Importance of Developing a Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Learning Environment

Mike Pierre and Dr. Dana Specker Watts recently sat down with Dr. Joel Llaban to discuss the field of international education and the importance of building a culturally responsive and sustaining learning environment in international schools. You can listen to the entire conversation at or by searching for the ISS EDUlearn Ask Me Anything podcast on Apple or Spotify.

Mike Pierre: Welcome back to ISS EDUlearn: Ask Me Anything with Mike and Dana, where we bring together experts and thought leaders from around the world to share insights and ideas that will help improve the education experience for students, teachers, administrations, and parents alike. I am Mike Pierre your favorite educator, interviewer. I’m here with my co-host Dr. Dana Specker Watts, who’s the director of learning, research and outreach at ISS. How are you Dana?


Dr. Dana Specker Watts: I’m great today, Mike. Thanks for having us.


Mike Pierre: Dana. We never really know exactly who you are, and this is season two. So do you mind just briefly for two minutes, let us know what do you do at ISS and maybe some of your past experiences.


Dr. Dana Specker Watts: I’m the Director of Learning, Research and Outreach, and I run our professional development and training here at ISS and our ISS EDUlearn, our passport and things of that nature. And then in addition to that, I do a bunch of research for us on what’s happening within the international schools and trying to look at leadership and the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the international schools. And that’s kind of my passion project.


Mike Pierre: Awesome. And now that we’re speaking about DEIJ, that actually falls under the topic of our guest today and I would like to introduce our guest, Dr. Joel Llaban. Joel is an educator, speaker and consultant who has directed his career, who has dedicated his career for developing and implementing culturally responsive and sustaining learning. He has worked with international schools in many countries and is an advocate for equity and inclusion in education. Welcome, Joel.


Dr. Joel Llaban: Hello. Hi Mike. It’s really wonderful to be here. Thanks for having us. Yeah.


Mike Pierre: It’s great to have you with us today, Joel. And just to begin with, could you just tell us a little bit about your work and how you help international schools develop culturally responsive and sustaining learning?


Dr. Joel Llaban: Alright. Yeah, I’m Dr. Joel Llaban and I work as the inaugural Director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice here at the International School Services. My career started out as a classroom teacher in my home country in the Philippines and then I moved into Beijing and in Brussels and then Kuala Lumpur.


Mike Pierre: Perfect. Perfect. Alright. What are some ways that learning leaders can work with their peers to develop transformative actions on curriculum and learning?


Dr. Joel Llaban: I think starting when it comes to cultural responsive pedagogy or diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, I think the cornerstone, the first thing that we need to do is to really understand who we are as not only as educators, but also who we are as individuals, being mindful of our own identities, starting out with our identities, and then not only the singular identities that we have, but the intersectional identities of who we are and how our identities are influenced by our socialization, our upbringing, our histories, and then at the same time how they actually influence to the way we teach, the way we hold power and positionalities as educators in the classroom, in schools, in different places, in different ecosystems where we are immersed in. And so to me that is a starting point that’s always critical. And you have attended different sessions around grounded and DIJB work. And for the most part, identity work is the entry point. And if not, it’s not just the entry point, but it actually is a foundation that has to undergird the many conversations and work that we have with the DEIJ because it’s a constant reflection, Mike. It really has to go back to how we navigate different places and spaces and especially places and spaces that are racialized places and spaces, predominantly white centered institutions. Many of us are in different areas in there. And so we are understanding who we are and how we are understanding the nuances, the complexities. It’s a long-winded answer, but then to me, what really captures it, it’s that it starts with understanding who we are and how we are influenced and how we influence others in our communities.


Dr. Dana Specker Watts: And I think that’s so important. And the international school community, because our students come to us with so many identities, there’s so many different aspects of their lives. Not just their passport, their ethnic background, their nationality, their sexuality, all those different components. And in the past I think we were approaching international education is almost a one size fits all. And maybe that’s not true. But it felt that way, at least I thought so. And now it seems like we’re really starting to look at all the different aspects of our students and how do we honor those and help them feel, they don’t need to conform to what the dominant culture might be.


Dr. Joel Llaban: Yeah. Thanks for pointing that out Dana because it’s really, I think you’re trying to kind of bring in together the idea of, I used to think about the self-two systems. We start with our identity, we start thinking about who we are and then before we can transform systems. But I think it really is around a hell, it’s a continuous process of understanding who we are and then understanding the systems that we belong or we don’t. That’s really being able to understand so that self and systems coexist, co-develop, and how are we understanding the inequities of our systems and how they’re also impacting and influencing the lives of identities at the margin.


Mike Pierre: Perfect. Joel, thank you for that response. In regards to learning leaders, I want to transfer it over to the students now. How can international schools ensure that their learning systems are equitable and accessible for all students?


