3 tenets for developing cultural competency in schools

Here are some ways your district can help students feel included, safe, and supported

Although educational equity is a fundamental pillar of the American education system, school districts are struggling to ensure their students feel included, safe, and supported. This is in large part due to a shift in the demographic makeup of the student population (non-white students are expected to make up the majority of public schools by 2024) while the demographic makeup of the teaching workforce remains constant (80 percent of teachers during the 2015-2016 school year were white).

In light of this disparity, districts face more pressure than ever to cultivate an inclusive environment where students from all backgrounds receive the same learning opportunities. To support that goal, districts need to deliver professional development (PD) focused on cultural competency and understanding. However, while teacher PD is an important step, too often it is considered the only step. In reality, this drive for PD is more nuanced, requiring competency not only in teachers, but also the classroom environment and culturally responsive instructional materials.

Cultivating an inclusive environment often means extended commitments from district and school leaders. The good news is there are best practices districts can employ to ensure all students feel safe and supported. The following three tenets are the foundation for fostering cultural competency in school districts.

1. Student equity starts with the school environment
Promoting student equity is most effective when district leaders and teachers take part in an overall culture shift. The three dimensions of cultural competency clearly demonstrate how important the school environment is in this culture shift. The first dimension, institutional cultural competency, includes the policies and values of the district and school administration. Without a wider culture of inclusion and acceptance, it would not be possible to create one in the classroom. Some districts, such as Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia, conduct policy analyses to determine the extent to which their district policies establish institutional cultural competency.

The second dimension, personal cultural competency, addresses the cognitive and emotional processes that educators must engage in to become culturally responsive. This involves self-reflecting on personal biases to better serve diverse groups of students.

Finally, the instructional dimension includes the materials, strategies, and activities that are the basis of instruction. Without cultural competency in each dimension, little headway will be made in fostering student equity.

Although distinct, district and site administrators and teachers play complementary roles in creating equitable environments for students. Administrators take on high-level responsibilities, including clearly articulating their culturally proficient vision for the district, establishing standards for that vision, assessing the current state of the site culture, providing training, and examining existing policies. Teacher’s responsibilities include teaching all subjects from a culturally inclusive perspective, supporting students as they discover their own cultural identities, using conflicts as object lessons, and learning their own instructional and interpersonal styles. The combination of these efforts gives many districts a better platform for inspiring cultural competency.

2. PD must be a sustained, long-term commitment
While a culture of equity is a fundamental building block of creating an inclusive environment, teachers and other school staff are on the front lines of engaging with students and it is critical to prepare them. However, many districts are unsure about how to offer this kind of PD. The most effective way to develop cultural competency in school employees is through long-term and sustained PD that enriches teachers’ cultural understanding. Instead of a one-time PD workshop, schools should provide instructional coaches and maintain an ongoing dialogue in professional learning communities. Additionally, PD should appeal to a wide range of perspectives and cultural identities by integrating this variety into the materials and activities used.

Developing an effective diversity training program is important for improving cultural knowledge and empathy. For example, Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools performed a staff cultural audit in 2006 to determine how to best approach diversity training. Some key findings from the audit revealed that numerous opportunities for skill-based training with emphasis on effective communication and cultural considerations is especially important. The audit also showed the need to manage unconscious bias and assumptions held by district community members.

3. Cultural competence must be practiced, not just discussed
Districts cannot expect to cultivate a welcoming school environment if the facilitators and leaders are not actively engaging in cultural competence. There must be policies that ensure teachers and administrators actively apply cultural competency training.

Equitable classroom management strategies, for example, help districts establish and maintain behavior standards and consistent consequences to avoid potential cultural misunderstandings. Teachers and school staff can also monitor discourse style, being sensitive to how diverse cultures deal with conflict, clarify expectations, and emphasize a positive environment, not punishment. These strategies promote inclusivity and can encourage an environment that promotes inclusivity among its students.

Likewise, a regular assessment of cultural competence measuring elements such as engagement, learning environment, and feedback strategies can help hold teachers and staff accountable for implementing school policies, and can enable the school to benchmark its improvement over time.

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