I have an interesting family that has deeply shaped my vision of diversity. My mom is a Hungarian immigrant and my dad is a first generation American. My brother married a Hungarian, my sister a Nigerian, and I am married to a Brazilian. When we have family reunions it is a virtual United Nations, covering four continents. In my family there are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, agnostic and atheist strands. All of this has led to a richness of experience that while not free of conflict, is constantly challenging and interesting. We have been forced along the way to confront our prejudices and assumptions about one another. What I love about working in an international school is being in an environment where all of this tension and vitality is nurtured. It truly feels like home!
Good international schools create environments that accept and embrace differences. This is not merely a way to follow a trend in education, but rather an important way to counter entropy. Neil Postman, in his book The End of Education states, “Sameness is the enemy of vitality. Stagnation occurs when nothing new and different comes from outside the system”. John Dewey seems to come to a similar conclusion in Democracy and Education, stating, “One cannot climb a number of different mountains simultaneously, but the view had when different mountains are ascended supplement one another.”But embracing difference is not always easy. I recently read a fascinating article in Scientific American by Katherine Phillips called How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. In her research, she finds that working in diverse groups is difficult and can often be strained. She says, ” The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles.” But the end result is clearly worth it and what we need in innovative schools. She states:
“The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.
At Graded we are fortunate to have students from over 35 countries. Each day they sit side by side, bringing their unique perspectives to the classroom and sharing their traditions, customs and languages. Those who have little experience in international education often expect that having all of this diversity in one place would immediately lead to more harmony and tolerance. But as Phillips points out, this is not always the case. In the Middle School, as children are fully engaged in identity building, they often sequester themselves into “tribes” that are highly tied to national identity. Our students kids speak of the “Brazilian group”, the “Koreans” or the “American group” when they are referring to cliques. These names are often highly inaccurate, but they remain the lingo for our students, because for them, at this age, it is easier to view the world in Manichean ways. Two years ago we had an incident in the MS, where our world map was defaced by racist and xenophobic messages. The way that we responded as a school was recorded in this short documentary:
Instead of hiding from the reality of discrimination and division, we took it straight on. We grew our “diversity muscles” through a painful and productive process and came up collectively with an innovative solution.
Working daily with a diverse faculty and student body in the context of Brazil constantly forces me to confront my own biases and seek intercultural understanding. It is always invigorating, always challenging and forces constant growth. It is hard to imagine feeling “home” anywhere else than in an international school.