The Value of Cultural Competence in Education

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I suppose before we can talk about the value of Cultural Competency, we must first talk about what it is. A short definition of Cultural Competence is one’s ability to understand, empathize with, respect, and want equality for cultures outside of your own. Oftentimes, people who are of the majority may not see the value of or even the awareness that they lack Cultural Competency. In a sense, it is a privilege not having to relate to and understand the lives and cultures of others (the minority.) In this blog, most of what I will discuss will be in reference to teacher-student interactions. However, it will all be applicable to any person you interact with of another culture. 

In education, one aspect of being culturally competent, and honestly, to me, the foundation and most important, is building relationships. The key to understanding someone is getting to know them. In a classroom setting, believe it or not, many educators  find it difficult to carve out  the time to get to know their students. With the pressures of performance rates, standardized testing, and administration down your back, building relationships may seem trivial and impossible to find time for. 

In my blog titled “The Power of a Quick Check-In,” I discuss how I used writing prompts at the beginning of some of my classes to get students to open up and let me into their world. These prompts are most likely completely irrelevant to math, the content I teach, or even school. Finding the time, whether it be 5 mins or 15 mins, has such a huge impact in the long run. By finding time to build relationships with your students, you let the students know that you care about them as a person. It tells them that they are not just a number to you, but that you see them and want to be a part of their lives. 

I oftentimes have conversations with people about the difference between my students’ behavior in my class and their behaviors in some of their other classes. I had a student one year who was really dealing with heavy depression. There were days when he would come to class and his friends would say, “Miss, he’s really having a bad day.” I would think, ‘Already? It’s only first period.’ I spent time every time he was having a bad day, along with some days he wasn’t having a bad day, just talking to him and trying to encourage him. I often would let him know that whatever he was going through wouldn’t last forever.   We needed to find him someone to talk to who will help him work through what was holding him back. Building a relationship with this student was difficult because he didn’t want to discuss the specifics with me. It wasn’t until I realized that some of the issues he was having he wasn’t comfortable talking to me about because I was a female. So I found him a male in the building who I trusted, who I knew would be able to help him 

From that I learned that my relationships with each of my students will be different. And that  isn’t a bad thing. This student wasn’t closed off because he didn’t trust me, he just didn’t think I could understand what he was dealing with. And when I found out what it was, he was right. Had he opened up to me about it, while I would be able to listen and comfort him, I had no knowledge of that type of stuff. I still would have needed to bring him to someone-a male-who could really talk to him and relate. But building the relationship with him and trying to be there for him as best as I could, resulted in him putting in more effort in my class. Even on his worst days, he would really try and push himself to  be present and get the work done. It was very clear that it was really hard for him but he tried. Whereas, in some of his other classes where he had no relationship with his teachers, his head was down. 

Another aspect of being culturally competent is having a desire to know and understand. People of different ethnic groups oftentimes have different cultural beliefs and norms. Without having a desire to understand those differences, it is easy to misjudge and misunderstand the simplest of behaviors. I’ll give an example of a story shared from a book I read. 

There was a Caucasian teacher who taught lower elementary students, I believe kindergarten. She was having trouble with one particular student of color. Her issue was that the student wouldn’t listen to her. As a result and out of frustration she asked a colleague to come in and observe the student. When the student would be out of his seat, the teacher would ask “Don’t you want to sit down?” When the student was talking, the teacher would respond “Shouldn’t you be listening to the story?” Once the observation period was over, the teacher went to their colleague and said, “See! He didn’t listen all class.” The observer, who happened to be a person of color, began to explain that children of color are used to directives. In their homes parents ideally tell them what to do explicitly as opposed to posing the request as a question. “Clean your room,” “Wash the dishes,” “Do your homework.” The child wasn’t ignoring the teachers requests or not listening. He simply took it as  a choice to decide if he wanted to do xyz, as opposed to a directive from her telling him to do it. 

Such minor differences in dialect and language used can create huge misunderstandings when you don’t understand the culture of your students. By no means am I saying that you should know every single detail, but you should have a desire to know. You should have a yearning to continuously learn about your students and the lives they live.

Another component of being culturally competent as an educator is understanding the value of sharing parts of yourself with your students. I have been teaching in urban schools my entire educational career. A huge part of urban culture is music. Music tells a story and people gravitate to a specific type of music because they feel as though they can relate to it. Artists tell stories through their music, even if it’s not their own story to tell. They reel their audience in by writing or releasing music that people can empathize with. The same thing happens in the classroom.

