Why Cultural Competency Matters
September 29, 2021
September 29, 2021
By Shay Carter-Shifflett
What does it do to a student when they can’t find some aspect of themselves in everything they do in school? I saw this question answered when I taught a lesson on diversity to a group of preschoolers. I began by reading aloud The Color of Me, by Karen Kratz. Immediately, students began to analyze their skin color and compare it to each other and their parents. They made connections between their skin color and things in the room (and all around the world)—and then the conversation came to a halt when they realized my teaching assistant and I were complete opposites.
They understood I was African American and I saw my skin color as brown. But as you can imagine, they were shocked to learn that while my teaching assistant’s skin color is white, she isn’t. In fact, she is German and not American. Their eyes grew wider with amazement when she started speaking to us in German. We indulged in this for a few moments then moved on to the All About Me work activity.
“For this part of the project,” I said, “you’ll create a portrait of yourself to be displayed in our hallway.” Using an oval, I demonstrated by creating my own portrait. I grabbed a brown colored pencil and began to draw two ovals on their side for my eyes. I went to the mirror to check my eye color then filled that in. I did my best for the nose and then found a tan colored pencil for my lips. I added some curlicues on top for my hair before sending them to their seats to begin their work.
While most of the other students got started right away, one little girl stood quietly in front of her seat. Our work time was always the highlight of her day, so naturally I had to go see what was holding her back from starting.
“Is there anything I can do to help you get started?” I asked, snuggling down in her chair next to her. Her hazel eyes scanned the box of colored pencils then slowly rose to meet mine before she held out her wrist and whispered, “We don’t have my color!” I was stunned because she was right! I quickly picked up the tan colored pencil and thought it would be a good enough match, but she shook her head no. This wasn’t good enough for her, and she was right. We didn’t have “her” skin color and for her this was not OK. It was holding her back from doing her best on her work. So, my teaching assistant took her to the art teacher, who would surely have a pencil to match her skin color. She returned with the perfect color and was able to get started right away, smiling hugely the whole time.
I began to wonder if my lessons and read-alouds included enough of all the cultural wealth my students made available to me.
What is the impact of being a culturally competent teacher? It’s something I’ve asked myself many times during my journey to gaining Culturally Responsive Teaching certification. I was inspired to understand all the cultural wealth students brought to the classroom and how I could use it to affect student achievement. At the beginning of the certification process, I used a lot of reflective time to unpack my own deep understanding of cultural competency. This meant understanding my own culture and upbringing, identifying when I made connections to my learning, and the impact it had on my success in school.
I began to wonder if I ever saw myself in the lessons taught to me and if my students were seeing themselves or connecting to their culture in our classroom. I analyzed the books I shared with them to see whose perspective and story I’d been sharing, which led me to an equity audit on my library. I checked who the main characters were, whose history was being shared, and how diverse my library books were. While uncomfortable, this required me to be open to improve my own cultural awareness. I began to widen my lens to see the value and assets all cultures have, which created opportunities to make learning more meaningful and provide mirrors for students to see themselves in our learning and books.
Students are very curious about what makes us different, and they bring many cultural similarities and differences to class. However, I was only tapping into what Zaretta Hammond would call the surface level of their culture tree. I began to challenge myself to find ways to learn about their deep culture through projects that invited family members into our classroom to be experts around their cultural wealth. I sought to learn about family values that aren’t typically shared, such as the meaning of their child’s name or if their family is competitive. Learning about how their children take leadership roles at home or are highly competitive helped my students connect with their learning.
My understanding of a culturally competent teacher shifted, and I challenged myself to explore how to show value for and incorporate different levels of students’ cultures, paying close attention to specific values, perspectives, and voices. I wanted to connect with students, especially those different from myself, beyond just learning some of their language or having multilingual posters on the wall.
All year long, I questioned how to build meaningful relationships with families so that students felt safe and supported to share their cultural knowledge. My ultimate goal was to create a lifelong partnership with my families. I gained student and family information through surveys and conversations. During home visits and invitations to family events, I learned assets of my students and how the structure of their family could benefit them in school. I used what I learned, often by allowing them to have leadership roles or teaching them to monitor their own learning with my support. I learned the importance of making sure kids are represented in their learning. My data began to show some progress toward closing achievement gaps, and I also saw students shift from dependent to independent learners at a very early age.
During the certification journey, I had opportunities to model, facilitate, and support students to share what makes them and their families unique, but this was just the beginning. While I journaled and collected anecdotal and academic data on my students, I also began to recognize my lack of knowledge about cultures different from my own. This was a chance for me to learn more about my own cultural triggers and how that affects who I am as an educator.
I had to be open to exploring and discussing diverse perspectives. This, at times, could be uncomfortable but necessary in shifting my teaching practice to be more equitable. I participated in book studies and participated in monthly Culturally Responsive Teaching meetings. Later on, I stepped into the Diversity Resource Teacher role for my elementary school and my administrators and I began to think through curriculum and instruction with a “cultural asset-based” lens. This not only changed my interactions with students and families, but also made it possible to support colleagues in building stronger family partnerships, continuing our school’s journey of becoming more culturally competent. My teaching now includes a philosophy grounded in meaningful communication with families and building trust with students. I intentionally promote respect for all cultures and diversity in my classroom and use lessons creating a ripple effect into peer-to-peer relationships, and each day I feel more culturally competent. As I finished the Culturally Responsive Teaching Certification, I presented a 10-page paper showing shifts in student achievement as well as my own growth. Understanding just how unique our cultural and ethnic heritage is has had a profound impact on my ability to develop student partnerships and improve my teaching.
So, what’s next? A parent once told me that “becoming a culturally responsive teacher is not a journey that ends once you receive a piece of paper. It’s what you do with that certification on your journey afterwards that matters!” Developing my own sense of cultural competency has challenged me to expand my own understanding, or lack of, other cultures and even sub-cultures within my own. Understanding what makes us all different is what unites and empowers educators, and this gives teachers the ability to deepen lessons and have more meaningful interactions with students and families.
Because of one student’s need to make a cultural connection with one of my lessons, I learned the importance of allowing students to have opportunities to feel validated and given power. I’m always learning more about other cultures and trying to understand different perspectives to expand my ability to uplift and empower those different from me. Deepening our cultural competency ultimately strengthens our classroom cultural wealth and allows teachers to tap into the many different experiences, languages, and background knowledge each student brings to the classroom. This creates a mirror or window allowing us to learn from each other and allows teachers to have a greater, more positive impact on student learning and achievement.
Carter-Shifflett is an Albemarle Education Association member who, after seven years of teaching early elementary school and supporting colleagues as a diversity resource teacher, recently accepted a position as a division-wide equity specialist for county schools. In that role, she will support Albemarle educators in culturally responsive teaching practices and in the CRT credentialing process.
Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly made “culturally responsive teaching and equitable practices” for school staff the law in our state. The culturally responsive teaching part of the new legislation, according to the Virginia Department of Education, has four components:
It’s important to note that the new cultural competency standard does not go into effect this year, but begin with the 2022-23 school year. The standard, added to the Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers, reads, “The teacher demonstrates a commitment to equity and provides instruction and classroom strategies that result in culturally inclusive and responsive learning environments and academic achievement for all students.”
Here are a few examples of teacher work and practices that align with the new standard:
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