Education Equity

Empowering Educators Through Cultural Competence

We’re teaching students, not just curriculum, so cultural competence should equal professional competence, especially with students who don’t share our background or level of privilege.

March 9, 2015

The act of listening is perhaps the most underrated skill there is in education. As teachers, we are often asked to "do" a lot more than necessary: memorize standards, plan lessons, prepare for various assessments, call homes, provide a warm environment for our students (and visitors), attend faculty meetings with varying effectiveness and relevance, grade mounds of papers, and take what little time we have left to eat and sleep, usually less than we should.

Yet, with the laundry list of things that teachers do, check for, and assess, we might be better off staying still and letting students tell us more about what they need.

This is especially crucial in situations where we may or may not share similar backgrounds with the students we teach. We've known for decades that building relationships is a central part of our work, but this has even larger implications when we work with disadvantaged students. The teacher-student relationship has so many subtle nuances across race, gender, and class lines that opening our eyes to these nuances would make us better educators. Time and again, we see a growing number of educators willing to forgo the need to jump directly into teaching, educators who are more into getting to know the students.

After all, we shouldn't be preparing to teach content or the students we imagine might be there, but rather the students in front of us.

We can do this by taking up some of the skills we wish to impart on our own students. In our classrooms, however, that's not enough. For excellence, we may need to switch the way we talk to and about students. Here are some workable strategies that I've used and observed.

Build Relationships, But as a Teacher First

Everyone has a different approach to classroom management. Some don't smile until December, if ever. Others can't help but smile and laugh throughout the year. Some impart their wisdom with diatribes and speeches, while others know how to quietly move about the room and make their presence felt. The common thread in all of those cases is students understanding that the teacher cares and has a specific way of showing that he or she cares. A few teachers have said, "The student might not be able to read, but they can read you." That's powerful in the context of schools where teachers don't have the same cultural background as the students. When teachers have a passion for the students in front of them, and not just for the subject they're teaching, everyone wins.

This also means, simultaneously, that teachers shouldn't seek to create friendships in the normal sense. Many of my students would shake their heads at other teachers who tried to create friendships with them, saying they wanted a teacher, not another friend. While this might seem counterintuitive to progressive education (whatever that means), we must recognize that many students find comfort in having someone who provides stability and structure. Speaking of which. . .

Create a Fair and Equitable Environment

Currently, we've seen a surge of research that shows how real the school-to-prison pipeline has gotten. Black girls, for instance, face suspension at three times the rate of white girls, and black boys face suspension at six times the rate of white boys in NYC and Boston schools. With harsher systemic punishment doled out in our most vulnerable places, we need to recognize that classrooms are often the first place where students see inequity, and it's usually not in the resources but in their treatment. We can create rules with students and believe in restorative justice, but until we reflect on the ways that we interact with students in their weakest moments, we will continue to perpetuate inequity.

For instance, when a student comes in late, do we first ask why they're late or do we yell and banter about their lateness? Do we address individual students' weaknesses in front of the entire class or seek to have private conversations first? Do we try to build a community of learners or do we harshly deny student agency? There are ways to be strict without being inhumane, but too often, some of us think quiet is the ultimate goal by any means necessary. Instead, we should strive to understand the students individually and develop a common sense of purpose for them collectively.

Ask Questions as a Form of Disarming

Too often, we come into situation with inherent biases that we might not recognize. Works from Peggy McIntosh, such as "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (PDF 18KB), and Project Implicit underline the need to work against some of our deeply-held beliefs. In the classroom, we need to recognize the privileges we bring and ask better questions. Humility in some aspects can make us more attuned to the needs of all students, but especially underserved students. When we ask good, honest questions of our students in the moments when we as teachers don't understand something, we seem more genuine.

Earlier in my career, for example, I thought I knew all about my students, so when I saw someone sleeping in class, I would attribute that to laziness or apathy. One day, we called his parent into school to find out what was going on and why this student couldn't pay attention. As it turned out, his mother worked weird factory shifts, from 3PM to midnight, often leaving him with little supervision. One night, he accidentally left his keys inside his apartment, which meant he was locked out until she got home. Every teacher needs that sort of humility, even if we share a cultural background, because it can be easy to forget that we teach students.

After that experience, I tend to ask more than I assume, which should be a general rule of thumb for all teachers. Those with even less information about the students should ask more questions. Some of our most intelligent civil rights organizations recently joined forces to make recommendations to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the future of education. The one that stuck out the most for me was the idea of cultural competence as professional competence. In many circles, this matters more than our current debates on testing, Common Core, and school funding. For our students, the person who they see as the beacon of hope or the agent of their oppression (and everything in between) is their teacher. Excellent educators embrace this for themselves and for all of their students.

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Filed Under

  • Education Equity
  • Classroom Management
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity

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