Dr. Joel Llaban: I think that we go back to, also we cannot define equity and inclusion if we do not deeply unpack and understand and examine and excavate the inequities and the exclusion within our communities. So if we don’t name them, we don’t reflect on them, we don’t acknowledge what are the inequities of our systems by truly listening to the stories from the margin, bypoc identities or the many other sexual identities that are not usually centered in our communities. We can only be recreating desired outcomes from our own imagination as opposed to really coming from people in the margin. And you think that’s the power of listening circles. That’s the power of going beyond the satellite data into street data as advocated by Dr. Jane Duga and Shane Saphir. And that whole idea that sometimes when we ask, well, from 0 to 10, how do you belong? How do you feel you belong our community? My definition, my seven may not be the same as your seven. But then when we truly listen to the story, the narratives of our community, those stories of harm, stories of healing, stories of hope can be surfaced in the community. And by then we anchor those desired outcomes. We define those certain outcomes coming from stories of the margin because that is the power of a co-created, desired outcomes as opposed to, now that I’ve heard your story, let me co-create an outcome for you. But what truly is powerful is that now we know what are the stories of harm? How can we design an equitable system together?


Mike Pierre: Those learning circles that you were talking about, is that something that can help teachers and administrators create a curriculum that’s culturally responsive and sustaining?


Dr. Joel Llaban: Yeah. Some of those might is, it’s one thing is when with cultural responsive and sustaining pedagogies, it’s also not only in the classroom. It’s also we can of the different elements of schooling, because as we know, governance and leadership impact and influence student learning. The decisions that are made by the board and the decisions that are made by school leaders will deeply influence the lives and learning of our students in the school and as well as the many elements of the community, many stakeholders of the community, many members of the community. And so when you think about the listening circle that’s highly representative, that involves listening to the many voices from our community, we’re able to listen to diverse perspectives and experiences. And when those experiences are shared in a bold and brave as well as safe environment, we can use and leverage them not only as stories that are commodified. Like, okay, here, I’m listening to your stories right now and thank you for sharing me your stories. But really after that it’s like, what am I going to do with the stories that I’ve heard? I think that is a great component there. If we listen to the stories through the margin for school leaders, for educators in the classroom, if we seek out the stories for students, what am I going to do with this feedback? I used to think, Mike, that. When I was a teacher, I used to be threatened by the feedback of my students because technically, it’s sort of an assault to my power. If you think about that because we’ve been so conditioned in the classroom traditionally of like, you’ve got this whole power imbalance. And so if we’re not also unpacking what it means to hold that power in the classroom and how to use a power to leverage for change for humanization in the classroom, we could by design or as a consequence of it also be replicating harm in our classroom. And so, reflecting on it right now, in my early years of teaching, I remember those times when my kids would provide feedback and I was like, oh, no, it shouldn’t be this because I’m the teacher, so I should be deciding on that. But then I think the power, the call to action are for many of us who’ve been called into grow into becoming more cultural responsive by really leveraging, listening and leveraging and transforming our school spaces and communities into a space where we listen intentionally and consciously to the stories of our students, of our colleagues. And then use them to design for belonging, design for inclusion, design for equity in our communities. And it’s a long process because it’s not just, okay, here’s a one off listening circle and then here’s what it is. But it really is how can we design a culture of listening in our communities?



Speaker 3: As an educational professional, you likely understand the positive and crucial role inclusion has on classroom culture. And you might be on the lookout for a community of like-minded educators. Senia International is that community. Senia is a nonprofit organization that advocates for individuals with disabilities and promotes inclusive educational practices across the globe. With a network of educators, families, students and professionals, Senia offers connection, professional learning and support for educators like you. Connect with the Senia community via our membership program or a local chapter in your area. Enjoy professional learning with the Senia community via our podcast, online certification program and in-person or virtual conferences. Support Senia through our sponsorships, awards and scholarship program. So what are you waiting for? For more information, head to our website, That’s And together we continue to make a difference and fulfill our vision of living in an inclusive world.


Mike Pierre: You spoke about listening circles, you spoke about feedbacks. I think these are best practices that you were speaking about for teachers to kind of collaborate with their students in a culturally diverse classroom. Is there any other practices that you can kind of think of that teachers can utilize? Anything you’ve seen at other schools or anything you implemented yourself?


Dr. Joel Llaban: No. No.  Cut that up. I believe you.


Dr. Dana Specker Watts: I have a question, Joel.


Dr. Joel Llaban: No, I can’t.


Mike Pierre: Probably not effectively as you want probably.


