In October 2021, then Education Minister Owen Bonnici launched an anti-racism strategy in Malta. In an article in the Times of Malta, he had written that it is “so critical to push back against even the slightest hint of racism and xenophobia. This is why zero tolerance to stereotyping and prejudices is essential. This is why, from infancy, an appreciation of the intercultural and diverse society we have become must be stressed in families and schools”.
At Verdala International School (VIS) we began this journey by ensuring we had a robust anti-discrimination policy that would underpin our decision-making, our response to discriminatory behaviour and guide our educational programmes. However, talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things, and ensuring we are all on the same page is a more complex matter.
In education we talk about the taught curriculum and the written curriculum and how they need to align; in the case of diversity education, this needs to be more than just superficial recognition. The Black Lives Matter movement, and indeed the LGBTIQAi+ journey, demonstrate that this is global problem that is entrenched in everyone’s background, upbringing and experiences. There are a huge number of sensitivities around the topics. Delivering from a teacher-centred approach does not work; it needs to be unpacked and understood, and only then can behaviour change.
While VIS willingly embraced this journey, we soon realised that we needed equity and diversity training. So we turned to Darnell Fine, an experienced diversity trainer who has been working with all our staff on building their confidence and skill-sets in this area. One of the first steps he took was to remind us of one of Stephen D. Brookfield’s statements from his 2017 book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher: “We don’t need you to find out about us – we need you to find out about you”.
We needed to acknowledge our own micro-aggressions and honestly challenge our own biases before embarking on a learning journey with our students. Our staff were encouraged to have honest conversations about their own bias, privilege and experiences and the powers that influence them. Educational institutions are keen to tackle these matters, however, we need to recognise that while we can address the topics on the surface, there are undercurrents and emotions behind the scenes.
Banter is a common micro-aggression that occurs and is often subconscious. Our students and indeed we as adults need to recognise how hurtful these slights in our conversations can be to those at the receiving end, who perhaps suffer it to stay included. Marginalisation happens in many areas and too many people have to bear the brunt of being discriminated against as they are forced to work harder to be seen, supported or heard than the privileged, who in many cases have no idea how difficult life can be.
This month we celebrated BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) month at VIS. Over a range of focus sessions we shared a range of resources that build awareness and spark discussion. We started having conversations with our elementary pupils about how we can challenge stereotypes and be inclusive. As part of the events, some of our own students and staff bravely shared their stories of what it is like being on the receiving end of micro-aggressive behaviour or direct racism.
As a school, we acknowledge that we need to continue on this journey; we are a cultural mix of 47 nationalities with many different perspectives and global influences. Our students and staff come into the room with much common ground but also with their own subconscious bias.
Inquiry-driven teaching is about asking questions and going on a journey of discovery. Our students are well aware that the world is not perfect; if we pretend it is, then we do them a disservice and the problems disappear beneath the surface only to reappear as hostility in another forum, or worse, an accepted norm.
We hope that with staff training, strategies and open discussion, we can not only raise awareness but also enable our young people to move from being bystanders to upstanders, acknowledging what is not OK and adapting their own behaviour to become caring and integrated human beings in this complex and wonderful world of diversity.