just above food, water, and oxygen. This helps explain how wide-ranging its impact is.
Therefore, it is key that we are embedding diversity into the curriculum and contextualising it into everything we do in education.
To help ensure learners feel a sense of belonging and safety at school, they need to see themselves represented when they are learning in the classroom. This means we need to be representing all kinds of people – whether that be people with disabilities, people of different skin colours, different body sizes, religion and those who are LGBTIQA+.
We also need to introduce the use of pronouns and explain the meaning of gender-neutral language in a non-intrusive way from the first moment a learner interacts with us. For example, when asking someone if they have siblings, we need to use that gender neutral term, rather than asking if they have a brother or a sister.
We need to be thinking how we can encourage learners to express themselves in a respectful way. Through the power of storytelling, we can use inclusive books that show diversity. It is not about having a ‘gay lesson,’ but it is about developing skills and knowledge contextualised in an inclusive background.
It is also key that our syllabus is co-designed, co-produced and co-delivered by a diverse range of learners and that organisations we involve in our curriculum represent people who are disabled, LGBTIQA+, of different skin colours, different gender identities and expressions.
Part of ensuring a sense of belonging for all learners is dependent on challenging discrimination wherever we find it. This is not about converting someone to a point of view, but it is about asking for respect and developing respect and acceptance. For the learner, it is about their understanding of the impact of what they are saying.
There are small things we can do to make our classroom more inclusive. For example, we can ensure a rainbow flag is not produced just at one point in the year as a tokenistic gesture, but that flag should be flying 365 days a year.
Inclusive education can only be achieved by embedding it through all we do in school, in a holistic and compassionate manner. Inclusivity, belonging, and safety for all learners will never be achieved through one lesson but it is a good start.