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How Leaders Can Improve Their Schools’ Cultural Competence

Chris Lehmann

Founding Principal - Science Leadership Academy
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A diverse group of kids look at a globe together.

We live in an increasingly pluralistic society where people run up against the thoughts and beliefs of others more and more frequently. Helping children learn to navigate the space between what they believe and what others believe is perhaps one of the best ways we can overcome the hate we see in so many facets of our society today.

Cultural competence isn’t tolerance. It’s not that easy. Cultural competence is not simply ensuring that your school has a rich and varied Black History Month or letting students start a Gay-Straight Alliance -- although those can be powerfully important pieces of a culturally competent school. Cultural competence means first understanding, as educational leaders, that we come to school with our sense of who we are, and that unless we are reflective about our own identity and how it creates a lens through which we view the world, we will not be able to honor the identities of the students and faculty we serve.

But that is only the beginning of cultural competence. As we go through the process of understanding who we are and the place we occupy as administrators of our buildings, we also have to listen deeply to those around us -- students, parents, faculty, and staff -- to understand who they are and what their experiences are, so that we can relate to them fully as people, without preconceived notions of what it means to have an identity that is different -- or even the same -- as ours. And it means subjecting the processes of our schools to what we learn when we listen, always working to ensure that our schools are accessible to all, equitable for all.

Building Cultural Competence

There’s no shortcut or checklist, and cultural competence isn’t something you ever really get good at -- you just strive to get better at it. Being aware and responsive and listening to your school community in ways that ensure all members of the community feel that who they are -- all facets of their identities -- are welcome and safe is something that requires constant work. But there are questions you can ask yourself that can serve to move you toward a more aware, more just school community.

  • Do I seek out and listen to a diverse group of voices when making decisions about our school?
  • Do I ask myself how policy or procedural changes will affect students and faculty who come from historically disenfranchised groups?
  • Do I seek to hire a staff that reflects the diversity of our school and its surrounding community? Do I do so only so students of a particular race/ethnicity/gender/sexual orientation will see themselves on staff, or is it so that we all understand that we all learn from many?
  • Do I allow myself to be vulnerable with my school community? Does every member of the school community feel safe letting me know when I make a mistake -- especially when that mistake comes from a lack of cultural competence?
  • Do I work to ensure that there is not one standard of excellence at my school, but rather multiple pathways for students to have academic and social success?
  • Do I intentionally use anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, and explicitly accepting language?

It has become a cliché to cite Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But that quote is at the heart of cultural competence. It is not enough to be tolerant of the diversity of our school communities. It is not enough to be accepting of the wide range of human experience in our schools. We must embrace it. We must truly love all who inhabit our schools, and we can only do that when we seek to understand every individual and the identities we all bring to school every day.

When we do that -- when we aspire to that ideal and model that aspiration to all in our schools, we can teach students to be as loving and as aware as they can be. And if we do that, maybe we can teach our children that the hatred that would cause someone to use an ethnic slur in our hallways or to reject a student’s right to go to the bathroom of their gender identification is the same hatred behind the slaughter of 50 people at a gay dance club in Orlando. And maybe we can teach our children that they should never choose hate, only love.

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