Great teachers share parts of their lives with their students. It allows the students to see that their teachers are human. They share stories of when they weren’t “perfect.” They share stories of when they had to fall hard, to learn a lesson and not make the same mistakes. They share the good moments they have with their families. They are an open book to their students, which naturally builds the relationship they have. Of course there are boundaries in what they share, as to only sharing what is school appropriate. But the sharing of themselves allows their students to also know that this teacher is someone they can come and talk to about anything. Those relationships and the trust that is built is more valuable than one can imagine. 

While this blog was intended to discuss the value of being culturally competent when interacting with students, these components discussed can apply to any person in any field. We should all have the desire to understand the values and culture of the people we interact with on a daily basis. It gives us an inside perspective on who they are and why they do the things they do. I hope that you were able to receive something from this and apply it to your everyday life. 

PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND/OR QUESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. DON’T FORGET TO SUBSCRIBE. 

25 thoughts on “The Value of Cultural Competence in Education

  1. It amazes me how many trainings, professional developments and mandatory tests that teachers are required to take; yet, a proper understanding of culturally relevant teaching is optional. You can attend a PD on it “if you want to”. Sadly, it’s the black teachers that crowd the room, rather than the incompetent individuals who need it the most. Cultural Competence should not be an option, especially for those responsible for shaping young minds. When will our educational system learn that they are indeed part of the problem?

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  2. This is an incredible topic. I always believe in the importance of connecting with students and building an authentic relationship with them. As much as some teachers think they know, this is not something they learned while getting their degree. While reading this, I def had flashbacks to when I was in high school and how teachers would interact with me as well as watching how they interacted with others. An important distinction I feel in being culturally competent is to understand that while getting to know your kids more for who they are rather than how much they know, you also realize that each student is different and how you approach your students changes every year. There’s never a clear cut way to “deal with” students and being culturally competent show a higher level of respect for the kids and I think will open them up to being more receptive to you as a teacher because they know you’re keeping their well being in mind both as a student and as a person.

    @drumrollplzz

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  3. One thing that has always been disheartening to me is that when trying to teach educators about cultural competency, relevancy, and teaching you must first teach their is a privilege to being apart of the majority. This alone is a task. Unfortunately, there are more that do not recognize their privilege or that it even exists. For those that know it exists there’s a choice to ignore it and consume everything the privilege has to offer.

    Where do we go from here? Teacher Ed program TRY their best to hone in on this and prepare teachers, however, we still have teachers unwilling to teach in high minority populations or quitting after a year due to their lack of understanding and preparation. I believe every teacher should be placed in a classroom with students that don’t look like them during their internship and for more than just a few weeks. Student teaching is the beast classroom for a teacher.

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    1. YESSSSSS!!! “There is a privilege to being apart of the majority.” Listen! One of my friends did a PD on Cultural Responsiveness and started out with a simple privilege questionnaire. You can imagine how many people didn’t realize their everyday privileges, and how many people didn’t come back to for the second part. These trainings should be mandatory for everyone!! Because even as teachers we have some type of privilege over our students. Do you know how many teachers or adults I have seen take advantage of that privilege and power. We must all be trained and continue to learn. If people won’t help themselves its the schools job to make it happen. Schools end up with low retention rates because there’s not enough support and training in them.

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  4. As an incoming teacher, one of my why’s is to provide cultural competence. I feel that the lack of such is the difference between effective teachers in urban schools and those who do not last the year.
    In my pre student teaching experience (pre-COViD), I had a student much like the severely depressed student you spoke of. My cooperative teacher was Caucasian and the student was black, as am I. I would consistently see him fail to engage in any activity and questioned if there was a reason why she didn’t encourage him to do so. She simply stated she tried and it was on him. Of course this did not sit right with me. The lack of desire to meet our students where they are suffers grave results. Every time! With consistent and genuine attempts to build relationships with our students,I believe, we satisfy the WHOLE child. Wholistic teaching is a must!

    Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You hit many points right on the head! Many teachers don’t last because the cultural differences are just too much for them. They think coming in they’re just going to teach content without realizing it takes so much more. And that isn’t what they signed up for. Which is why they make statements like I tried… it is what it is… etc. They aren’t prepared, equipped, or interested in doing what it takes to make sure every kid succeeds. Don’t get me wrong I’m no saint! I’ve had a student or two where I was ready to give up because it was frustrating! All I could do was continue to do my part and try to get the student to work and keep in contact with the parents. But that takes time and effort and not everyone is interested in putting forth that effort. In the end we all suffer !

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  5. A very challenging topic. I really liked/appreciated the perspectives. As a person who isn’t a teacher I tried to bridge this idea to my everyday. And the 2 biggest takeaways I got was, that you need “effort” and “patience”.

