Do we believe that human diversity in all its many forms is enriching for us as a society and as individuals?
By Mary Carron, Principal, Rathfarnham Educate Together National School
There is no doubt that over the last number of years our country has become more and more diverse. It is indeed all the richer for that. For too long we were a country with a dominant religion, a staple diet, and a population of people who on the whole had difficulty accepting anything that seemed in any way ‘different’ or ‘outside the norm’. Diversity was defined along socio-economic lines or according to age or gender difference, but that was almost as far as it went.
We may have acceptance… but do we actually celebrate difference?
Today, as a society we celebrate diversity in a whole host of ways. We celebrate diversity of culture, race and ethnicity in almost every part of Ireland; we celebrate diversity of language, diversity in terms of food, diversity in our religious and political beliefs and our ideologies, diversity in sexual orientation, in physical ability. And yet is celebrate the right word? We may have acceptance that our society is changing, we may have tolerance of difference (and still to some degree we don’t!) but do we actually celebrate difference, individuality, uniqueness? Do we believe that human diversity in all its many forms is enriching for us as a society and as individuals?
In my view, this is the approach to diversity that we need to embrace in our schools. Since schools are a microcosm of society, they need to be places where the uniqueness of each individual is understood and welcomed, where equity and mutual respect are intrinsic to the school community, where the richness and variety in our society and within each one of us is embraced without prejudice. If we can offer this type of culture in our schools we have a better chance of creating this in our wider society of the future.
The real aim is to ensure that the diverse elements are valued and embraced.
A school community is made up of individuals and each of these individuals comes with their own set of circumstances and experiences. In any school community there will be differences in age, family makeup, gender, sexual orientation, belief systems, race; differences in knowledge and skills, differences in life experiences, to name but a few. Some of the adult diversity will be reflected among the student population, which will also come with their own additional dimensions of diversity. The real aim for us in schools is to ensure that these diverse elements are so valued and embraced that they are not perceived as ‘differences’ but are thought of simply as part of the rich diversity of human existence, intrinsically valued without question.
Society often tries to define ‘normal’ and subsequently we have intolerance against those perceived to be ‘different’.
In my experience, difficulties – and indeed incidences of bullying among children – are very often a result of fear or intolerance of difference. Many children fear what they don’t understand. If they perceive someone as being different or ‘other’, and there is an absence of a culture that celebrates individuality and rejects prejudice, the way is left open for intolerance and ridicule. The wider society often tries to define ‘normal’ and subsequently we have intolerance, prejudice and often violence against those perceived to be ‘different’. Small wonder that children seeing this intolerance in the wider society bring it into the classroom.
We like to claim that all children are treated equally in our schools.
We like to claim that all children are treated equally in our schools. But are we truly able to meet all the diverse needs of children inside our schools? Can we ensure that diversity is embraced and cherished among all our children? Are we able to be models for the children of a society where all are cherished equally for being the unique individuals that they are, without intolerance, prejudice or discrimination?
There are indeed many types of diversity even within the four walls of our classrooms – family background and circumstances differ, family value systems differ, there are physical differences, learning differences, different personality types and different sensitivities. Even within individuals there is a range of diverse needs and we need to be attentive to all of these diversities. We need to be strong advocates for diversity, champions of uniqueness. We need to model this in all our dealings with children and promote this way of being throughout our school communities. If children live and learn and grow in an atmosphere that is not just open to diversity, but actively welcoming of diversity, then they themselves have every chance of becoming genuinely embracing of diversity in all its forms.
We need to be not just open to diversity, but actively welcoming of diversity.
Last month, schools were urged to take part in the INTO sponsored Different Families, Same Love competition. This was a call to teachers to take action in their classrooms to celebrate the diversity of people in Ireland. Prizes will be awarded in May 2018 to coincide with International Family Equality Day.
“Diversity is the one thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day”.
– Author Unknown
Mary Carron is Principal at Rathfarnham Educate Together National School, Dublin