Intercultural Responsiveness

A Blog By Tom Altepeter

Nuts & Bolts: Part 7

April 14th, 2014

This is the seventh installment of a series making an appearance occasionally in this blog designed to give some specific guidance regarding how to work with an organization on intercultural responsiveness. The first six installments can be found here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 6, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 5, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 4, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 3, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 2, and here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 1

One of the more productive ways of learning about ourselves and others along this life long journey of intercultural responsiveness is by reading, watching, questioning, and reflecting. I stumble across things I never knew, things that challenge my way of thinking, things that shape and reshape my perception of self and others all the time.

A common question that circulates among educators goes something like this: “If I’m supposed to celebrate and be responsive to differences, then how am I supposed to do that?” While this type of question is extremely loaded, and certainly can’t be answered by handing out pamphlets that propose to somehow fully explain various groups of people, an initial way to address this is through information that approaches the question with the assumption that the one asking it is from the dominant culture – the culture that enjoys the power and privilege.

The primary reason this kind of information isn’t readily and handily available (beyond it being uncomfortable for so many to talk about), I believe is because there is a fear that we will make assumptions that we can categorize and address all people in a particular way. Truly understanding ourselves and others, including how to more appropriately be responsive to ourselves and others, arguably won’t actually fully happen within a human’s lifetime, let alone by reading a handful of articles. So, with that cautionary note, here are some articles I’ve stumbled across this calendar year. Note that there are far more groups not represented than represented here, note the themes that develop, and note the necessity to always expand rather than narrow our understanding.

12 Tips All Educators Must Know About Educating African American & Latino Students

What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?

Facing Race Issues In the Classroom: How To Connect With Students

My Brother’s Keeper Initiative: Raising Student Achievement for Boys of Color

4 Key Ways to Make a Safe Environment for LGBTQ Youth

We’re used to professional development that comes in the form of telling you precisely what you need to know. Here’s the information, and here’s the materials – now, go forth and conquer. This work requires a tremendous amount of critical thinking, so I spent a little bit of time with staff this year viewing some videos and having them reflect on some questions. I find these types of experiences to be powerful beyond measure, as long as we truly open ourselves. What follows are links to the few videos that were shared, along with some quotes and questions designed to get us to dig a little deeper. Enjoy.

The Danger of a Single Story: Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

How does power impact stories?

How can you ensure more complete stories?

Who can you think of that seem to have single stories, and what are they?

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

America’s Native Prisoners of War: Aaron Huey

Reflect on what you understand “Wasichu” to mean (interpreted by some to mean “takes the fat” or “greedy person”), and respond to this quote from Johansen and Maestas: “Wasichu does not describe a race; it describes a state of mind … (it is) a human condition based on inhumanity, racism, and exploitation) … it is a sickness, a seemingly incurable and contagious disease.”

Aaron Huey states, “The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves.’” What do you think he means by this?

Soul Biographies: The Second Glance

“Perhaps true beauty is something that draws our attention at second glance, once the judgment of a first glance has realized it’s mistake.”

What is normal?

How do we project an image of normality?

Why is that easier for some, and more difficult for others?


February 18th, 2014

Abby & HopeWe’ve all dealt with loss, no doubt. Sometimes it seems relatively trivial in the whole scheme of things, but sometimes it feels devastating beyond words, beyond belief, beyond anything imaginable. I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve lost positions, and I’ve lost games. Come to think of it, I’ve experienced the feeling of losing just about everything but weight. However, when I truly spend time thinking of losing, I think of sports.

For those of you who aren’t sports fanatics, and/or don’t really follow women’s soccer, this is a photo of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, a forward and goalkeeper for the United States. They’re holding some special hardware from the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup (the Super Bowl of soccer where a true world champion is crowned every four years), and yet, it’s quite clear they’re not very happy. They’re holding the Silver and Bronze Ball awards as the second and third most outstanding players of the tournament. In addition to that, Abby got the Bronze Boot (third highest goals of the tournament), Hope got the Golden Glove (best goalkeeper of the tournament), and both of them made the tournament All-Star Team. It sure seems like they should be very happy. I mean, come on, what more did they want?! Oh, right, the tournament team championship is what they really wanted. They lost in the final, after extra time, in the penalty shootout. Yes, it was painful. But, next year is another opportunity …

