When I was asked to draft a contribution on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for the UN High-Panel on the Teaching Profession, I agreed without hesitation because I believe that equitable access to the teaching profession (for those working in classrooms and those working at different levels of the system) is vital to quality education for all. Being intentional about equity, inclusion, and diversity in the teacher workforce is critical to the professional community as a whole, and to messaging ‘inclusion and diversity’ in society generally and specifically to learners and to teachers themselves.
For learners, an inclusive and representative teacher workforce will have positive effects on learner aspirations and sense of identity. This is important because learners who experience their identity as unrepresented or invisible in society and in the leadership of the schools are at risk of having a sense of not belonging, of being invisible or marginal, and thus of becoming increasingly disengaged. Teachers from marginalised or minority groups are more likely to exercise professional confidence and participate in an equitable and representative workforce in which they feel seen and heard.
What is meant by ‘diversity’ and why is it important? Dimensions of diversity include disability, gender (and gender identity fluidity), language, race, ethnicity, and culture (including religious practices) and class (or relative wealth). The forms of exclusion - or insidious marginalisation - that result from any of these can function to exclude learners and teachers from meaningful participation in education and so limit the full achievement of our individual and collective potential. When we exclude or restrict the participation of anyone on the basis of any of these, not only do we limit the rights of others, but we also suffer loss because diversity is an asset in society which enriches us all and is a powerful opportunity for learning.
In many societies, internal or cross-border migration is contributing to rapid changes in race, ethnicity, linguistic, class, religion, culture, and attitudes and practices in relation to gender. Any changes, or combinations of changes, can disrupt existing distributions of power and result in increased levels of prejudice and discrimination disrupting social cohesion and contributing to social instability and the weakening of social bonds. It is imperative that education systems respond to these demographic changes and their new challenges in achieving learner diversity and inclusion. Intentional actions, with appropriate investment, must be taken in the professional training and support for teachers grappling with the educational and social consequences of changing demographics.
Sometimes exclusion is explicit and easy to recognise in rules and institutional forms. Often it is less visible and requires a determination to recognise and identify exclusions that result from unrecognised biases. In all societies, however diverse, we are all products of structural and systemic advantages or disadvantages and carry the benefits or the negative consequences of these in uninterrogated assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that are rooted in our relative privilege and inequality.
My view is that whatever our relative privilege, as teachers we must commit to a life-long process of reflecting on our own attitudes and assumptions, and of seeking opportunities to understand these better. This responsibility is particularly important for our profession. Our influence on each individual is immense, and our collective impact on society unmatched. Ongoing professional development in relation to diversity, inclusion and equity is critical to the fulfilment of our moral and professional purpose. Professionally, the work of teachers is informed by principles related to the ‘duty of care’ for all children. Whatever the extent of contestation or acceptance regarding these issues in each society, teachers must be vigilant in ensuring that no child is hurt by a failure to anticipate and take actions to ensure that there are no acts of intentional or careless discrimination, or systematic marginalisation of individuals or their identity.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) makes it the responsibility of all to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Teachers are the vehicle through which this policy commitment in education will be realised. It is the professional judgment of teachers mediating and interpreting goals and guidelines in interaction with the dynamic and complex needs of learners, in their varying material and social circumstances, that will bring SDG4 to life. And it is the exercise of this judgment in the framework of a professional and moral orientation to social justice which propels our collective practice and learning. SDG Goal 4 will not be achieved without teachers mediating its policy intentions.
But teachers cannot achieve this on their own. Career-long and deepening reflection and learning – starting from initial teacher education - on inclusion, equity, and the achievement of diversity in the workforce and in classroom practice should be teacher-driven where opportunities are provided to share learning. This can happen through teacher-led organisations, and through employer provided opportunities.
Because what can be achieved in classrooms and schools should ideally be supported by homes and community, this work of teachers and schools needs to be extended to establishing common purpose in communities and society so that, to the maximum extent possible, efforts are complemented by commitments in homes and society.
Government support for SDG4 comes with a responsibility to actively work towards achieving equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workforce. This includes identifying the institutional barriers (implicit and explicit) that prevent marginalized and vulnerable groups from entering and staying, or being promoted, in the teacher workforce; developing policies followed by clear, adequately resourced, and time-bound action plans for the implementation of steps to address these barriers; and monitoring and reporting on progress and outcomes so that corrective action is taken when the expected progress is not achieved.
The organised teaching profession is an important partner to government in supporting these actions and as part of civil society, must hold governments accountable for progress in achieving inclusive and equitable quality education, through an inclusive and diverse teacher workforce, without which we cannot realise education equity
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.