Cultural Competency Amongst Teachers

Guestblogger Pia P. Payne-Shannon teaches sixth and seventh grade Language Arts classes at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, Minneapolis, Minn. She participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange. 

Cultural competency relates to the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully teach and relate to students from diverse cultures.  As an African-American teacher in Minneapolis, I have witnessed the cultural shifts in our schools.  Nellie Stone Johnson Community School was predominantly African-American/Black and Asian a few years ago, but is now African-American/Black and Latino.  As teachers, we should have access to quality staff development courses to help us adjust our curricula, as well as afford us an opportunity to become bilingual in Spanish without having to pay for classes, which we cannot afford.  This is called catering to the needs of our students and families.

The VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange report Connections for Learning, which I co-authored earlier this year, is filled with recommendations that could help to bridge the gaps in our current education system. District professional development needs to bridge the cultural gap that exists between teachers and students, and among diverse students. As teachers, we know structural changes need to be implemented in order for our academic environments to be more conducive to scholarly achievement.  Therefore, if Minneapolis Public Schools is serious about the education of our students, then cultural competency staff development cannot be voluntary or based on the feel-good needs of adults.  We need to demonstrate to our families that we are serious about valuing the diversity of our students by ensuring that all staff working with students become culturally self-aware, knowledgeable about the dynamics of cultural interactions, and select relevant curricula to acknowledge the cultural diversity in our schools.

The time is now for district and union officials to negotiate how these changes can be implemented in Minneapolis.  It is not enough to provide professional development, which is optional or voluntary when it comes to the needs of our students being met.  The doors of opportunity for our students, especially students of color, are continuously being closed because the goal post keeps moving for them.  They need to know that we care enough to make sure their teachers and staff are culturally aware of the diverse students whom we are teaching every day.

Teachers continuously are finding themselves in diverse classrooms trying to develop relationships with students who are from different cultural backgrounds and have had distinct experiences that differ from their peers and teachers.  To foster respect and productivity, teachers need to be mindful of their students’ backgrounds.  This, alone, would help to reduce conflict.  The relationship between the teacher and student must be viewed as a positive partnership for learning, not an adversarial relationship based on fear, misunderstanding and mistrust.  Students need to be able to identify with the curriculum of the classroom and pedagogy used in the classroom.  We need to foster child-centered educational programming, which meets the needs of the whole child. Our students should have access to extracurricular classes that explore their various interests.

Enhancing the cultural competence of its staff will help foster the districts’ goals of improving student academic achievement, improving the effectiveness of teachers, and meet accountability requirements, while improving the communication between families and schools.

6 Replies to “Cultural Competency Amongst Teachers”

  1. Put this up as yet another item in the “teachers must become masters of this now” category of professional development. Your point is right on the money in that none of the big-picture work (I’d include literacy, numeracy, and true technology integration) we are looking at can be sidestepped if we want to best serve our students. Knowing who our students are are what they need in order to find success is, of course, the first step. It’s unfortunate that the public education mandates that I’ve read all speak to providing a basic education instead of helping students fully actualize their potential.

  2. I’m with you all the way, but one thing I’m not sure most people know is that those of us who work in teacher education at colleges and universities get regularly slammed for focusing on the kinds of things you’re asking for. In general the ed reform community (which in my state owns the state department of education) sees terms such as “cultural competence” as squishy feel-good nonsense. The recent NCTQ evaluation most definitely didn’t give teacher education programs credit for including it in their programs. Similarly, when TFA students come to us to work on MA programs, they say “Why didn’t anybody tell us about this stuff?” Of course MA programs may be on their way out now (see North Carolina)–again, courtesy of the reform agenda.

  3. @Don The way to shut up the critics is to produce hard data that says students learn better with culturally aware teachers. It certainly makes sense that they would, but that it a far cry from showing that it is so. There are a lot of things that make sense until you realize that they don’t work (see: diets, for example).

    I could also see the argument for the other case: schools should establish their *own* culture, a culture of learning, that transcends the social culture(s). Maybe making the *students* adjust properly prepares their minds (anticipatory set on a very large scale).

    Which one works better? Until we try it we won’t know.

  4. I completely agree with you. Working in an urban school district, I often have students in my class that bring different backgrounds and cultures with them to school each day. Becoming culturally competent shows them that you care about them. It also helps to build those relationships with parents, and we all know how important that is! In order to work on closing these depressing educational gaps between our subgroups, we need to make sure we are truly teaching students in a way that will connect with them and engage them in the learning process.

  5. I agree with you 100%! Cultural competence and respect is a must inside the classroom among teachers and students. I recently moved to a new state and the school I am at is in rural Alaska. There are many Native communities around the town I’m in. I have already learned so much from the culture that I didn’t know before (being from the “lower 48”). I have a diverse group with a variety of cultures. I have shown great excitement about learning more about the culture and sharing stories with my students, and they want to know more about the state I’m from. My students can tell that I respect and want to know more about them, and I think that helps build a caring environment within the classroom.

  6. I agree about culture competence. I worked in a school where the majority of the students are refugees from places such as Burma, Nepal, etc. The cultures I encounter on a daily basis are radically different from what I know. Everyday is a learning experience for me but as a seriously committed teacher, I try everyday to bridge the gap. I make sure to ask questions and show respect for their cultures. My administration is very helpful and committed to making sure that we can service our students, they frequently have staff development which includes people from the refugee councils in the area come and talk to us about the different cultures we are dealing with.

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