I recently stumbled upon a social media thread that asked educators to post three words that they would tell themselves during their first year as a teacher. I found myself replying, “Learn them first”. The “them” in my statement referred to the students who would spend the academic year learning and growing with me as their guide.

During my tenure in education, it has become evident that the more I know about the students, the greater my impact on their emotional, social, and academic well-being. Knowing intricate details of why they do what they do, holidays that they celebrate, their family structure, their cultural values and norms, allows me to exercise a level of cultural competence that proves beneficial to my students.

What is Cultural Competence?

As it pertains to the field of education, Diller and Moule, authors of Cultural Competence: A primer for educators, states, “Cultural competence focuses on the ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, developing certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching.”

The average American classroom boasts a melting pot of students who come from various backgrounds with a plethora of beliefs. It is highly likely that teachers will have little cultural compatibility with at least 10% of their class. Therefore, in order for one to deem themselves an effective educator, they must possess more than content knowledge. They must have the ability to not only accept cultural differences, but to respect them and embed them into the core of the learning environment.

Likewise, leaders in education such as superintendents, district leaders, and school administrators must create working environments that are conducive to the melting pot of educators who grace our schools. We are far removed from the American educational system that was once comprised mostly of former white male coaches in leadership roles and white females as teachers. Gone are the days where the bulk of our schools and districts were segregated. Today’s educational system is made up of a mesh of races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and belief systems. All of which carry value and must not only be tolerated, but accepted in order to adequately prepare our students for productive living in our world.

The Importance of Cultural Competence in Teaching

Culturally competent teachers establish classrooms that are inclusive and celebratory of the things that make people different. These classrooms are rich in discussions of cultural differences and what is acceptable and unacceptable among groups of people. In environments that are fostered by culturally competent educators, differences are not regulated to be celebrated during an assigned month. They are acknowledged, discussed, and celebrated throughout the school term. Teachers who lack cultural competence leave greater room for intolerance and bullying to occur under their guidance. They are more likely to misunderstand students who are different from their cultural norm.

Additionally, teachers who are not culturally competent are less likely to build authentic positive relationships with the students and parents who reside outside of their “normal”, thus preventing them from truly making a positive difference in the lives of the students who are assigned to their tutelage. In some instances, teachers who are not culturally competent will utilize office referrals as a means to address behaviors that they do not understand as opposed to nurturing differences and using them as teaching and learning opportunities.

Ways to Address Cultural Competency Issues

This land of opportunity that we live in is great in theory; however, it is in practice where we seem to fall into error. Much of this failure stems from our refusal to not only accept but also respect differences. Having culturally competent teachers in every classroom will assist in getting us to the point where theory becomes a way of life. We get there by first acknowledging that there is a deficit of culturally competent teachers in our classrooms, and then we tackle “the how”. How do we address cultural competency issues in education?

Take a microscopic look at who we are. We must consider our values and the nuisances that make up our psyche. Did we come from a two-parent home? Were or are we currently a part of the low, middle, or high class? What are our religious beliefs? After pondering all of these things, we should consider how they shape how we respond and relate to others. We must recognize, accept, and improve when the microscope reveals that who we are is preventing us from accepting and understanding others who are not like us.

Be intentional in our pursuit to understand others. School districts spend thousands of dollars annually investing in our ability to understand and teach content standards. Only a small portion of that amount is allotted towards professional development for teachers to acquire the skills necessary to become culturally competent.

This lack of investment is evident when we consider the testimonials of teachers who maintain that although they teach, the students do not care to learn. Most educators would agree that they are most successful working with students whom they have developed an authentic relationship. The more authentic the relationship between student and teacher, the greater the likelihood that the student is receptive to receiving knowledge. Investing financial resources into professional development geared towards helping teachers connect with students who are dissimilar to them will help eliminate the disconnect that prevents students from receiving the education that is being offered.

Look for ways to be inclusive. Our schools should be inviting to the community in which we serve. Regardless if a parent is from a lower or higher tax bracket, the treatment that they receive should be the same. As educators, we should search for ways to make sure that our PTAs, boosters, volunteer lists, and others reflect the body of students we serve. It is counterproductive to have a student body that is made up of various races, income brackets, and religious beliefs to only have a select type of parent representative serve in key volunteer roles.

Traditional event scheduling and invitations to volunteer and participate may not yield the results we need in diversifying inclusion in our schools. We must think outside the box by using mediums such as social media, church gatherings, and celebration dates that are special to different groups to increase inclusiveness.

Competency in utilizing differences as leverage to develop productive human beings is a must. The learners who grace our classrooms deserve to be taught by culturally competent educators who strive to relate to them beyond the information that they are relaying from a textbook.


Diller, J.V. and Moule, J. (2005). Cultural competence: A primer for educators. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.