Dr. Joel Llaban: Yeah. And those things spike because that’s only one of the many. And I wonder, I think it’s more of how can we build a culture of listening without commodifying the stories and using those stories to really transform systems. But they could be in different modalities. It doesn’t have to be a listening circle. It could also be a consistent regular check-in, in our classroom through more that in itself, every single day, every single interaction that we have in our school, in our community is a form of data collection. Oftentimes we only think about data as a formalized sort of methodology of research, but then every interaction that we have, the greater culture of belonging, culture of listening, I get to know people and that relationship is built. And then from there, you’re also understanding the stories of people that you don’t even have to make alongside the formal research and all that, you actually know people already and because of their relationship, you get to know what are the inequities of the system, what are the feelings of others around the lack of belonging in communities, in schools and organizations. And so, I just see that one as we have to expand our traditional definition of understanding and examining and unpacking and communicating data.


Dr. Dana Specker Watts: Joel, I have a question. So, I love all the stuff about culturally responsive teaching and I think there’s so much that our international schools can do along those lines to really impact the curriculum, the way we’re teaching, how we’re teaching, what we’re teaching. But I wonder, so because of all of the backlash towards critical race theory and the initials are the same, right? So culturally responsive teaching, CRT and then critical race theory, CRT, right? Which I think is great as well. But there’s so much misinformation about the critical race theory and by chance is that impacting our ability to do culturally responsive teaching? Because parent communities and outside communities don’t see that they’re different and are they that, well, they are different, but I mean, how do we handle that for, if I’m a school leader and I’m saying we’re going to do culturally responsive teaching, how do I help? What would be your response as a school leader when a parent comes in and says, you’re doing CRT? No, no, don’t do that to my children. You’re trying to make them woke or you’re trying to do whatever. How might you help a school leader address that question from a parent?


Dr. Joel Llaban: I think we have a narrow definition of culture because oftentimes we think about culture in the lens of food flag and festivals and passport and nationalities and all of that. But I think we sometimes miss out of the many different elements of the deep culture of people and the deep culture of our communities. And so we only think about culture from the lens of the surface culture that we have, and they are essential too. But then at the same time, one of the challenges that we have as well is that I don’t know how many of us in our teacher training program have been taught cultural responsive pedagogy. I think many of us right now are learners, are growing our awareness or reflecting a little bit more our own cultural responsive teaching. Because back then when we talk about culture, it’s this, the food flag and festival, and that is our definition of culture. But we never really consider the whole idea of the sociopolitical consciousness. For instance, if we learn from the works of Dr. Zareta Hammond, who’s the author of culture responsive teaching, and the brain is like, part of that is that identity. How do kids have this amygdala hijack whenever their identities are not affirmed in the classroom? We never look at it from the cognitive standpoint. We never look at it from a variety of standpoint in terms of defining what culture is.


Mike Pierre: Perfect response. And just piggybacking off what Dana said, she definitely brought in something that I wanted to speak about, which is what are the roles do you believe the parents and the community members can play in creating a culture responsive and sustaining learning environments?


Dr. Joel Llaban: I was really inspired by the works of Dr. Yolanda Celia Ruiz. She’s got a really wonderful video on YouTube that talks about truth, love, and racial literacy. I don’t think we talk about race and racism as much before. We’ve never been taught as educators before to address the intersect identities of our kids and even our own intersexual identities. Not only until very recently, at least for myself, I can speak for myself around that. And so I think increasing our racial literacy, understanding how many of us operate in and all of us operate in a racialized world, and how so many of our identities are impacted by marginalization and systems of oppression. You think being able to understand that and have that, because sometimes when we talk about cultural responsive teaching, we only think about it in one lens, but it’s not really talking about how can we teach our kids sociopolitical consciousness to examine our society. That is one of the tenets of cultural responsive teaching that critical consciousness to be able to understand, so my thinking around this, sometimes we say, well, we’re doing DIJB work because we’ve diversified the authorship and the stories in our libraries. But then the question is, how are we teaching those books? What are the kinds of questions that will challenge the stereotypes, the assumption, the racialization, the racism in those books or the gender injustice in those books or the linguistic injustice in those books or the disability injustice in those books? And so it’s not just about diversifying the books or changing the many books that we have, but it’s also teaching to ask those critical questions around the narratives in the books.


Mike Pierre: Thank you for that, Joel. Joel, where are you at the moment?


Dr. Joel Llaban: I am back home at the moment. I’m right here. It feels so good to be home. I mean, I haven’t been home – home in my, where the dogs are in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where that is currently home. But then I’m mostly here in my first home.


Mike Pierre: And that was my question in the last month that you were away, what was the exciting things that you were accomplishing while you were away in the schools that you were consulting with?