    Effort to work to do all the necessary steps to gain cultural competence. And patience because gaining cultural competence is not a “binary outcome” meaning “if I do this I’ll gaing cultural competence”. This is a people situation, and because people are different, and every day is different what works in gaining cultural competence is an ever evolving situation.

    So with that being said, in my own day to day. I’m going to have to remember this whenever I go “why did that person do that?” And try not to judge and believe my own perspective before putting in the effort and having the patience to find out.

    Thank you for this topic.

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    1. I appreciate your response! Your take aways are on point!! I think I would add you need desire as well you have to desire or want to understand the cultures of others FIRST. That will lead to genuine effort and make it easier to be patient during the process. Gaining absolute cultural competence is impossible for the very reason you stated. Cultures shift everyday. Changes happen everyday. So understanding that is also key. It’s really about being open to things outside of your normal and your space of comfort as well.

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  6. Great read Liz! Here are some takeaways that I received while reading. Reflecting on our own biases and prejudices helps us to develop the skills necessary to effectively interact and engage with individuals whose cultural background is different than our own. Our biases may stem from our backgrounds, experiences, or personal demographics, and these biases exist whether or not we are aware of them. The problem is when we deny or fail to acknowledge our biases. Our interactions and perceptions of others may be influenced by our biases. These biases may cause us to unwittingly act in ways that are discriminatory towards others.
    However, if we are aware of our biases, we can work to break our own prejudices and the implications they may have in our interactions with others. Tolerating different cultural backgrounds is a step in the right direction. However, tolerance is not always the route to be taken. In fact, tolerance means that you are simply choosing to put up with something that is UNDESIRABLE. Cultural competence goes beyond “putting up with” differences and instead involves being appreciative, affirming, and including of all cultural backgrounds.

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    1. You touched on some key things here! WE ALL HAVE BIASES. Most of them are unconscious biases, which we don’t realize that they even exist. But those biases are results of our life experiences. But you hit the nail on the head! It’s not about tolerating differences, because toleration is negative. It means I’ll do it but ugh don’t really want to. It’s more so about being aware and conscious of differences. It’s about not being stuck in what you believe but being understanding to the idea that people and cultures are different. Those differences aren’t a bad thing but present a space for us all to learn.

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  7. You have one of the most important lessons of teaching already figured out. Relationships are the most important thing within a classroom and with your colleagues. I taught thirty-one years, and I’ve been retired for over three, but I’m still fully invested in my students. I got my old third-grade yearbook out the other day and looked at it closely. Those children are now seniors—a class filled with so much promise. I knew what I had to do. I reached out and contacted two of the more socially connected kids, and I asked them to help me track down addresses. When the pandemic ends, I’m inviting my entire class out for dinner (my treat). They have had the misfortune of having their senior year screwed up, and I want to tell them that I believe in them and that I look forward to hearing about the next chapter in their lives. Relationships are an investment in the future, and many of these children are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond! That’s so dope of you! Relationships are important in every setting, but especially in the school setting. Children need to feel connected to their teachers and that only happens when you build relationships with them!

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  8. These points are so valid. Cultural competency has always been an intricate but under utilized component in how we deal with other human beings especially our students. We leave such a huge impact on their lives. Culture encompasses all of what we are , how we were raised, our religion, what we eat, how we think, our societal views and societies view of us. How can we teach a child the way they need to be taught if we do not take these things into consideration. I actually had a Caucasian teacher say to me, “you are from this neighborhood , how come you don’t act like this? How can they all be so messed up?” I really like this teacher and before I allowed anger to boil up inside of me I realized that she genuinely just doesn’t understand. Our ideologies clashed a lot when it came to how to approach each student because your right, we cannot treat every child the same even if they come from the same neighborhood or have the same skin color. I made it my responsibility to inform her of the psychological trauma that comes with being black in a high crime, low socioeconomic community. A lot of these teaches judge based off of closed minded views. They refuse to step out of their bubbles and realize that little Tyrone or Tamara cannot focus in class properly if they didn’t eat dinner last night or their dad is in jail and their mom is on drugs. The system has made it easy for so many impoverished blacks to fall into what some people might call “the sunken place”. A lot of these teachers don’t understand and don’t want to understand. The question is how are we going to make them understand? And what can we do to make sure that our babies are receiving the best education that they can get instead of being shoved into special education? Thank you for your perspective Elizabeth. If we don’t speak up then who will!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to really share your thoughts! That’s a great question … how can we teach a child without taking these things into consideration? YOU CANT! but there’s so much value in you teaching her. That can be a hard thing to do, because race and culture can be such a sensitive topic. I used to deter from those conversations with white people because I was easily triggered by their ignorance on the topic. However as I grow (and I’m still growing) I’m learning that if we don’t have these uncomfortable conversations with them who will? They judge or make inferences based on their experiences which aren’t the same as the experiences of the students. Schools don’t provide professional development around cultural responsiveness and providing a culturally relative education to our children. Some people want to know and do better but dont know how or where to start or are scared. While others are stubborn and stuck in their ways. It’s the responsibility of the school to provide the training necessary for each of its teachers to be able to appropriately teach our children.

