Cultural Competence for Teachers
"Culturally competent educators are aware and respectful of the importance of the values, beliefs, traditions, customs, and parenting styles of the children and families they serve. They are also aware of the impact of their own culture on their interactions with others and take all of these factors into account when planning and delivering services to children and their families."
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Good teachers, like good parents, want the best for their students. They want them to have dreams, set goals and develop the skills and confidence to achieve them. Good teachers want all their students to feel good about themselves and comfortable in their community. Yet, as every teacher knows, not all students are the same. Children come from different backgrounds, different places and different cultures. They possess different abilities, speak different languages, and have different values and different dreams -- just like their teachers.
Teachers too come from different backgrounds. They have different skills, different values and different levels of comfort with all the differences they face in their classrooms every day. Research shows that the way a teacher feels and teaches about differences can affect the atmosphere in a classroom, and for better or worse, impact student success and achievement.
To be truly effective, a teacher in today's classroom needs to teach from a multicultural perspective. To achieve this, the Department of Special Education at San Diego State University found that "educators must experience culture, explore their own culture and cultures different from their own, and examine how cultural perspectives collide and intertwine." In other words, if educators are to improve the quality of the classroom experience for all of their students, they need to become culturally competent.
What is Culture?
If teachers are to be culturally competent, they first need to understand the question: What is culture? The dictionary definition of culture covers everything from yogurt to opera. For our purposes, the concepts below demonstrate the complexity of this topic and how the term "culture" relates to every aspect of our lives, values, beliefs and behaviors.
An Anthropological Perspective of Culture
- Topical: Culture consists of everything on a list of topics, or categories, such as social organization, religion or economy.
- Historical: Culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations.
- Behavioral: Culture is shared, learned human behavior, a way of life.
- Normative: Culture is ideals, values or rules for living.
- Functional: Culture is the way humans solve problems of adapting to the environment or living together.
- Mental: Culture is a complex set of ideas or learned habits that inhibit impulses and distinguish people from animals.
- Structural: Culture consists of patterned and interrelated ideas, symbols or behaviors.
- Symbolic: Culture is based on arbitrarily assigned meanings that are shared by a society.
Source: John H. Bodley, From Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System, 1994
What is Cultural Competence?
Cultural competence is the ability to effectively respond to students from different cultures and classes, while valuing and preserving the dignity of cultural differences and similarities between individuals, families and communities. It is an understanding of the hidden rules within different economic and cultural structures in order to have productive relationships with students.
Why Is Cultural Competence Important?
Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds often do not fare well in public education and are plagued by problems such as the achievement gap, overrepresentation in special education, high suspension and expulsion rates, and high drop-out rates. (Jencks & Phillips, 1988; Losen & Orfield, 2002; Townsend, 2000)
Who Is a Culturally Competent Educator?
"Teachers who are prepared to help students become culturally competent are themselves culturally competent. They know enough about students' cultural and individual life circumstances to be able to communicate well with them. They understand the need to study the students because they believe there is something there worth learning. They know that students who have the academic and cultural wherewithal to succeed in school without losing their identities are better prepared to be of service to others; in a democracy, this commitment to the public good is paramount."
Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction University of Wisconsin-Madison
Become a Culturally Competent Educator - Tips for Success
The suggestions on this list are intended to increase awareness of the importance of cultural competence in schools and provide concrete examples of things that teachers can do to foster a culturally competent environment.
- Regularly seek out opportunities to enhance cultural competence by participating in diversity trainings, cultural workshops and classes that will help you identify stereotypes.
- Integrate cross-cultural communication topics and materials into the curriculum.
- Provide and display books, maps, words, posters, games, videos and other materials that reflect the different cultures of students in your classroom and school.
- Encourage students to see not only the differences among cultures, but also the similarities.
- Learn as much as you can about a student's culture.
- Use educational approaches and materials that capture the attention of your intended audience.
- Be creative in finding ways to communicate with students and families that have limited English-speaking proficiency.
- Avoid stereotyping.
- Find ways to partner with the community by including neighborhood and community outreach efforts and involving community cultural leaders in classroom and school activities.
- Help students understand that everyone (including you) has a cultural identity.
- Review and revise classroom tests to eliminate cultural bias.
- Attempt to learn and use key words in other languages in the classroom.
- Use visual aids, gestures and physical prompts when interacting with children who have limited English proficiency.
- When possible, insure that notices to parents are written in their language of origin.
- Keep in mind that limitations in English proficiency are in no way a reflection of the intellectual capacity of your students.
- Screen books, movies and other media resources for negative cultural, ethnic or racial stereotypes before sharing them with students.
The Culturally Competent Classroom
The culturally competent classroom is a place where individuality is honored, differences are celebrated, and experiences are respected. It's a place where everyone feels safe, comfortable, valued and able to learn.
- Who we are
- What we believe
- The foods we eat
- Our traditions and celebrations
- Our perspective
- Our learning style
In a culturally competent classroom, the ideas, languages, skills, values and beliefs that each person brings enriches the community. It is a place where we strive to learn about one another and our varied backgrounds, because the more similarities we discover, the more differences we talk about and learn to understand, and the more comfortable we can be together.
Research shows that a culturally competent classroom can be created by integrating cultural learning into all aspects of the curriculum and classroom activities as often as possible. The activities and resources on this Web site are designed to provide you with information and inspiration as you implement strategies to foster a culturally competent learning environment.
Resources for Teachers
The Center for Cultural Competence
An Essential Dimension of Effective Education
Identifying Stereotypes in the Media
Justice Talking Presents "The Education Gap: Which Way to a Smarter America?"
Promoting Diversity in Elementary School Curricula
Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute www.cis.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1997/4/97.04.10.x.html