Walker and Riordan’s Advice for Leadership in Culturally Diverse Schools

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Allan Walker and Geoff Riordan explain collective capacity and what this means in execution in culturally diverse faculties in their paper Leading collective capacity in culturally diverse schools (2010).  My international school has a diverse faculty from all over the world and I can see many of Walker and Riordan’s points being plausible and actionable in my own workplace.

The authors speak of leadership in terms of relationship building with attention to the intercultural dimension of this, which would be sensitivity to the cultures of each party in the working relationship.  Collective capacity, as they explain it, is the group efforts towards agreed-upon, shared ideals, values, and objectives which is modeled and projected from the leaders (administrators and others) and which is known to lead to improved outcomes for students.  Walker and Riordan breakdown their leadership framework into five parts that combine to increase the collective capacity of the teaching faculty and staff:

    • Positioning
    • Structuring
    • Expectations
    • Expression
    • Profiling

I will discuss each section’s outline and prescription from Walker and Riordan with my own opinions added.

Positioning

This is one of the easier of the five components to implement, I think. The authors discuss positioning as the leader (and there may be many leaders) thoughtfully dissecting and reflecting on his/her/their own cultural identity and biases, then comparing that to the faculty members’ own cultural identities.  This will position the leader’s cultural dispositions in a multidimensional spectrum of influences among the entire staff. Armed with this knowledge, a leader can better determine the commonalities and differences in the group and exactly what are the shared values. If the group is aware of the well-articulated values, these ideas will get attention, resources, and effort from the group.

This self-reflection seems approachable and immediately actionable to me.  Julia Middleton’s concept of Core and Flex might be a good place to start (2015). This understanding of one’s own cultural composition is important and useful when working in a diverse group, but it can be challenging and may not be self-evident.  Careful consideration and deliberate reflection is required.  This part can be done, but the communication necessary after this positioning falls into the more difficult category of expression which will be discussed later.

Structuring

Walker and Riordan tell us that leaders can thoughtfully structure the physical space of the school and the working teams/departments to maximize relationship building.  They describe how working spaces, meeting rooms, classrooms, offices, etc. can be conducive to individual work or group collaboration, with their prescribed emphasis on the group-focus. I understand their point and believe there is some balance required here.  I can get very distracted when there is too much noise and commotion in my working space.  This decreases my efficiency and makes me irritable with the group, because I cannot get my work done.  There should be spaces available for collaboration and group meetings, but I am not a fan of open offices, personally, and I know I’m not alone in this.

Similar to the physical building, furniture, and spaces, leaders can structure the working teams and relationships to heighten collective capacity.  Departments or administrators can welcome input from more members on some topics that have traditionally been the domain of those at the top only, such as creating assessments, choosing textbooks, designing curriculum, and hiring new teachers, according to the authors. This group input and consideration is noble, though Walker and Riordan discuss it in contrast to teachers working on their own in their own way.  At times there is merit to this independent way of working, as it allows teachers to think creatively and take risks without the pressure of Big Brother watching or the anxiety of possibly making a mistake in front of peers. With balance in this arena, teachers may increase their confidence and then have something positive to report to the group, rather than stifling their creativity in an effort to only do it in the group-approved way.

Expectations

Expectations of staff and student behavior, job details and responsibilities, appropriate interaction between teachers, proper classroom management, etc. can all vary greatly depending on staff members’ cultural backgrounds. With a diverse staff there is bound to be a range of expectations in many areas that effect day-to-day operations of the school, and thus effect student learning.  Walker and Riordan remind us how difficult a task it might be to explicitly outline expectations that match the group’s collective thinking. In fact, the authors recommend this discussion happen as a large staff development exercise or school revisioning, not in smaller, piecemeal ways. After the difficult fact-finding mission to determine the shared ideals and acceptable expectations, I would suggest making those expectations available to potential new-hires before they join the faculty.  For example, at my school, I was given the employee handbook which outlined the expectations for employees working with children, interactions between teachers, community connections, and more so I knew exactly the school’s cultural expectations before I agreed to join that culture.  These expectations may be more obvious in a local, public school with a less-diverse faculty, but they are not necessarily conspicuous for international hires traveling to different countries from various home cultures.

Expression

The authors tell us about expression in terms of how each member communicates with others.  The effective leader will model this through face-to-face interaction with all members of the staff, rather than perhaps hiding away in a closed office and emailing pronouncements out to the group.  In building relationships across the staff, it is imperative to communicate with each other, but how that is accomplished is a matter of cultural identity.  Walker and Riordan discuss at length the amount of personal information one may or may not reveal about themselves in the work setting based on their cultural conception of what is appropriate.  The key here, I think, is to allow the freedom for those who wish to share more of themselves to do so, while not requiring anyone to share more of their private selves than they desire. I can imagine this manifesting itself in some getting-to-know you activities organized by leadership at the beginning of the school year, for example. Well-intentioned questions (and assumptions) about marriages could be a potential minefield for LGBTQ people or divorced people who may have an interest in remaining private about this aspect of their lives.

This leads into the authors’ four requirements for positive intercultural collaboration. They are:

    1. successful relationships among group members
    2. respect and belief in the meaningful cooperation towards the endeavor
    3. efficiency of the group work
    4. members are not stressed by the cultural differences amongst the group

The first three are easier for a leader to facilitate with foresight and through creating a respectful cross-cultural atmosphere at the school. The fourth one seems a wildcard to me, because it depends on individual group members identifying and perhaps challenging their own biases in order to overcome the hurdle.

Profiling

This section of Walker and Riordan’s argument is a cautionary tale of how the pursuit of cultural diversity in the group can be taken to a dangerous extreme.  Personal experiences and circumstances shape one’s cultural identity in addition to any national culture or demographic membership. Profiling happens when assumptions are made about someone’s skill set, knowledge, or professional/personal attributes based on their cultural identity.  This leads to tokenism which expects a certain level of cultural insight or key knowledge based on cultural membership, discounting or ignoring the personal, individual composition of the whole person. This results in decreasing a person’s power within the group, marginalizing them, personally, and their contributions. This would work against the collective capacity of the group.  The authors describe how this can happen accidentally as leadership endeavors to diversify their faculty by simply hiring people who increase representation of a particular culture without accounting for the whole identity of a person, beyond the cultural stereotypes. From my vantage point, I see this accidental tokenism as a relic of the past that is dying out.  I think my generation and those younger than me, do not pigeonhole people based on their cultural labels the same way older generations did.  In the past, it may have been convenient or useful in some ways to categorize types of cultures.  However, growing up in a multicultural, increasingly global world, younger people do not seem to have this same stifling mindset that separates and marginalizes whole cultural groups. It is a positive direction.  I believe this problem is working itself out slowly over time.  The advice from Walker and Riordan is useful for everyone to keep in mind, but the advice is more obvious to younger people with a global perspective.

Harnessing the power of the collective capacity can be successful or a missed opportunity based on the leaders’ choices and actions.  Walker and Riordan offer a useful framework, though it requires some commitment and delicate discussion of difficult topics.


References

Middleton, Julia (2015). Cultural intelligence: the competitive edge for leaders. TEDxTalks, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izeiRjUMau4.

Walker, A. & Riordan, G. (2010). Leading collective capacity in culturally diverse schools, School Leadership and Management, 30:1, 51-63, DOI: 10.1080/13632430903509766

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