This past fall, I had the honor of attending NBOA’s North American Conference on the Business Office (NACOBO) in Nashville. I scheduled an extra night in the conference hotel to explore the city, not realizing that on that very day, an important talk by a person very special to me, Karen Misher, was to take place in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
Karen Misher is the founder and board chair of A Step Up Academy (ASUA), a PK-12 day school for children with autism. I am connected to Karen not only through my work as ASUA’s chief operations officer, but I also see her as my mentor and part of my chosen family. Her latest exhibition includes 15 years of work centered around her life as a mother of twin autistic boys, her journey through creating a school for autistic children, and the unique happenings of life in a neurodiverse family. Thankfully, in an age of remote connections, I was able to watch the lecture via Zoom in my hotel room.
Of the many things that stood out to me in the lecture was this quotation from the David Byrne song, “Home”: “Compassion for the things I’ll never know.” The line struck me because it encapsulates so much of my personal philosophy of human resources work and touched on a core aspect of our work as independent school business officers — compassion.
I firmly believe that it is independent school business officers’ compassion, along with our commitment to creating a better world, that inspires us to continue to show up to work after a difficult few years and an ever increasing workload. We know that the young people who attend our schools are the beneficiaries of the work we do and will one day assume the mantles of leadership that rest on our shoulders today.
A critical component in the success of this future is ensuring that our mission, vision, values, philosophy, and standards of care are open to all. Guided by compassion, we seek to offer this openness and inclusivity regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, ability, gender, sexual orientation, age or religion. No single aspect of diversity stands alone and, as such, should not receive more weight or focus than another aspect. In service to this inclusivity, we must ensure that we have robust diversity, equity and inclusion mission statements and value propositions that consider all aspects of diversity, which are in turn integrated into our school’s daily life and function and are, above all, truly actionable.
I believe that HR professionals have a special role to play in these efforts because it falls to us to ensure equitable and accessible employment to the individuals most critical in shaping the educational paths of our future leaders. This outsized role can feel daunting, especially for schools with an HR department of one or for schools who may have significant work ahead in terms of DEI. Below, I offer two perspectives that I think are a great starting point for advancing compassion through DEI work in your schools.
Like many other schools, A Step Up Academy reevaluated our DEI programming in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd and ensuing national conversations around racial equity and social justice. The school formed a committee to survey staff, develop a series of topics and issues that we felt needed to be addressed, and identified areas of improvement.
We also discussed systemic issues within the educational, clinical and transition systems. For example, traditional assessment tools ask students to identify as a boy or girl, providing no space for students that identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming to see themselves represented. We can, however, alter our internal teaching materials to provide more options. We continue to work through our topics and re-assess them regularly, and ensure that our language is consistent across all media and marketing, in handbooks, and other communications.
We know that our commitment to DEI needs to be actionable, and to honor intersectionality, that is, how different types of diversity intersect and interact with each other. In the intervening years, we have allocated resources to create a robust and dimensional DEI program at our school and have stepped outside our walls to promote awareness of neurodiversity as a core and necessary component of DEI. I credit the success of our program to a constant desire to learn, which leads us to continually reflect and refresh our practices.
As part of this intensive work, I partnered with ASUA’s DEI specialist, Ev Smith, and NBOA’s director, human resources programs, Amber Stockham, to create a DEI self-audit that is designed to help independent schools benchmark their competencies across all areas of diversity and generate concrete steps for improvement.
Beyond the broader work my school is doing to advance our DEI mission, I recognized in fall 2021 that our faculty and staff needed a shared language around neurodiversity. Due to our school’s mission, we were familiar with how to interact with our students but had not yet applied those skills to interacting with our neurodivergent coworkers. I began to realize that making small tweaks to behaviors, interactions and the environment could boost a neurodivergent individual’s ability to thrive. When we made the shift, I recognized that it wasn’t just the neurodivergent staff that were benefitting, and I knew we needed a term for what was happening. I call it a “micro-accommodation.”
A micro-accommodation is a small behavioral or environmental change that one individual gives another individual to accommodate their needs. Common examples could include a highly visual person getting multiple computer monitors at their desk, a person with auditory sensitivity being able to put headphones in and listen to music while they work, or reading a person’s body language to pause and give time for processing. Micro-accommodations are not things that take much time, energy or money but have a huge impact on the wellbeing of the recipient.
As leaders, we are responsible for ensuring that we are leading with compassion. Everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses. Creating a culture that normalizes need will create a more inclusive environment that better equips everyone to thrive.
With a person-first model of HR, we can also challenge ourselves to review our policies, procedures and operations with a new lens. How might our job descriptions and interview processes be better tailored to people of all backgrounds? If you were to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how would you feel going through your orientation and onboarding process? Is there visual representation on campus of your commitment to diversity? How can you come up with creative solutions to using compassion to better your HR work?