Addressing Issues of Cultural Competence

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High school principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
A colorful word cloud with ‘competence’ in the center.

What is Cultural Competence?

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.”

To make this definition meaningful, it is important to also define what culture is. Advancing Racial Equity in Schools Vermont quotes the N.E.A.’s definition of culture by saying “Culture is the sum total of experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests represented by the diversity of students and adults in our schools. While culture is often defined and perceived by schools as the celebration of important people, religions, traditions, and holidays, as well as an appreciation of the customs of different groups, it is also more than that. Culture is as much, or as little, as the everyday experiences, people, events, smells, sounds, and habits of behavior that characterize students’ and educators’ lives.”

The National Center for Cultural Competence has collected definitions of cultural competence that have roots in the definition established by Cross et al in 1989. While the project notes that definitions have evolved and been rewritten to address cultural competence in difference fields of work and study, there are five essential elements that most definitions include in some way. Advancing Racial Equity in Schools Vermont adapted the work of Diller and Moule to list the five tenets of being culturally competent:

  • Valuing Diversity. Accepting and respecting differences—different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.
  • Being Culturally Self-Aware. Culture—the sum total of an individual’s experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests—shapes educators’ sense of who they are and where they fit in their family, school, community, and society.
  • Dynamics of Difference. Knowing what can go wrong in cross-cultural communication and how to respond to these situations.
  • Knowledge of Students’ Cultures. Educators must have some base knowledge of their students’ cultures so that student behaviors can be understood in their proper cultural context.
  • Institutionalizing Cultural Knowledge and Adapting to Diversity. Culturally competent educators, and the institutions they work in, can take a step further by institutionalizing cultural knowledge so they can adapt to diversity and better serve diverse populations.

Why is Cultural Competence Important?

George Farmer wrote in his article titled “How Schools and Teachers Can Get Better at Cultural Competence,” “when educators fail to acknowledge their own biases and assumptions, the hindrance of a student’s developmental process is inevitable.” We know that teacher-student relationships are key to student achievement and that student achievement and growth is necessary to close the achievement gap in education. Relationships are powerful tools for student motivation and parental support, but we cannot connect and build relationships with those we do not understand.

Public schools in America have historically been built to include systems of racism. Over decades, our schools have improved in some ways through steps such as desegregation; however, policies remain that are implicitly bias and are not far removed from the systemic racism that generations of people of color have suffered. Without challenging ourselves and taking a good look at the bias and stereotypes that we hold within ourselves subconsciously and consciously, we cannot have a clear picture of the perspective we are presenting ourselves and educating our students through. Not only is it important that we have a true and authentic assessment of ourselves, it is imperative that we use this as a starting block to personal and professional growth and understanding of others who are different than ourselves so that we can understand our students and the population we serve as educators.

Ways to Address Cultural Competence Issues

Here are a few strategies to help begin “the work” within ourselves towards being culturally competent:

Understand Your Own Culture

Being able to express your identity and what makes you “you” is the first start to relating to others. When we learn a second language, we start by translating and relating new words in the new language to our first language as a base. This is exactly how we learn about others, as well. It may be uncomfortable and may not seem obvious at first, but we all have aspects of ourselves that reflect our natural or assimilated culture.

Listen and Observe

Culture is not just whether someone is Black, white, or Hispanic etc. Culture is history, geographically relative habits, languages and dialects of languages, body language, food, music, norms, physical touch, priorities, hobbies and interests, religious beliefs, and more. The more we observe other cultures and immerse ourselves in experiences with others who are not of the same culture as ourselves, the more we learn about and can relate to others.

Consider how “diverse your universe” is: do you spend time with others in your personal life who are of a different culture or is your social life homogenous in culture? Is there diversity where you worship, work, and enjoy your hobbies? Are the restaurants you frequent diverse? Is more than one language spoken in your neighborhood? Listening and observing cultures other than our own is necessary to becoming culturally competent, but so is asking questions (politely, of course).

Lean on Culturally Competent Curriculum

As I mentioned above, public schools in the United States have been built on the foundation of public policies that were designed to hinder the success of black and brown cultures. Inherently, schools have used curricular materials that were reflective of these practices and have historically only portrayed one side of history. Over the past year, it has become more apparent than ever that it is not enough to just not be racist—that we must be anti-racist to combat and correct the ages of whitewashed history that schools have taught.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we qualify every curricular material to ensure that it is multi-cultural, unbiased, and inclusive. Can our students see themselves in our curriculum? What messages does the material we teach from convey to our students and for their futures? Due to our history as a nation and public school system, schools must actively and purposefully make decisions to reverse the practices of the past.

Know the Community You Serve

Many teachers do not live in the communities they serve. Knowing the community you serve is an essential component to understanding the cultures of the students within your school. Spend time in the community at parks, small businesses, and local events. Seeing your students outside of school is always eye-opening and a great way to build relationships because you see each other with a new perspective.

The low-income community that I serve is considered a “food desert.” There are no grocery stores within walking distance and many of our families do not have transportation of their own. This means that even families who receive food subsistence cannot easily access nutritional food for their children, which effects student motivation, behavior, and energy levels. Spending time in the community was how I learned of this fundamental obstacle for our families, and it helped me to see the struggles our families face more clearly.

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