Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to the change the world.”—Nelson Mandela

As educators, we must work to meet the needs of all learners in our classrooms. To do this, we must participate in continuous professional learning and self-reflection. We are obliged to study the latest methods and strategies, know the relevant pedagogy, and stay knowledgeable about the concepts, content, and skills that are required of our students. We must also be culturally competent.

According to  The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, cultural competence means to be respectful and responsive to the health beliefs and practices—and cultural and linguistic needs—of diverse population groups. Developing cultural competence is also an evolving, dynamic process that takes time and occurs along a continuum.  This summer I am going to focus my professional learning around cultural competence. I plan to share what I learn across a few blog posts, culminating in an article about culturally responsive teaching. What I have learned with this first step is how little I know about this critical concept and how much I have to learn.

The NEA’s Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators defines it this way: “Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.”

First, let’s unpack the term cultural competence. What is culture? Culture is defined in multiple ways, but essentially, all of the definitions describe culture as a person’s environment, behaviors, practices, values and attitudes, and fundamental beliefs and assumptions. Our students bring their unique cultures to our classrooms and create a tapestry of culturally diverse learners. One way to think of culture is like an iceberg—the top part is easy to see but there is so much more to an iceberg that we can’t see. The image to the left demonstrates the possible cultural differences we may see in our classroom.

Researchers have identified five basic cultural competence skills. According to Diller and Moule, authors of Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators, teachers need to value diversity, know how different cultures interact, have knowledge of students’ culture, institutionalize cultural knowledge, and help colleagues adapt to diversity. Educators must also become culturally self-aware. Self-awareness can be the most difficult part of the journey. It requires taking an honest look at our own culture, assumptions, and even biases.

Let’s start the path to self-awareness together. First, we must have some background knowledge on the challenges faced by some of our students. has put together a multiple-choice quiz that uses facts and statistics to demonstrate inequalities in society that impact the students in our classrooms. Follow the link above and while taking the quiz, consider how these inequalities may impact our students and their families.

When thinking about equity, remember that equity does not mean equal. The goal is not to move students from places of difference to a common place but to raise the achievement gap for all students. According to Mike Neece, AVID Director of Systemic Initiatives, “Equity is defined in terms of outcome, no two students come to us at the same place. Our job is to ensure that ALL students leave us at a level of competence that gives them a high predictability of success in their next phase of live.” Equity is about opportunity and outcome, not becoming identical or meeting the cultural expectations of the teacher.

If we want to address the societal inequities, we need to go back to self-reflection. Harvard University offers Project Implicit as a way to understand our own biases. The Harvard IAT is an online test that allows people to identify their implicit bias.

“Project Implicit was founded as a multi-university research collaboration in 1998 by three scientists – Tony Greenwald (University of Washington), Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University), and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia), and was incorporated as a non-profit in 2001 to foster dissemination and application of implicit social cognition. Project Implicit investigates thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control (2013).”

According to Tom Rudd of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “Implicit bias is the mental process resulting in feelings and attitudes about people based on race, age, and appearance. It is an unconscious process and we are not consciously aware of the negative biases that develop over the course of our lifetime.” Implicit bias is hidden and resides in our unconscious mind. It is often far less egalitarian than what we explicitly think about differences, and if we are unwilling to confront these issues is self-reinforcing and perpetuates systemic inequity. Before taking the Harvard IAT, read about the test and its implications here.

Another encounter experience can be found at the website for the PBS television series “Race: the Power of an Illusion.” The “Sorting People” exercise asks participants to categorize individuals into racial/ethnic groups based solely on their visual appearance. Participants’ error scores ease the transition into a dialogue about race as a social construct. The website provides support materials and other experiences to help students further explore this content.

While reflecting on your IAT results, consider that a key reason to learn more about our own hidden bias is to be aware of how our actions—conscious or not—impact our students. When we think about intercultural communication, we can unintentionally offend others. Our intentions are not as relevant as the impact we have on the person we offend. Becoming aware of our implicit bias allows us to address our behavior and be intentional in how we interact with our colleagues and students. It is natural to have bias, but it is essential to identify and address it so that we do not act upon it. Check out this video of an interaction that had a different impact than the initiator most likely intended.

Now that we have done some reflecting and learning, what are the next steps?

To overcome unconscious attitudes, educators must counter negative stereotypes and look at each person as an individual. They can create safe learning environments where students know that everyone is welcome, all voices have an opportunity to be heard, and hatred is dealt with swiftly. Teachers can create opportunities for students to know and befriend others and provide changes for students to interact with and learn from people who are different than themselves. Writing for Teaching Tolerance, Becki Cohn-Vargas stated, “All students deserve to be welcomed, supported and valued as members of the learning community. Before we can truly model empathy for and acceptance of individuals from identity groups different from our own, we must learn to be honest about the biases we hold.”

I will be continuing to try and learn more about being a culturally competent educator, and I look forward to sharing what I learn in upcoming posts.


Teaching Tolerance
The Freire Project
35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say
A Class Divided
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Responsive Reads
Cultural Responsive Teaching
Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators
National Equity Project


Lessons Plans