In just the last year(ish), I’ve watched my Notre Dame football team make the national championship game, and my Denver Broncos football team make the Super Bowl, and then lose. Well, actually, they both got absolutely dominated. I used to be a top notch runner in high school, even got recruited and ran some at the college/university level. I won a lot; however, I also lost – a lot. I’ve been watching the Olympics recently, and there have been some favorites that haven’t just lost the gold medal, they didn’t even receive any medal. You can say it’s just a game, it’s just sports, it’s an accomplishment to even be there (wherever “there” happens to be), and you’re right. Still, losing is truly difficult. And, losing with grace is even more difficult. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

Yet, there’s something else that stands out to me when I think of losing. The pain of it falls somewhere in that place between sports and death, and I realize that’s a really big space. I feel so inspired when I make a breakthrough with a student who is having such a hard time with school, with academics, with behavior, with life. And, I feel so deflated when I feel like I have failed a student, when we – as an institution or system or society – fail them, when they seem to have failed themselves. So much is put in to make a positive difference – blood, sweat, and tears is often not even remotely an exaggeration. But, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes you lose. And then what?

I watch with sadness, even anger, as some people’s reaction is to attempt to dismantle public education. I feel the weight of a student’s glare and cutting words aimed directly at me. I listen to the disparaging remarks from a parent, bent on blaming someone, and that someone is often me. This is the daily price of losing in the educational workplace. It’s draining, debilitating, soul-sucking, thankless, unfair, and pointless. It need not be this way though. Losing with grace isn’t about shutting up, putting your head down, and walking away. Speaking up, speaking out, taking back the conversation, owning your part, seeking to listen, demanding mutual respect, and learning something – That is the new beginning after the pain of loss.

Because losing is never the end of the story.

Gone in 60 Seconds

February 3rd, 2014

Gone in 60 secondsSometimes you gotta get ‘em in, and get ‘em out. There’s a whole lotta things going on, a whole lotta things to take care of, and spending a bunch of time on every single issue just isn’t a luxury we can afford. Simply put, there are problems created, those problems need to be solved, and they need to be solved quickly. And, so it goes.

But then, every once in a while, you take a breath, and you realize you happen to have some time, and you think, “Maybe, just maybe, I’ll work on this situation the way I’d really like to work all the situations.” Today was one of those days. I connected. I listened. I learned. Something I typically deal with in a minute became something I experienced in an hour.

He left a mess, was made to clean it up, became rude about it, grabbed a student’s shirt, and then dropped the f-bomb on a staff member. Pretty straightforward – disrespect, physical aggression, inappropriate language – discipline referral – in school suspension. Own it, fix it, change it, accept your consequence, serve your time, and move on. Badabing, badaboom!

Then, the alternative. He’s a quiet kid, but can be extremely quick to anger – especially around adults. “Tell me what happened.” Silence at first, and then mumbling. Slowly, but surely, the full story comes out. It takes a lot of prodding. A lot of reassuring. A lot of clarification. We finally get there: “So, you weren’t upset about cleaning up – you were upset about being blamed for making the mess. You were upset that the student was making fun of you for having to clean it up. By the time the staff member stepped in to end the escalation, you were pretty jacked up. Yes?” And the look on his face told me that he truly felt heard.

By the time I was having him determine what he needed to do to make this right, we were on a roll. He owned every single portion of his behavior – walking away from the mess, grabbing the student’s shirt, and cussing at the staff member. He explained what he could have done differently every step of the way to avoid things ending the way they did. And, he wanted to meet with each person involved – not to blame, but rather to make things right. The student who created the mess apologized and agreed to spend time cleaning the next day. The student who had his shirt grabbed could barely digest the lengthy apology before offering one up himself for his smirking and laughter. The staff member received one of the most genuine and well articulated apologies I’ve ever heard, and relationships were salvaged in the process.

Don’t tell me educators don’t need more resources. The math is basic. Affording the time and attention that every single student deserves when it comes to their needs – academically, behaviorally, emotionally – requires more resources than we have. But it doesn’t stop any of us from trying. Never has, never will.