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      1. I agree it is the responsibility of the school. I also believe that just as simple as the mayor or chancellor can create specific policies based off of the need example, this pandemic , then they can create policies that require all schools to do this. They recently incorporated Social emotional learning this year and it touches the tip of the iceberg. I hope that they continue to advance at the top so that it can trickle down to all schools and not just a few.

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        1. That is true and should definitely be the start! Some sort of mandate. But with that mandate needs to come training! EVERYONE needs to be trained! Social emotional learning is sooo important and usually looked past! The unfortunate part about this pandemic is the budget cuts that will take place. Guess what is usually the first thing to go or be cut… SOCIAL EMOTIONAL SUPPORTS. So what happens when the school year starts and there aren’t enough supports for the students who escaped their everyday stress by being in the school building. Or those who lost people close to them and now have to “push forward” and be students. Its a mess!

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  9. This was amazing
    So many times adults in general forget What it was like to be A kid that may have a problem or a situation at this stressed out about because generally the issues That we have as adults can be more extreme than issues that kids might have. So instead of adults trying to Empathize with the child they would brush it off or ignore it and say trust me you don’t know what stress is until you become an adult with bills. So the fact that you’re determined to connect and understand your kids makes you an amazing PERSON not just teacher.
    And
    For me I grew up in a neighborhood where no one ever looks like me.. My friends and my neighbors were all black, My teachers were all white. And then there was me a Hispanic little girl that no one look like. I couldn’t relate to anyone, my music, my food, even the language around me that was spoken at home was different (that’s probably why I never wanted to learn it and always just spoke English lol)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and being transparent. I was just having a conversation with someone about childhood trauma. It’s real and can have long term effects on ones esteem and can cause easy triggers. You stood out and it seems like nobody accepted you and that’s hard. It forces you to put up a guard and be on the defense. No child should experience that but they do everyday! I’m glad you turned out pretty well rounded despite the circumstances! Always here for ya❤️

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  10. Much truth told in why culture competence is needed in education. Our kids come from all different types of backgrounds and we’re all raised different. It’s not fair that a kid is forced to adapt to a different way of learning. I can imagine the struggle for teachers trying to accommodate each student toward their learning process. That’s not easy.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. And you’re right children are forced to adapt when it’s the adults and educators who should be adapting to the children. Every single year my children are different. I mean DIFFERENT !! And each year I have to learn them! How they think, how they operate, what drives them, what triggers them. It can sound like lot but it’s a natural part of the process of getting to know your kids. Nothing about being a teacher is easy besides building relationships!

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  11. I love this. It’s so true the teachers who have taken the time to get to know my middle school aged child are the ones who have made the greatest impact in his life. His current social studies teacher is able to connect with him and has even inspired Him to want to become an educator in the future. Then I see the teachers who maybe don’t have the time or just don’t have the desire to even try to break down his little cold demeanor /attitude to get to know him even on the tiniest level and it’s a total 180 when I hear about them. I know it’s impossible to try and impact every student but as a parent of a middle school aged boy, I feel like he just wants to be seen and understood a bit by the people who are trying to teach them.

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    1. I agree and disagree… while it may be impossible (or not) to impact every kid it isn’t impossible to try! I think when you have a desire to get to know your children the impact just happens. When you are genuine the children see it and it influences them to be the same way. Many kids don’t have positive environments at home and so they come to the school building looking for something. LOVE AND PEACE. When you build relationships with them they feel the love which brings peace! Thanks for sharing your thoughts ❤️

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  12. This being my first year I heard “you’re too invested” soo much. I never fed into it because I KNEW students need to know somebody truly cares for them outside of just being a student. Our students are unique beautiful people That deserve to be known and understood regardless of who they are and where they come from !

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    1. I don’t think there’s a such thing as being too invested. I do believe you have to be intentional about your time. This is a job where easily you can lose yourself! Make sure to take time for yourself. Pick a time to cut off and stop working. Teacher burn out is real and unless you set boundaries it comes faster then you think!

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