Cultural Competence in Education

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

We live and work in diverse societies, where no man is an island. As a result, cultural competence is of increasing importance to educators. In this lesson, we will look at the meaning of cultural competence, how we define culture, and how educators can ensure that they are acting in culturally competent and culturally sensitive ways in their classrooms.

Fish out of Water

At some point or another in our lives, most of us have found ourselves to be a 'fish out of water', so to speak. It may be that you are a Caucasian student or teacher, in a primarily African American class or school. Or the opposite: you may be an Asian or African American, in a predominately Caucasian class or school. As adults, even in industries outside of education, it is not uncommon for an individual to have that awkward feeling that they don't belong or can't relate to the group they find themselves living within. These differences are why cultural competence is important in most fields, especially education.

What Is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is a term that emerged in research in the late 1980s. Originally described in the context of various care systems, such as health care, it was later applied to educational settings. Specifically, it refers to a set of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that allow a professional to be effective in a variety of cross-cultural situations. A cross-cultural situation is an interaction where the professional is required to dialogue or work with people whose cultural beliefs are different than their own.

Culture is a complex term that encompasses some different aspects and can have different meanings in different settings. There is institutional culture, which refers to the culture of a business or organization. For an educator, there is their school culture which refers to the policies, standards, and educational methods used to bring about academic, and sometimes even social, success depending on the nature of their teaching situation. School cultures can be broadly defined by school mission statements, which determine the broad goals an educator operates within. Then there are the standards set by their administrators regarding behavior and professionalism that will also impact the school culture.

The other typical meaning of culture is our personal culture. This type of culture is driven by our upbringing. It encompasses different aspects, including regional cultures, such as food preferences and dialects. However, it also includes our personal beliefs. These beliefs can be religious, political, and can even be driven by our ethnicity. As teachers most often teach students who come from diverse cultural backgrounds, this is the type of culture they are most concerned with when designing instruction and interacting with their students and the community.

Cultural Competence

What Role Does Cultural Competence Play in Education?

Ethnicity refers to the race you associate with, and even the subgroup of that race that may be prevalent in your family. For example, you can be Caucasian and identify as Irish or African American and British. Country of origin may give someone a stronger sense of culture than their skin color.

When it comes to teaching students who are at a social or economic disadvantage, that personal relationship is even more important to their success. Building this relationship has many nuances because gender, race, ethnicity, and even class. To begin to cross the divide with your students with all of these possible barriers in place, you must first find ways to show them that you care. You want to build relationships with your students, but we need to remember that these are not friendships. We need to build appropriate student-teacher relationships and respect the professional boundaries.

Building Relationships Across Cultures
Building Relationships Across Cultures

Building Cultural Competence

Educators can build their cultural competence by first building their background knowledge about the students that they teach. For example, if you have any Indian students in your class, try to make an effort to learn about their culture. In India, as in any other country, there is a diverse and nuanced system of beliefs based on the region their family came from. Your students will be your best teachers if you take the time, and show them you care about what is important to their families. Whatever cultures are represented in your classroom, there will be cultural fairs or religious events that relate to the system of beliefs students were raised with. Take the time to learn about them.

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