Cultural Competency: Not Just Lame PD

This past weekend, I went to the CES conference in San Francisco with my principal and two other colleagues. It helped me articulate some of my thoughts on cultural competency for teachers in multicultural classrooms.

I'd like to share one characteristic of cultural competency I think is crucial for teachers to have: understanding what you're teaching and why it's important.

It seems to me that there is a body of knowledge and skills that is appropriate to teach any student regardless of culture. In this category I would include: knowledge of the human body, world geography, mathematics, skills related to reflection and critical thinking.

There is also a body of knowledge and skills that is appropriate to teach so that students of diverse backgrounds know how to interact with the social customs and habits of the dominant culture. In this category I think of: social skills, body language, grammar, history, and leadership.

When educators don't understand this or don't take the time to distinguish between the knowledge and skills of the two, it often leads to problems. Learning to do this falls under the very important category of cultural competency. And I think all of us could use ongoing professional development for it.

Often when I hear my students call one of their peers "whitewashed," or refer to hobbies I enjoy in my personal life with phrases like, "That's so white," I wonder.

I wonder if the behaviors they interpret as being white are effects of different cultures OR if they're effects of growing up with privilege.

To illustrate, I'd point first to racquetball, a sport I play often. Many people might consider any sport with a racquet to be a "white" or "Asian" sport. And I would grant this is a situation that is almost certainly an issue of cultural difference.

On the other hand, social behaviors are also often characterized as "white." One example I can think of having heard is talking calmly through conflict. Or using active listening.

Two weeks ago, I showed some of my students a clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show when he asks parents to pretend they ate their children's Halloween candy and record their reactions. Most of the children at the beginning of the clip are white, and my freshman students (Black and Latino students) commented, "You know if they show a black kid he's gonna start yelling. White people cry, or they tell their mama, 'It's okay.' But you know some black people gonna yell and throw things." As if on cue, a black child is shown reacting by yelling and throwing things at his mother, who had just told him she'd eaten all his Halloween candy.

Is dealing with conflict like this an example of a cultural difference? Or are my students identifying a contrast in how the children of privilege (regardless of culture or ethnicity) and of lesser privilege react to conflict?

Or, take for example, the notion that whites and Asians tend to be more passive aggressive than Blacks and Latinos. Assuming this is true (I don't know if it is. I've only heard people say they notice it, and it tends to confirm my experiences), is this a product of culture? privilege? or both?

While I don't necessarily have any answers to the questions I posed above, I think they matter, particularly to teachers in multicultural schools.

If teachers believe that Standard American English grammar is knowledge that a child needs to know regardless of their background NOT because it will help them succeed among the dominant culture, but because it is a characteristic of a universally well-educated person, they will set up barriers between themselves and students. If teachers understand that SAE grammar is not indicative of raw intelligence, that a great many brilliant people never learned SAE grammar, and that it is mainly important as a means of accessing the dominant cultures social habits and customs, then teachers will be more likely to frame the teaching of it more successfully.

When I think about examples of this in the classroom, I think about the differences in the way two teachers might react to a student's poor use of SAE grammar. One teacher might zero in on the poor grammar usage, scold the student, drill and kill with grammar exercises, or think less of their intelligence. A different teacher might focus on the value of the content the student was communicating. They might make a mental note to help with the SAE grammar later, but respond positively to the obvious thought or intelligence the student included in the sentence, understanding that grammar rules are arbitrary and decided by elite members of society.

Realizing that many of the things you unconsciously thought were important for students to learn regardless of culture are actually important because they allow them to code switch when necessary is a key component to becoming a competent educator.

As a white male who was raised middle class, I found that teaching for more than a handful of years in multicultural schools was what helped me make many of those realizations. 


  1. You are right. As more and more top down policy and curriculum trickles down, teachers might just shrug and say "this is what I was told I have to teach." and not believe in it.

    The Docile Educator vs The Badass One -

  2. Name calling and categorizing hobbies, people, things, is basically an exhibition of ignorance of hobbies, people, things.... When people do not understand something, they label it with a derogatory name. With this said, teaching and educating is a constant force. We can ignore what we hear and perpetuate more ignorance, or we can capitalize on what we hear and turn it into lessons. The most profound message that I heard come out of the mouth of a White Professor of Education was, "we must use our Whiteness to create positive change, from a humanistic approach..." When we learn how to help students discover their gifts and talents, appreciate these discoveries, and do what is necessary to nurture, grow, and enhance these gifts, then we are being the best teacher we can be. So, whether an educator is knowledgeable about their students' background, culture, or socioeconomic status, they will be successful in providing the space for students to perform their best. This is typically why certain Teachers do well with any group of students- they have developed a natural ability to see the person in each student, and not just robots who need to pass tests to succeed. When students know that they are valued, they will subsequently be more confident learners, and good test-takers too. Ending all of this testing is another story.

  3. ...late comment, on interesting observations. Thanks for bringing it up!

    Should we assume core behaviors come from class race, or culture only? I'd say whether you communicate in a loud voice/big gestures (shouting) can be seriously influenced by how many siblings you have (and cousins etc), being an older or younger sibling, style of discipline you received and from whom...etc

    As for Standard English, I think talking about it only in dominant culture terms and code-switching takes one down a dead end. Mastery of language--including its grammar--expands one's expressive range, and ability to comprehend language across time and space.

    Can you read things from the 19th century? The 18th? Can you explain how something happened, in sequence? (This is where advanced grammar forms become very useful). Do you understand references and culturally-specific terms from English-language newspapers published today in Ireland? Australia? India? Can you watch an interview with someone from provincial UK and understand what they are saying if they speak in dialect?

    You don't have to do any of these things to be a fulfilled, complete human being, obviously. But I get nervous when kids, especially poor kids are encouraged not to try and claim these areas--the past, high culture, other places outside where they live--as their own.


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