Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
What is Cultural Competence?
As educators, we may be strongly encouraged to become more culturally competent. Yet it is all too easy for cultural competence to be a buzz word, without deep meaning. Cultural competence is awareness and understanding about cultural diversity in the classroom, school, and community. A culturally competent educator works to learn about and end racial and cultural bias. Being culturally competent means being open to different norms from your own, and helping students and families feel comfortable in school regardless of their background. It also involves recognition of your own limitations, so that you never believe you know everything there is to know about another person's identity.
Cultural competence is something that develops gradually over time, and there is no single activity that will magically make you more culturally competent. The activities in this lesson are designed to help you along the path toward cultural competence, by yourself or with colleagues. Decide which activities are realistic in your context and seem most helpful or eye-opening to you.
Activities You Can Do Alone
Becoming more culturally competent in isolation can be particularly challenging, but it is an admirable goal. These activities will help you pursue a goal of cultural competence even if you lack interested colleagues.
Expand Your Reading Horizons
One great way to work on cultural competence is by reading about it. Of course there are books dedicated specifically to teachers and cultural awareness, but it can also be helpful to read fiction and poetry from cultures very different from your own. When you read, ask yourself reflective questions and try to suspend any instinct to judge. Consider the following questions:
- What cultural norms does this book represent, and how or why are they surprising to me?
- What aspects of classroom life am I reminded of while reading this book?
- How would the story be different if it were written from my point of view, or that of one of my ancestors?
Your school or local librarian can help you find titles, but some great ones to start with include The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Multiplication is for White People by Lisa Delpit, From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah, and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
Explore Your Identity
Becoming culturally competent also means exploring your own identity. You can do this by keeping a journal, having conversations with friends and family, or engaging in creative work like visual art and music that helps you investigate what culture means to you. Some questions to ask as you explore your identity include:
- Where do you come from? What does that question mean to you, and how do you decide how to answer it?
- How do you define your own cultural background? How do you think you came to this definition, and how has it changed and stayed the same over time?
- How do you believe your own cultural background impacts your teaching and your way of relating to students?
- Which of your own personal values might you attribute to your cultural background?
Activities to Do With Colleagues
Becoming culturally competent might also be a goal you set as a school or with a small group of colleagues. Here are some activities that work well with a small group of interested people.
With a group of supportive colleagues, create a bulletin board where individuals can post acts and thoughts they see or do that might indicate cultural bias. The purpose of this board is not to accuse others of wrongdoing, but to create an interactive document that you can reflect on together. Once a week, meet to discuss the acts on the board. Why do you believe or not believe these actions reflect bias? How might the situation have played out differently?
A great way to develop cultural competence is to hear from guest speakers who are willing to describe their own experience with cultural bias, or their pride and interest in their cultural background. Investigate leaders in your own community who might be willing to come and talk with your school's staff about their culture. Keep in mind that one person can never represent everything about a culture, but they can get you started thinking in a more open way.
Just as reading on your own can be a great way to increase your cultural competence, so too can reading with colleagues. A book discussion group is a wonderful opportunity to share the experience of a new, horizon-expanding text together. When you meet to discuss what you have read, consider implications for your individual practice and your school as a whole.
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