Gone in 3,600 seconds … and not one of them wasted.

Fitting The Mold

January 25th, 2014

Square-Peg-Round-HoleSometimes I wish I was one of those people who fit the mold. I don’t know if it matters too much to me what that mold is, just that I fit it. It’s tough getting accepted in this world when you don’t completely fit with any particular group, and it’s tougher still when you increasingly notice that you aren’t particularly willing to try very hard to do just that. I mean, I am who I am, and that should be good enough … right?

But, here’s the thing: It’s nice and all to say that should be good enough, yet deep down inside, we know it’s not. Sure, some people are extremely accepting, and those people can usually be found, well, looking for a place to fit in. As a general rule, there’s a certain amount of conformity that happens for everyone when it comes to being accepted. Truly, let’s be honest.

Now, I’m not trying to convince people to conform. I’m not attempting to get anyone to change who they are. I’m not encouraging folks to give up a part of self in order to fit in with anyone else. No, I’m merely being honest about a wish I sometimes have – a wish that in my estimation is only more fully granted when we are willing to make at least a partial transformation.

Here’s (part of) me:

I’m a father with two amazing daughters – who have two different mothers due to me having been married and divorced twice now. I’m an educator – a teacher turned elementary school principal turned middle school assistant principal – and one who can’t stand all the nauseatingly boring talk around instruction, curriculum, standards, and the like. I’m a sports fanatic – especially collegiate sports, and specifically football, basketball, and soccer – and one who can’t comprehend anyone’s interest in baseball or hockey. I’m an Evangelical Christian who quite literally takes the life of Jesus to heart – cringing at any words or actions taken in God’s name that diminish or destroy certain individuals or groups of people. And, I’m a political liberal – determined that we are here not to be self-serving, but rather to love and serve one another without complaint or excuse related to giving to and providing for others in need, and promoting basic human rights for all people – with no exception.

I’m actually (slowly) growing more comfortable with my inability to fit the mold.

Yes, it’s true, I sometimes wish I fit the mold. But, as I grow older, I’ve become less concerned about that relatively futile and pointless endeavor. The delight of dichotomy is far too gripping. The desire to be precisely who I am is much too enticing. It has become increasingly apparent that what matters most is not what we do to be accepted, but rather what we do to be accepting.

Yes. That.

The Lessons We Learn

November 17th, 2013

LessonsIt was growing close to the end of another one of those days. The ones that seem to suck the life out of you, and give you some pause as to why you do what you do. The ones in which you’re dealing with things instead of working on things. I was tired, and my level of understanding – even tolerance – was diminishing rapidly.

So, when the young man brought from our intensive learning center was refusing to come back to my office from the front area, I have to admit I had to remain seated and take a few breaths. Mustering all I could to be at my best, I walked up front and sat near him, attempting through calm words to get him to come to my office and converse for a while. He did, and after I let him alone to cry for a bit, he told me he felt he was ready to talk.

As I suspected, he had cussed out a teacher. In this case, it was a substitute who had received his wrath. He knows how to come up with some fairly rich language when he’s frustrated, and this teacher certainly got a healthy taste of it. I made one statement (“Talk to me about what happened.”) and asked one question (“What do you want to do about it?”) in the course of our conversation, and I did not say or prompt anything else.

But, it was what he did – not the teacher, not me – that made a real difference in the course of events. He owned his behavior, he explained it to me, and then he decided what he wanted and felt he had to do more than anything else was to have a chance to talk with that teacher and apologize for his actions. After retrieving the teacher, I sat silently as he gathered himself and spoke to her about what he had done, and that he felt absolutely awful about it. His heartfelt apology, I could tell, moved her, and my eyes welling up with tears, perhaps noticeable, made it obvious that he certainly moved me.

My work affords me the opportunity to interact with a tremendous number of youth and adults, unfortunately most often when they are frustrated. I’ve noticed that students tend to be fairly easy to work with, and that adults tend to be more difficult to work with. I’m sure there is much to say here about the role that power has in this dynamic, but let me keep it simple. We’d love to take credit as adults, but here’s the truth: They do it not because of us – They do it in spite of us.

