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

Resources/References
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



10 Comments

  1. I was drawn to read this article due to the fact that it is so relevant, and important for me on my journey to becoming an educator. Throughout my time in the education program at Northern Kentucky University we have been taught to build relationships with our students and take into account their cultural background when doing so. We have also been taught how important relationships are with the families of our students, and how beneficial good relationships can be in the process of learning about our students and their values. One thing that stood out to me in the article is that it states that teachers should promote diversity through sincere ways in the classroom. As teachers it is important to be intentional with the inclusion of culturally competent teaching and learning. I am in a placement now where my students have the opportunity to explore their cultural background through writing. My teacher allows the students to write daily about their lives and reflect on their background through set and purposeful prompts. I plan to purposely incorporate writing like this in my classroom as well. Overall this was a very informative and well written article. I have several ideas for integrating cultural competency into my lesson planning after reading this article, and plan to incorporate these ideas as a future educator.

  2. After reading about your personal experiences dealing with cultural incompetence in your classroom as a child, I have been able to come up with a well thought out response to this article. As a future teacher, I plan two take negative experiences of others as well as myself and turn them into good experiences. I think as children, we can be so scared to share our culture with others out of fear of being made fun or or not being accepted. I think that having a teacher who appreciates everything you have to offer, while also sharing parts of her own life and culture, makes it much easier for that child to take that step in sharing who they are. This allows all students to feel more comfortable sharing and appreciating their own cultures, so that they can gain the ability to appreciate new cultures that other students may have. As children are growing, it is important for them to not only be proud of who they are, but they should also be able to look at and appreciate other cultures as well as their own. They need to understand that every culture is beautiful in its own way even if it might be different from what they are used to. With that being said, I like the first journal entry assignment mentioned in the article where it asked the student to simply describe what it is like at home. This is an assignment that might require a little thinking, but it is not difficult to come up with an answer. Most children like to share what they like to do with their free-time or with friends. Overall, from reading this article, I will continue to take on the role of a teacher who accepts all cultures and allows students to share everything about their cultures in a friendly, safe environment.

  3. I am drawn to topics within education that will help me further expand my perspective and depth of knowledge when it comes to students who come from all different backgrounds. So therefore, I was drawn to this article. There is an incredible amount of power in taking into serious consideration the cultures and backgrounds the students you are teaching may be coming from. The personal anecdote in this article speaks clearly about the need for teachers who are culturally competent and the shift in the education narrative that could happen if the correct, intentional steps are taken. As humans and especially as teachers, we should celebrate diversity and find ways to allow diversity to guide our every action. But, as the article states, it is not simply about the output of teachers celebrating diversity. There must be in inner self- that chooses to learn about cultures, find culturally appropriate ways to bring student backgrounds into the classroom, and sees all cultures as equal. I hope this shift in culturally competent teaching keeps taking more steps towards more diversity and appreciation for all people. I love the idea of the students exploring their culture because it is a simple way to show students that you value their culture and background enough that you want them to have a sense of pride about it.

  4. As I further my education, I see how important it is to be culturally competent being an educator. I will do everything I need to do in order to be able to meet the need and learn about my students’ culture. This has been an idea that I have learned while in college due to the fact that I didn’t come from a diverse culture. As a future educator, I will take your writing idea on integrating the cultural competency in my classroom. This is such a good idea due to the fact that writing can be private, but as their teacher I can read it and learn about them through their writing. This will allow me to make lessons to make connection to their cultural backgrounds as well as interests. This way allows the students to feel private. Also, as you stated in the article “teachers can also share their own cultural background and highlight the similarities and differences with their students.” This is also strong way to make connections with students. This will be a great and beneficial way in learning about your students as well as fun for student to talk and write about their own experiences.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece! I am currently working at the children’s home where so many kids come from so many different backgrounds. I am trained to be trauma informed. Trauma informed is recognizing ones past/ history or background and meet them on their level to get the response and engagement you want. I am currently placed at inner city school for my pro 2. The inner city school is very low income and my teacher does not meet the students at their level or their background needs. i have made it my challenge being in this classroom to make a change and meet the students on their level and make connections to their cultural background and make the classroom a fun and welcoming environment!

  6. I like how your introduction talks about what it was like for you and how you can relate to your article because this is a topic that is talked about, but nobody really seems to follow up with what is happening. I think that when a teacher is building rapport some cultural background topics will arise, however, sometimes it is hard to get students to open up about their culture and there are some students who do not really know or understand. America is made up of a bunch of different cultures, and I think teachers can use this to their advantage in order to allow students to speak up about their culture and tell others some of the cultural views. Journaling seems like it will be a great way to see what the students are thinking and some traditions they are partaking in. It will also allow a teacher the chance to see if something is going on that may be of importance like a death or wedding that may distract the student a little.

  7. I grew up in a completely different atmosphere in schools than what was described in this article. I was from a neighborhood where we were all known as the rich kids, but not quite the richest neighborhood. If you went to Ryle, everyone thought you were rich and from that neighborhood, when I was not from the rich areas and most of the people I was friends with were not either. I grew up with teachers who grew up in similar cultural backgrounds but did not relate, in my opinion with us. I believe this was the case because they did not seem to care about the students on personal levels because they were used to all the students thinking they were better anyway, so why should they care and work harder. I went through school struggling and asking for help, but not receiving it.
    I worry all the time that I will not be able to connect with my students purely because of the lack of knowledge or understanding about what they have been through. I would love to learn some new ways to get to the point of truly understanding what they go through and how I can help them. My favorite part of the article was this:
    “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.”
    This was my favorite because I am someone who has been raised and believes that this is normal and okay, but it is not. I need to realize and show my students that we all just need food, water, and shelter; that we are all the same, but have many different backgrounds that everyone deserves to share and learn from other kids.

  8. I really like the concept that culturally responsive teaching requires not just thinking about the cultural background of others, but ALSO reflection on one’s own cultural background and assumptions. I am still new to the field of education but I am quickly grasping that self-reflection is quite possibly one of the most critical skills that an educator can have. I’ve been in many classrooms over the years and I could probably count on one hand the number that have had genuine cultural competence. This was especially apparent in social studies classrooms, which presented a very specific view of history and did not entertain perspectives outside of that culture. As a future social studies teacher I will endeavor to provide that space for my all of my students.

  9. I agree with this article. O think it is very important to understand all your students and their cultural norms so that they can be brought into the classroom. I think the best way to do this is by asking them what their home life is like and compare and contrast it to your own way and the way of other students in the class.

  10. As a future teacher, I will strive to gain cultural competence and learn about students’ diverse backgrounds. Integrating cultural components into lessons can help create a safe environment where students feel welcomed and understood. I love the idea of students exploring their culture through writing because it is a private way that students can express emotions that may be difficult to vocalize. Students can share their personal stories and get to know one another on a deeper level by comparing their cultural characteristics. I would also use pen pals in my future classroom to have students branch outside of their normal interactions and build relationships with new people from places around the world. It would be a great learning experience and show students that diversity should be celebrated.

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