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Developing Your Cultural Competency

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Dr. Stephanie Boyce, author of the FRESH Classroom: Why Culturally Relevant Education Can't Wait, begins her workshops with an all-important challenge:

Define the difference between race and culture.

It is my experience that at the crossroads of these two terms lies immense misunderstanding.

Educators tend to bridge these cultural gaps by using stereotypes and assumptions based on race. This inevitably affirms deficit ideologies and becomes roadblocks to student success for many Black and Brown youth. Too many educators feel unprepared, ill-equipped, and overwhelmed to reach their diverse learners. Educators walk into classrooms after years of collegiate training and highly qualified certifications, yet, courses that even mentioned race and culture were often optional. How is it possible that something so integral to effective teaching be absent from required coursework? With over 75% of the teaching force being White women amidst a student population that is growing more diverse (53% Brown and Black), developing cultural competency is paramount to academic progress.

The National Education Association describes cultural competence as “having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.” This means that teachers should have a knowledge of self and simultaneously build on the knowledge they have of students. Sadly, this needed competency has been overlooked by many schools.

When personal biases and assumptions go unchecked, the hindrance of a student’s developmental process is a settled reality. Educators who aspire to be culturally competent must customize their teaching styles and classroom practices to the needs of diverse students, and in turn, advance academic success.

Many leaders acknowledge this disparity yet don't know what to do about it. Teachers respond with practices that enforce compliance through punitive measures. As a result, educators miss out on the opportunity to develop curiosity in our learners. How, then, do we address this critical need in our schools? Let me suggest three things to help:

1. Start With Reflection

It is of primary importance to start with self. Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, states that "the hardest culture to examine is often our own because it shapes our actions in ways that seem invisible or normal." That is why we must begin here. We must recognize our own biases, ideas, and stereotypes of cultures that are different from our own. Failure to do this results in a one size fits all approach to learning and academic success in schools. That approach is what Hammond calls a pedagogy of compliance where educators value orderliness over the messiness of complex work and miss the opportunity to ignite engagement naturally.

The key to cultural competency is first unlearning the fallacies and stereotypes that we have believed. For example, a student that comes late to class may not believe that their learning has anything to do with on-time arrival while another may view this as an act of respect. An educator's lack of understanding in just this scenario is the difference between explanation and exclusion. Many educators wrongly assume negative intent and response according to this misinformation.

To grow in this regard, teachers can engage in readings and discussions about privilege. I'd also recommend journaling about their personal identity stories paying particular attention to how their own identities are socially constructed. Lastly, Harvard University offers Project Implicit as a way to understand our own biases. The Harvard IAT is an online test that allows people to identify their implicit biases. Reflecting on such conditioning can help teachers approach their practices with fresh eyes.

2. Know Your Surroundings

Don't switch to autopilot on the morning commute. Take note of the community in which you teach. We often miss the valuable story embedded in the community. This knowledge holds the potential to change your teaching practices for the better.

When the pandemic started, many of the disparities that existed in education began to be highlighted. One such area was food insecurity. Serving with a team of amazing friends and colleagues, I was able to take part in serving the community I currently teach by establishing a food pantry. We delivered food to nearly 100 families from the local community. It was through serving that I learned the rich history of the community. I saw firsthand what my students had to navigate just to make it to my class. By sourcing food locally, I witnessed the emotional context of terms like 'food desert.' All of these things made me a better educator.

Sadly, many former colleagues didn't take part in such an enriching experience because they were unwilling and afraid to navigate the community in which they served. It is in the chasm created by this fear that deficit narratives thrive. There can be vast differences between the hearsay about a community and the facts. Fear cannot be the driving emotion when serving a community. We should lead with love and deeply listen so that we can better serve.

3. Chart Your Progress

Every one of us has been handed a set of lenses from which we see the world. The prescription contained in them is shaped by our past, our upbringing, and our experiences. If we wish to be the kind of educators who make a difference, we must change any prescription that skews how we see others.

There I was in the middle of an amazing dialogue with students about how math applies to their world and who they are. One student seemed determined to disrupt such a great moment. After my patience wore thin, I asked him to step into the hallway. I got the class started on a partner activity and stepped into the hallway to talk to the student. As we talked, he continued to roll his eyes, look away, and speak in a tone that lacked what I determined to be respected. Instead of listening to what the student was saying, I became fixated on how he was saying it. The conversation quickly devolved into both of us jockeying for control. Growing frustrated, I stopped the conversation for lack of productivity.

Later that day, on my prep I realized the error of my ways. My upbringing demanded that respect be shown in ways that are foreign to this student. You see, I was raised in a military family where eye contact and posture were required demonstrations of respect. I placed my lens on his actions and needed to check myself. After failing miserably in our hallway interaction, I sought out that student and apologized. It made all the difference in our relationship moving forward.

Educators must have an inner dialogue to determine what experiences have shaped the teacher’s views of students. Apart from having a thorough knowledge of their subject and teaching methodologies, educators should be able to relate to their students by demonstrating qualities like compassion, equality, honesty, and respect for diversity. The best educators are those who not only learn from their students but are students of their culture and language. This entails listening to and interacting with them as a learner.

Cultural competency should be a requirement in education. This practice isn't merely being aware of the Black students within your care. Cultural competency is recognizing the differences in everyone represented in the school regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Within those differences, are strengths to be leveraged to improve student outcomes. Now is the time to lean into cultural competency to strengthen the relationships between the school and the community. School leadership cannot assume staff understand cultural competence and must take the initiative to provide adequate space to discuss cultural differences and reestablish norms built on cultural competency. It is beyond time to act. What will you do with the responsibility that rests on your shoulders? Will you honor your students or your preferences?

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