My Teachers Don’t Get Me: Culturally Competent Teaching in a Diverse Society

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Misunderstood by My Teachers
I spent my childhood attending a predominantly black inner city school with very little resources. All of my classmates were from the same socioeconomic background as I was. We were all poor, marginalized, black children who society had seemingly given up on. Consequently, very few of my teachers could relate to me, nor could they fully understand our cultural background. Some of their teaching practices were inadequate and their communication with students was inept, as they had not had the proper training or experience in effectively educating inner city youth and students from minoritized groups.

A Democratic Society Should Celebrate Diversity
A democratic society calls for every student voice to be heard, recognized and valued, but unfortunately we have greatly missed the mark so far in the United States. In the past few decades an educational theory known as culturally competent pedagogy has become increasingly more popular (And for good reason). If the educators in my elementary school had taken the opportunity to learn and respect our cultural background, they would have been able to more effectively serve our population. When teachers regularly integrate cultural competency into their curricular planning they transform the classroom into a more effective and equitable learning environment.            

What is Culturally Competent Teaching?
According to the National Education Association cultural competence is “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.” In other words, cultural competence involves educators doing some introspective work and examining themselves and their own cultural identity as it relates to their views of others. As they practice this critical self-reflection teachers must be intentional about learning the cultural background of their students, especially those that have different experiences from their own. They can in turn build upon that knowledge, thereby radically transforming their classrooms into more inclusive environments. This is pertinent because often when Americans think about notions of diversity, multiculturalism and difference they automatically think about people other than themselves. That is, conversations about diversity and inclusion are only referring to those people out there, from other races, ethnicities countries or another part of town. But culturally responsive teaching calls for educators to think about themselves as they think about others. In this way, they can be more intentional about supporting those students from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Furthermore, when they are teaching those students they can do so in a way that is respectful of their culture, and affirms their values. This also entails some cultural humility, in that teachers should not have the attitude that their culture and values are more superior to that of their students. In this time of cultural, political and racial division it is invaluable that educators find strategies to promote diversity in sincere ways within their classrooms. Here are five characteristics of effective culturally competent teaching and learning outlined by Cheryl Irish and Monica Scrubb.

1. Culturally competent teaching and learning facilitates critical reflection.
2. Culturally competent teaching and learning demands respect for others.
3. Culturally competent teaching and learning involves accommodating individual learners.
4. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires the use of intercultural communication skills.
5. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires focused activities and intentionally structured environments. 

Now that we have provided some discussion of what culturally competent pedagogy is all about, we will provide some resources below so that educators can go about implementing these principles into their classrooms.

A few ideas for integrating cultural competency into your lesson planning:

1. Student’s Exploring Their Cultural Background through Writing     
America is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse and therefore making our classrooms more diverse. One way for teachers to learn about their student’s cultural background is by allowing students to do regular journal reflections that encourage them to share their background. Students may start off slow and reluctant to do this but if teachers ensure them that they are in a safe place, they will feel more and more comfortable writing and sharing, especially the more often they do it.

A sample writing prompt for a social studies or language arts class might include:
Write about a typical day at home/ in your neighborhood/ or at a family gathering. Be sure to answer the following questions in your prompt:

  • What are typical activities that go on there? 
  • What is the atmosphere like? What do you do for fun? 
  • What type of activities take place on a regular basis? 
  • What type of people are there? (I.e. Which family members? 

How many family members)? 

  • What languages are spoken?
  • What are important topics discussed at home? 
  • What are important family traditions?

With this foundational knowledge about the students, teachers can also share their own cultural background and highlight the similarities and differences with their students. Teachers can build assessments with this knowledge, including class projects that allow students to present information about their culture, essays that allow students to do more research on their culture as compared to others, video documentaries about their lives, creating cultural musical productions, a genealogy project and oral presentations.                            

2. Digital Pen Pals
Students can use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to develop relationships with students their age in other countries. They can also do a cultural exchange with students in a part of the United States wherein the culture is completely different from their own such as a Native American reservation. It is important for the teacher to outline questions and criteria for the students that lead to specific fact finding and cultural sharing when interacting with their digital pen pal. That is, teachers should be very intentional about guiding students with prompts and directives that will help them gain and share information that will lead to them learning about other cultures while effectively sharing their own. 

Other Lesson Plans
Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators
Lesson Plan: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility in Cross-Cultural Exchange
Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility in Cross-Cultural Exchange
Cultural Competence Activities for Teachers
15 Culturally-Responsive Teaching Strategies and Examples + Downloadable List
Culturally Competent Action Plan

Why Cultural Competence?
How to Practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
Cultural Competence
Why Focus on Cultural Competence and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?
Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Originator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Addresses ACE Teachers and Leaders
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy


  1. When it comes to being a teacher, I think one of the core things you must understand is the background of your students and their diversity. Cultural competence is a must if you want to succeed and be there for your students. I know there can be challenges and teachers must juggle a lot, but I feel this is one of the most important things.

  2. In order to be teacher and be a role model to children you need to understand diversity. You not only need to understand diversity you need to be able to teach it. 

  3. I like that teacher have to learn cultural competence. Since they have to learn cultural competence, more teachers can understand who they are and how they fit into society. As well as where the student is and how they fit into society. This is good because it helps to teacher understand the student and thus making it easier to relate to the student and build that teacher student connection.

  4. As a future teacher, I know that culturally relevant pedagogy and teachers are crucial for our students in a diverse world to thrive and learn instead of being misunderstood by teachers. As a white female who was raised in a middle class predominantly white town, I know that I have not been exposed to many things nor do I understand the full extent of what students who are African American might or do experience. I want to educate myself so that I know what I could do to make my classroom culturally competent to the best of my ability. One main way I could begin to achieve this is not only by soaking in all the education I can on my cultural identity and the differences between myself and many other cultures, but I can get to know my students at a deeper level than just in the classroom. Learning my students’ background, their families, history, etc. all influence who they are and how they are raised and getting to know that part of my students will help me become culturally competent.

  5. As a future teacher, I think it’s important for us to understand the struggle the students we teach go through day to day. Even if we don’t necessarily go through the same situations and problems as the students there needs to be some sort of understanding of what is going on. If the teacher understands the students cultural background, then they will be able to have a better student – teacher relationship. With a better relationship comes a better learning environment. A great way to start understanding students is to listen to what they have to say whether they are saying it out loud or writing it out, pay attention to what they are saying and acknowledge that you see them and you hear them.

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