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



11 Comments

  1. For my last entry I chose “My teachers don’t get me: Culturally competent teaching in a diverse society”. I chose this one because it is always my goal to be socially and culturally aware in any classroom or position of authority. I want to make sure that I learn about the cultural and home lives of my students as much as possible so that I can better interact with them and learn how to build a better student-teacher relationship. This will help both with the teaching aspect and the classroom management aspect of the class. If the students feel as though they are respected and understood in the classroom setting they are more likely to participate and less likely to act out. This will greatly improve how time is spent in the classroom as well as helping students learn more and become less frustrated due to cultural differences.

  2. I am very glad I read this article because I grew up in an environment and went to schools that were not very culturally diverse. My schools took the stance that everyone there was “family” and that we’re all the same, but that is just not true. Students should be encouraged to express their cultural identity and diversity within schools should be celebrated. As a future educator, I want to strive to create a classroom environment that celebrates diversity and lets students share all the aspects of their life that way I truly get to know my students and am able to respect them and their values and beliefs. I definitely will use writing reflections in my class so students can share the important parts of their lives in a way that makes them the most comfortable. I can then explore and share all the cultures in my classroom in a respectful and positive way and expose my students to other cultures as well. I love the idea of pen pals and definitely want to explore that in the future. Cultural competency needs to be pushed on a larger scale and I believe it should start in the classroom.

  3. This article makes me optimistic and excited to become an educator. I strive to be more culturally competent and will implement what I learn in my classroom as well. I loved the idea of having my students journal about their lives as a way for all of us to learn about each other. I think cultural competency should be pushed on a larger scale, especially for future educators.

  4. This article drew me in because of its resources to help me become a better teacher one day. I feel like most Americans can improve on being culturally educated and competent. Learning about your experience was helpful in showing me that in order to be a teacher, I need to understand all types of people and have the resources to help them succeed. It is hard for me to think that students have to live like this because my school was the opposite. I am worried it may be hard to connect with my students oen day because some of us may come from different backgrounds, races, or cultures. This article gave me insight on how to handle that situation. I loved the point about critical reflection. That was almost the same as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” to me. That is what I will need to do in order to understand things better. I also loved the writing prompt idea for students. It is good to get them thinking about other people or places at a young age so they learn to understand to accept everyone equally.

  5. This is one thing I will strive to gain insight on. I think it is so important, as a teacher that you do your research on your students when it comes to their culture. Understanding your students diverse backgrounds can allow you as an educator to connect on more than just an educational level. Asking about Your students home life is a great way to understand your every student individually. Different cultures come with different traditions and cultural norms that can range from specific behaviors to a students thinking. This article means so much to me because it is such an important topic and can make the world of a difference when a teacher incorporates this in his/her classroom. Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that is considered a huge “must” and that upsets me because it should be the first thing a teacher should have to know. Cultural knowledge can lead to personal connection and can help create a bond in a positive way not educationally and emotionally.

    • This is one thing I will strive to gain insight on. I think it is so important, as a teacher that you do your research on your students when it comes to their culture. Understanding your students diverse backgrounds can allow you as an educator to connect on more than just an educational level. Asking about Your students home life is a great way to understand your every student individually. Different cultures come with different traditions and cultural norms that can range from specific behaviors to a students thinking. This article means so much to me because it is such an important topic and can make the world of a difference when a teacher incorporates this in his/her classroom. Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that is considered a huge “must” and that upsets me because it should be the first thing a teacher should have to know. Cultural knowledge can lead to personal connection and can help create a bond in a positive way not just educationally but also emotionally.

  6. I grew up in a “poor” town with the majority of students being white and Hispanic and very few black students. I had issues with teachers due to my childhood, they did not understand what I was going through and were not very understanding, and I am white. I cannot imagine what my fellow Hispanic and black classmates experienced. Because of some teachers not taking time to get to know me is the main reason I want to teach now, so I really enjoyed this article. I will strive to do everything necessary to make students feel safe and comfortable in my classroom.

  7. I grew up in a opposite of you but was also misunderstood most of my childhood education. I grew up in a predominantly white community but I was one of the only kids of colors in my class. Therefore for sometimes my teachers didn’t understand me nor did I really understand myself. This is because I was never surrounded by people who look like me or who acted like me and I began to act like those in my area. I think as an educator one thing I’m going to try to do is to understand all my students regardless of their race, ethnicity, any disabilities. This is because most importantly they’re here for education and they’re not going to get that education if they’re not properly understood.

  8. Culturally competent teaching is incredibly important in today’s world especially as we have such diverse communities today. I think this is one of the most important aspects of teaching as we as teachers are a huge part of children’s lives. It is our job to be role models for students and to creat a safe space for our students. I really like the lesson plan ideas that prompt students to write about their daily life at home, this is a great way to find out what our students go through day to day, good or bad.

  9. I believe that as a teacher forming relationships with and being able to understand ones students is a very important skill. Being able to make connections helps the students feel accepted and more comfortable. As a future teacher, my goal is to always keep an open mind and make my student feel comfortable while being able to open up, and not be afraid of facing judgement. As highlighted in this article being able to integrate cultural competency into our lesson plan will greatly help to connect the students to one another and the teacher. I definitely plan to use the writing prompt ideas as a guide to incorporating this into my future classroom.

  10. This article contains ideas that were discussed at the Black and Women’s History discussion panel and really provides further information on the topic. Many textbooks and other school resources only give overviews of various historical or social topics and they don’t really dig into individual cultures of the world. Now, no, we can’t teach everything to our students about one particular culture, but we can give the opportunity got students to learn more about a culture and provide resources to go even further in their learning outside the classroom. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to understand who my students really are by talking to them and educating their peers as well. It requires thinking outside the box and being open to learning new or different things. And by creating this normal environment that is always looking to learn something new, students will be more open and willing to think outside the box too.

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