Brian Jeffrey, Enid Pickett, Ann Jayne & Mitch Weathers
Look around your classroom. Chances are several of your students come from a different culture and different ethnic background than your own.
“Does a fish swimming in water realize he’s in water? You may think you are operating in the norm, but your norm is not somebody else’s norm,” says Lisa Adams, a CTA Human Rights Department trainer. “If you are part of the majority culture — which most white people identify with — you don’t realize what you are bringing to the classroom.”
Being culturally competent improves teaching and provides educators with resources to connect to students’ families. It can also help close the achievement gap, since the “cultural gap” between students and their teachers can contribute to achievement gaps among different student groups, reports the NEA.
What does cultural competency look like?
Brian Jeffrey, Los Osos High School, Associated Chaffey Teachers - Took CTA’s unconscious bias training
- Not English only: I don’t know any language besides English. Without some degree of cultural competency, it can lead to uncomfortable situations. When I meet Muslim parents, I know it is appropriate to shake the father’s hand, never appropriate to take the mother’s hand, and that I should pat my heart twice to say it’s a pleasure to meet you as a greeting. Cultural competency makes interacting in the world a lot easier.
- Students see themselves: When kids walk into my room, they notice something that reflects their culture. There are posters or wall hangings from African American, Asian, Middle Eastern, Tongan and Latino cultures. I care about who they are individually and culturally.
- We’re all biased: Recognize that everyone has certain biases. Make sure your unconscious bias does not become conscious. I may have an unconscious bias that a football player is probably not a good student, but I don’t allow myself to act on it. Sometimes we get defensive when misunderstandings happen with students. It’s important to ask, “What did I do to create this situation?”
Enid Pickett, Waldo Rohnert Elementary School, Rohnert Park Cotati Education Association - NEA Diversity Cadre trainer, trains teachers nationwide
- In the classroom: My kindergartners see something from their homeland and relate it to their family. I celebrate the differences of my children, not just with foods or a party. I celebrate their history. I attend birthdays, quinceañeras and graduations. If there is a behavior problem, we can have a cultural collision. I take a social justice approach. You can get mad or you can say, “I’m glad this happened so we can talk about it” and discuss cultural values so nobody wins and nobody loses. Without blame or judgment, we see things are handled in different ways.
- About “isms”: It’s about understanding “isms” including racism, ageism, classism, sexism and homophobia. It’s a mindset, a belief system and viewpoint that says: “The world belongs to everybody.” It’s never assuming I know what someone’s world is and always assuming they can teach me a lot about their world. I ask myself, “What kind of ancestor are you going to be?”
- Be a keen observer: I have a refrigerator, a car and a college degree. I check my own privilege constantly. You do not become culturally competent automatically by virtue of being a person of color. I do my own investigative work. I connect the dots to see how systemic and systematic oppression exists. I am a listener. Being a diversity trainer with the NEA Human and Civil Rights cadre and on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board, I am always reminded to check my ethnic integrity, my speech and my behaviors, in order to walk the talk of a social justice teacher.
Ann Jayne, South/West Park Elementary School, Tracy Educators Association - Completing her dissertation on cultural proficiency
- Drawing from experience: I moved to Germany when I was in high school and struggled to learn another language. I understand the challenges of learning another language and the perspective of kids who come here and have to learn not only a new language, but also a whole new way of life.
- Reflective teaching: I’m always evaluating my own culture and my own effectiveness. I ask: What can I do to make curriculum culturally relevant? When teaching about the Bear Flag Revolt — where different parties in California under Mexican rule argued over territory and statehood — I might compare that to civil unrest in Burma to a Burmese student. I look at what I’m teaching through multiple perspectives, whether math, science or history.
- Educate yourself: Cultural differences exist within the same ethnicity. I have students from three different cultures within India, as well as students from Burma, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, and various culturally different Latino students. We do things — we don’t intend to — from our own cultural perspective that can be misconstrued. For example, a common assumption is that an Asian male is going to be great at math and science, but that’s not always true, and it is unfair to the child to make those assumptions. Be aware of your own biases, even positive ones.
Mitch Weathers, Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Sequoia District Teachers Association - Is “self-taught” in cultural competency
- Drawing from experience: In my first teaching job, every kid in my room was African American. It was the first time I was the only white guy in the room. In high school I was friends with the only two African American kids and one Latino in my school. I immediately understood that this is how my friend Carlos felt every day when he was in school. Now I teach in Redwood City, which is 65 to 70 percent Latino students.
- Avoiding misunderstandings: You might think that because students are late for class, their culture doesn’t value education. You might be wrong. Cultural relevancy is about teaching the “hidden” curriculum. My lesson plans include not just biology standards, but things such as: How do you study? What does it mean to be a student? How can you stay organized? What does it look like to be on time? When there are cultural differences, a teacher can feel disrespected, and the kids think the teacher is being a jerk and there is conflict. So my lesson plans include expectations.
- Making it relevant: Many of my students are from the Michoacán community in Mexico, so a lesson in photosynthesis might include something about farming in that region. I bring Latino scientists, nurses, doctors, sales reps and other role models into the classroom. I don’t always have answers, but I want to give these kids hope.