Just this school year alone, I’ve had to directly address a couple of upset adults who used inappropriate language – including not only foul words, but also racially charged and insensitive words. There has also been a situation where an adult representing our school district publicly insulted another adult representing our school district, using a derogatory word. Here’s how those panned out: Dead silence when one was addressed by me, a response of disdain from the other addressed by me, and absolutely nothing happened publicly with the other situation.

I walk a fine line in my role, but I never have and I never will be afraid to call myself or others out. If we’re fearful of this, it’s because we lack the courage to own our stuff, apologize for it, and change it. My very best example this year of what should be standard and expected behavior has come from a young boy in our intensive learning center, and that should send a powerful message to all of us about spending less time pretending to know it all, and more time learning all that we can from all of those around us.

First Words

October 20th, 2013

First Things FirstOccasionally, people cry in my office.

Now, I’m used to this, primarily because of the role I have in my workplace. I also think it’s important to point out that people don’t cry because of me … well … they usually don’t cry because of me. Young people, experienced people, me people, and all people in between happen to cry – every once in a while – in my office.

I’ve never encountered a person who isn’t experiencing some difficulty in their life, I’ve never engaged with someone who is proud of something they’ve done wrong, and I’ve never interacted with one who doesn’t need to share what’s on their mind and in their heart. Sure, maybe they hide it, and perhaps they deny it, but it’s always there.

This is where, I suppose, we meet people on a day to day basis. We meet them somewhere along their journey, and if we happen to be in a position like I have, we have a tremendous opportunity to truly make a positive difference. I don’t take being a school administrator lightly, just as I’m certain other educators don’t take their job lightly, just as I’m certain other people in other service oriented professions don’t take their job lightly.

I do mess up though. And, I’m sure I’m not alone.

Sometimes, the first thing we think we should be addressing with someone who’s sitting in front of us is whatever the issue is at hand. With young people, it’s often, “What were you thinking … Why did you do this … How do you think this made the other person feel?” And, with adults, it’s frequently, “Tell me why you’re upset … Explain what it is that you need to make this right … What can we do to fix this?”

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve made a mistake, or when I’m hurting, or when I’m upset about something, I don’t need to be scolded. I also don’t need to be reminded or interrogated. Furthermore, I’m not interested in defending or explaining or being told what I need to do differently – or even necessarily what is or isn’t going to happen to help me. I know what I need, and it’s simply to be asked …

“How are you?”

I need to know it’s truly genuine. I need to know you’ll actually listen.

We’ll get to the other stuff. We always do. But, just for now, please just ask about me.

It matters.

Faux Pas

September 2nd, 2013

SNFThis year, I’m doing it. I don’t care how many rules it breaks, I don’t care how many people it upsets, and I don’t care how much trouble I get myself into. This year, I’m wearing white after Labor Day, no matter what anyone else says.

Not that sporting all white looks very good – well, on most men – but regardless of the fashion statement it makes (or fails to make), I’m curious if most people know why it’s not O.K. to wear white after Labor Day. Actually, I’m curious if any people know (and Googling it doesn’t count). I also struggle with knowing when it’s no longer “after” Labor Day. I mean, is it a week, or a month, or a few months, or – seriously, when is it no longer “after” Labor Day?

I’m convinced that most of the things we do to students in our education system happen because, well, we’ve always done them that way. We’ve long since forgotten why we do the things we do, or if and when it’s acceptable to actually do them differently. Sure, every once in a while we’ll package it another way, title it something else, and market it as some sort of valid reform; however, are we really doing anything other than stylistic changes? Honestly?

When’s the last time we’ve truly done something more than just a little fashion faux pas?

I want to do something dramatically different. I want to actually turn the system inside out, and upside down. I want to radically change the way we serve students, respond to students, get out of the way of students. I want to lead a revolution – Heck, I just want to be a part of a revolution. What dramatically unique ideas do you have to truly change education? What gets in the way of making them happen? How can we work together to make them happen?

It starts with a willingness to buck the system. Wear white after Labor Day. Who knows what’ll happen next.

The Lightness of Being

July 31st, 2013

LightnessA new school year is weeks away, and I wonder what’s going through the minds of students, parents, educators. Settling into the groove happens sooner for an administrator, but it doesn’t feel truly real until the building fills up with people. Those final days of summer are spent in either sadness about what one is ending, or happiness about what one is beginning. More than likely, it’s a combination of both.