Dr. Joel Llaban: Yeah, I’ve been in a couple of schools the past few months or weeks. What’s exciting is that there’s a lot more questions and wonderings. At the same time, a lot more deeper work with different schools that the kind of work that is now beyond the superficial DIJ statements. Now really looking at systems of inequity or systems of injustice or the lack of belonging. And different communities are now reflecting on how might equity and inclusion look like in the many elements of schooling in the many aspects of the different parts of their communities. And there’s more leaning in to each other, asking more questions and working together and asking different ways people can support. And I think that is the joy there right in different schools who are beginning to commit a lot of schools now are these schools that I’ve been connected with, have gone beyond superficial understanding of culture to really examining the deep culture within their own communities as a result of understanding power and power dynamics as a result of their own understanding of their own identities, of their white accountability and how they can be allies and co-conspirators to the work of DIJB. More and more schools are understanding too that this is a child protection, fundamentally a child protection issue. That when students are experiencing racism, gender injustice, disability injustice, that it is fundamentally a child protection issue. Before it used to be that we talk about child protection is that it’s the physical or domestic or sexual violence against a child. But now people are beginning to become more aware or deeply understand that this is, that racism is a child protection issue. Yeah.


Mike Pierre: Well you are an author?


Dr. Joel Llaban: Am I an author?


Mike Pierre: Yes.


Dr. Joel Llaban: I’m not.


Mike Pierre: Okay.


Dr. Joel Llaban: Not yet at least. I just write little articles to provoke my own thinking first as a way to heal, as a way to liberate, and then I get to share it with folks in our community.


Mike Pierre: Okay. Do you have any that you would like our listeners to go to? Any articles or books that you read recently that could potentially assist with this topic?


Dr. Joel Llaban: To me, fundamental read in our work in DIJB is really cast by Isabelle Wilkerson. I think ISS did a book study on that one as well internally. I think a couple of years ago. I’m always a fan of the Wake Up, Michelle Mic Jenkin. Made a great honor of having with us as part of our book club that was led by Margaret Park at ISS. The beautiful thing about the wake up is that it challenges us to think beyond the binary of, am I good or I bad, it’s really around. And then to examine as well the whole idea of our why in supporting social justice, going beyond saviorism, here I am, I’m able to help you or help the community or help bypoc community. It’s really around, well, all of us have work to do and we need to make sure that we are co-creating, we’re collaborating, we’re supporting each other. That’s one. At the same time, I’m also a fan of Zareta Hammond on cultural responsive teaching in the Brain, the works of Django Paris, the works of Daniel Whitner on identity centered learning. Paul Gorski and Marceline Du Bois for equity centered, equity literacy. They really have tons of great resources that’s really centered around equity, that’s examining our systems. Yeah.


Mike Pierre: Wow. Well, thank you Joel. I have a lot to go and dive deep into our next interview, so I can know a little bit more. Do you have any last advice that you would like to give to our listeners? We’re attempting to make their classrooms a little bit more culturally diverse and having challenges.


Dr. Joel Llaban: Thanks, Mike. No thanks. First thing is, thanks to you and Dana and Molly Faith for a conversation today. My thing is sometimes there’s a lot of pushback, there’s a lot of demotivation in different places that’s influenced by the many other rhetoric that we hear in, in different parts of the world. But we have to remember that this work on DIJB is a work of humanity, is joyful and courageous work. And that we always have to remember that this is for the best interest of students and this is for the best interest of the colleagues in our communities. Yeah.


Mike Pierre: Joel, is there any way that you would like to let our listeners how they can reach out to you via Twitter, Instagram, smoke signals? I’m not too sure how these things work nowadays, but let us know how we can reach you.


Dr. Joel Llaban: I love that idea of Smoke Signals. No, Mike, it’s like you can connect me on Twitter. Joel Junior Llaban is my Twitter handle, but here I’m connected with International School Services and so feel free to reach out for anything. We’ve got a lot of things going on. Get a learning to action happening, we have all ISSEEU Learn, we have a lot of that in, that’s grounded on DIJ, anything on learning and leadership. So we invite you all to be a part of our community, our learning community, our DIJB community. I’m also a member of the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color, such a bold and brave community of leaders and learners who are doing great work around DIJB, especially for their international schools. And so we look forward to being with you in different spaces, in different areas.


Mike Pierre: Alright, we’d like to thank Joel for joining us today and for sharing his insights on leading culturally responsive and sustaining learning. We hope that this episode will encourage you as international schools to create learning environments that are equitable, accessible, and reflective of all student identities and perspectives. Thank you for listening. And thank you, Joel, for your time today. Join us for our next episode where we will continue to explore more ways on how to improve the education experience for us all. Until next time, our fellow educators, bye-bye.

International Schools Services is a global leader in everything that has to do with international education. From teacher and leadership placement to school audits and management certifications, we are here to help educators progress their careers. Learn more about ISS at

The ISS EDUlearn Ask Me Anything Podcast series is an offering from our Professional Development team aimed at helping international educators and those interested in the field to learn more about the the international education landscape. Find more PD offerings at