How Schools and Teachers Can Get Better at Cultural Competence

The valuable lesson of a “mucho caliente” mistake

The murder of George Floyd has led to a movement to hold police departments and officers accountable. It’s also an opportunity for educators to work on becoming culturally competent in a diverse society.

A Cypriot limestone votive ear, 4th-3rd century B.C.
“The beginning of understanding is listening.”
A Cypriot limestone votive ear, 4th-3rd century B.C. from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.” The differences that make individuals unique are essential ingredients of America, part of our country’s strength.

When educators fail to acknowledge their own biases and assumptions, the hindrance of a student’s developmental process is inevitable. Having good intentions is not sufficient; the actions are what will be seen and felt by students. What one individual may perceive as innocent can have detrimental ramifications. Districts need to feel the urgency and race to end exclusionary practices by practicing the following:

R Recognize your own biases, ideas, and stereotypes of cultures that are different from your own.

A Admit/Acknowledge that there are differences in the treatment of people based on their appearance.

C Commit to being a part of the change that is needed in seeing that people are treated fairly.

E Educate yourself and others on cultural differences to gain more understanding.

No longer can administrators and staff steer away from cultural conversations. Cultural competence is more than just learning about the music students enjoy or understanding their slang. For individuals to become competent in another culture, they must first understand their own biases and stereotypical ideas. This recognition allows people to become more aware of their thoughts and actions towards others who do not look like them.

The opportunity is now for districts to address the reality of bias, stereotypes, and cultural differences for cultural competency. While Covid-19 and preparing for another school closure is necessary, so is the importance of cultural competency. If districts forfeit the opportunity to address injustice, the damage could be catastrophic.

Cultural Competence in Schools

Many classrooms are diverse as a result of either the differences within the student population or the differences between the teaching population and the student body. If cultural competency is to become an essential component of schools, training must be more than a single day. Checking off back-to-school professional-development boxes is insufficient to identify, address, and begin to resolve bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

To begin, schools must shift away from the notion of culture as a celebration or event. Instead, schools should move to a view of culture as experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and values that affect the lives of everyone in the school building.

Gaining cultural competency will require a plan. Tight schedules and the need for pandemic-related preparations do not leave an abundance of time for cultural competency training. However, the time does allow for foundational discussions. School districts should provide training throughout the entire year.

Understanding Cultural Awareness

  1. Know the Community You Serve — Teachers sometimes work in communities where they do not live. The biggest mistake with this practice is when educators fail to educate themselves about the community in which they serve.

I can recall a specific day when the main road into school was shut down. A teacher had difficulty navigating into work and asked for help getting home. As I led the teacher in my car through the parts of the city where our students lived, the teacher called my phone to make sure the route we were on was safe. I reassured the teacher the route was safe and continued to navigate through the city. Once we exited the city and the teacher was familiar with the area, I received a call thanking me for my help. I asked the teacher if this route was a route she would take in the future. The response was an emphatic no. In essence, the teacher was unwilling and afraid to navigate the same city streets as the population we serve.

There can be vast differences between hearsay about a community and the factual historical reality of the community. Fear should not be the driving emotion when serving a community. Asking questions and searching for answers to help better serve the community should be the prevailing mindset.

  1. Identify Areas for Growth — Everyone has a past and upbringing that has shaped the way they view the world. Those experiences themselves are not negative, but when these experiences skew the way a person views others, an adjustment may be required.

A few years ago, a teacher entered my office upset about the disposition of a student. As the student stood beside the upset teacher, I began to listen to the teacher explain the incident. What was explained was the reality that the teacher was upset with the student’s disrespectful attitude. I asked for more details about the perceived disrespectful nature of the attitude. The teacher described colloquialism, tone, and a lack of eye contact. At that moment I dismissed the student and explained that the student was not being disrespectful, but rather what the teacher was experiencing was the method of communication in which the student interacts with his community.

Educators must have an inner dialogue to determine what experiences have shaped the teacher’s views of students. Districts must create space to have a broader discussion and be realistic about how teachers’ individual bias encroaches on the rights of students. The space for a macro conversation for the district is necessary and must be accompanied with how cultural awareness is reflected in individual buildings.

  1. Listen and Observe—What may seem as a simple task is rarely practiced. The beginning of understanding is listening. When one is constantly talking there is no room for listening.

In my early years as an educator, I served as dean of school culture. One responsibility of the job was to oversee school discipline in a predominantly black school. One classroom of 13 students included a white male teacher and one white male student. This particular student was involved in several incidents daily. One of his first comments was always, “no one understands, and no one listens to me.” Everything came to climax one day. I had to mediate a situation between the student’s parent and the teacher. What was uncovered in the meeting was the student felt no one understood him because he was white, and he did not feel welcomed in the school. As a school, we failed this student by not taking the time to listen to his needs.

Districts and educators fail at cultural awareness because listening has not been initiated. Listen to the parents, listen to the students, listen to your peers, listen to your staff. When what you hear corroborates what you see, act. Far too often districts fail to see because they fail to listen.

  1. Develop Cross-Cultural Skills—One of the biggest mistakes made across cultures is the attempt to try to fit in. Fitting in leads to offensive words that can cause a strain in relationships.

Just last year I was in the school’s main office receiving food from parents for a cultural celebration. One specific dish a parent made was heated to a high temperature. To show my newly acquired Spanish skills I uttered to the parent “mucho caliente.” As I watched the front office staff gasp and show visible signs of discomfort, I knew I said something wrong. When the parent left the office I immediately asked, “Did I say something wrong?” I learned using the term “mucho caliente” to the opposite sex is offensive even though I was talking about food and not the parent. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Cross-cultural skills take time and an intentional effort rooted in understanding.

Cultural awareness is not only being aware of black students. Cultural competency is recognizing the differences in everyone represented in the school regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Now is the time to lean into cultural competency to strengthen the relationships between the school and the community. Districts cannot assume staff understand cultural competence. Leaders must take the initiative to provide adequate space to discuss cultural differences and reestablish norms built on cultural competency. Talking about change is over. Now is the time for words to become actions.

George Farmer is an administrator at an elementary school in Camden, New Jersey, and a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Capella University.

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