So much has changed for me personally, and the life I’m walking in, and about to begin, resembles not the life I’ve led in recent or distant past. I think, when I was younger, I didn’t believe life was so fleeting. A series of escapades, sprinkled with the freedom of youthful carelessness, has a way of getting you to believe in immortality. I know better now.

This is it. This is what we’ve got. I appreciate understanding more deeply now the certainty of life and death. It’s not a gloomy feeling; rather, it’s one filled with the knowledge that each moment is special – never to be enjoyed again, never to be suffered again, but never to be removed. I look ahead in joyful hope, but only in as much as it provides me with the opportunity to make the most of the present, and trust in the future. I’ve only got this one to get right.

So much is racing through those young minds who will stampede into the building soon enough. So much promise exists in those adults whose hearts are big enough to change the world. Let’s not limit this. Let’s embrace this. Limiting myself to a false construct has been painful, and I’ve made an important decision to part from that. I know it will not lead to a perfect life, as there is no such thing. However, I do know it will lead to truth, and that is what I hope for in what lies ahead.

I run, with my arms out wide, my lungs breathing in the now, and my eyes wide open toward the horizon.

Say What You Need To Say

July 7th, 2013

MicrophoneYou better know that in the end
It’s better to say too much
Than to never say what you need to say again

~ John Mayer (“Say”)

I’m used to being very careful with words. Writing is an art, and in a way, words are painted on a canvas, choreographed on a stage, orchestrated to sound a particular way. Selected with purpose, and handled with care, choosing the right words for the right moment can change, can lift, can make all the difference in the world. But, using the wrong words in the wrong way can evoke reactions that diminish, that crush, that eliminate hope where it once was spoken. I’m used to being very careful with words because words are both delicate and dangerous.

Crafting a message requires a gentle touch, with just the right amount of determined pressure. Say too much, and you’ve lost your way, but say too little, and you’ve left incomplete – or perhaps never even stared – the journey required. Balancing communication when interacting with so many different people demands softening or sharpening the edge in just the right way and at just the right moment, all while acknowledging who you are as the messenger.

What if, though, we really did just say precisely what we wanted – even needed – to say? I’m not talking about the tired and misguided thinking around how “all this dadgum political correctness” gets in the way. No, I’m talking more about cutting to the chase, worrying less about taking the edge off, and more about telling it like it is. Would we be better off? Would we feel stronger for saying it? Would we have more clarity by hearing it? Would we start to digest things differently? Would we change for good?

Far too many times, we tend to walk away from a situation wishing we would have thought to say this, that, or the other thing. That one line zinger never seems to come in the moment; rather, it’s only later, most often, that we have this perfect thought that we wish we would have shared. Yet, we don’t return to the situation and address it. And, even when we do, the circumstances can’t be recreated to make that one line zinger actually, well, zing. So, the moment is gone, and we didn’t ever say what we wanted and needed to say – for lack of quick thinking, or courage, or both.

Still, I wonder, though, if it’s not so much that we lost a chance, but rather gained an opportunity.


May 25th, 2013

SkinMy skin is the color of normal. Perfectly ignored, and beautifully acknowledged, it murmurs in hushed tones. Subtle enough to blend in, yet powerful enough to command attention, it falls like ticker tape. Standing alone without effort, it’s my blessing in a world that requires permission. I love my skin.

My skin is thick. Consuming like fire, it swallows beasts as they attempt to penetrate with ferocity. Ignorant and false assumptions are lobbed toward the shield it provides, and they fall, whimpering off in frustration and agony. A guard, ever watching and never yielding, it keeps the bad out by sparing no expense. I need my skin.

My skin is my camouflage. Like field dressing, it covers my wounds taken in battle, soaking up the blood attempting to ooze out. With the skill of a mask, it allows me to transition from place to place, situation to situation, moment to moment, without revealing my true identity. And it hides me, and smothers me, and snuffs me out like a candle flame grasping for oxygen. I despise my skin.

I want to be known and understood without it costing me a thing, and yet, I’m willing to give up everything to be known and understood.