What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
As of 2020, more than 50% of students enrolled in public school are students of color, with the number projected to increase during the next decade. Despite the fact that student diversity in schools is increasing, still, about 80% of public school teachers are white. This is a significant cultural gap that leads to a disconnect between students and educators, with research finding public school teachers tend to underestimate students of color, holding them to lower standards based on their cultural background.
Instead of seeing students’ diverse backgrounds as an asset to learning, educators often see it as a weakness. This attitude leads to self-fulfilling prophecies, encouraging students to underachieve and underutilize skills that could otherwise lead to finding success in their education.
Many teachers are unprepared for teaching students coming in with backgrounds different from their own. As a result, students from historically underserved communities continue to be underserved. The best way to counteract this is by providing teachers with professional training about how to incorporate culturally responsive teaching best practices into their every day instruction.
Defining Culturally Responsive Teaching
Educators have been working to develop teaching techniques that uplift all students, especially those from historically underserved communities. The way they have been doing this is through culturally responsive teaching, which fits into the foundational Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.
So, what is culturally responsive teaching? This article from EdWeek defines it as “using students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.” The same article goes on to explain this form of teaching allows students of color to see themselves and their communities as belonging within the academic space, leading to higher rates of student engagement and success.
The foundation of culturally responsive teaching is referred to as Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. This is a theoretical model that ultimately supports students in upholding their cultural identities while focusing on multiple aspects of educational achievement. The California Department of Education (CDE) outlines the three main components of a Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:
- A focus on student learning and academic success
- Developing students’ cultural competence to assist students in developing positive ethnic and social identities
- Supporting students’ critical consciousness or their ability to recognize and critique societal inequalities
It is emphasized that all three of these components need to be integrated into the classroom to be considered a strong, well-rounded implementation of culturally responsive teaching.
Eight Traits that Culturally Responsive Teachers Should Possess
One of the main goals of culturally responsive teaching is to reverse patterns of underachievement in students of color. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t solely about educators treating historically underserved students with the same care as their other students, but it is about seeing these students’ various backgrounds as assets that can be incorporated into the classroom.
New America’s article—based on extensive research—outlines eight key traits educators should strive for when practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. Here are some key characteristics of culturally responsive teachers, and how to get started developing these qualities yourself.
1. Reflecting on one’s cultural lens
The first key component of becoming a culturally responsive educator is having the awareness to reflect on your own life experiences and social groups that you might be a part of (including race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.). It is important to consider how these factors influence your beliefs about cultural diversity because everyone is susceptible to adopting social biases that shape the ways we interact with one another.
New America defines this awareness as “cultural competency,” which is the “understanding, sensitivity, and appreciation for the history, values, experiences, and lifestyles of other cultures.” While it can be uncomfortable to address one’s own biases, it is an incredibly important step toward developing a culturally responsive classroom.
2. Recognizing biases within the educational system
Understanding one’s own personal biases is the first step toward being able to recognize bias in the educational system. Take some time to consider what students are taking the higher-level courses in your school, what classes the best teachers are assigned to, and where resources are being allocated in your district.
It’s important to understand how bias is implemented into school districts at a structural and institutional level. This can come in the form of policies, norms, and district-level practices. In developing your awareness about how students are disadvantaged due to these structures, you are better able to advocate for them.
One of the biggest components of culturally responsive teaching is seeing students’ differences as assets to the classroom, rather than weaknesses. It is important to find ways to integrate and validate students’ lived experiences, cultural identities, and heritage at the classroom level. You can complement the traditional school curricula with examples, newspaper clippings, articles, songs, plays, comics, video games, and other outside resources that include experiences, characters, settings, and themes students can relate to.
“Cultural scaffolding” is the act of teachers providing links between academic concepts and the experiences familiar to students. New America writes that “In addition to providing ‘mirrors’ reflecting students’ familiar world, teachers provide ‘windows’ into the history, traditions, and experiences of other cultures and groups.”
4. Bringing real-world issues into the classroom
It is important students understand the real-world application of what they’re learning in the classroom. This can be related to environmental, societal, or even community-based issues. Showing students how new information fits into their lives or connects to issues they care about is a key component of culturally responsive teaching. In doing this, students are able to directly connect themselves to their community, allowing them to see themselves as capable of creating an impact on the world around them.
5. Modeling high expectations for all students
One study found teachers are more likely to give poorly written essays higher praise if they were written by students of color. This form of lowering expectations for historically underprivileged students actually does more harm than good, as it sets these students up for failure in the future.
It is critical educators do not assume certain students will underperform as a result of their race or culture. Students of color are extremely vulnerable to negative stereotypes based on their intelligence and behavior, which can cause them to underperform. Educators should have high expectations for all students and communicate those expectations explicitly.
6. Promoting respect for student differences
One of the best ways for teachers to make sure their classroom is inclusive and respectful is by modeling that behavior, while also making those expectations clear to their students. Educators should model for their students how to embody respect for social, cultural, and linguistic differences. Along with this, it is important for teachers to instill in students a sense of responsibility in addressing mistreatment, prejudice, injustice, and bullying when they encounter it.
7. Collaborating with families and the local community
You should assume all parents are interested in getting involved with their children’s education, regardless of their background or cultural differences. It’s important to develop engagement strategies that will support the unique barriers often faced by immigrant families, families of color, or low-income families.
As New America explains, “Because schools have traditionally privileged the input and collaboration of families from dominant backgrounds, culturally responsive educators aim to develop the trust of diverse families to ensure they are involved at all levels of their child’s education throughout the year.” Along with this, culturally responsive teachers should see themselves as a part of their community and try to teach their students with this in mind.
8. Communicating in linguistically and culturally responsive ways
Everyone deserves to feel like they belong, and when students and families feel welcomed, they’re more likely to participate in school activities. A great way to make sure you’re communicating effectively is to develop an understanding of different cultural communication norms. European styles of communicating tend to be passive and indirect, and often times meaning can be misconstrued because of this. For example, many cultures prefer more direct, blunt forms of communication, which might be taken as disrespectful if teachers are not aware of these differences.
Along with communication styles, teachers should also make sure to accommodate students who speak a different language at home. Teachers can provide translation services to these students, or get them involved in multilanguage programs. The bilingual brain has a multitude of strengths when it comes to language learning, and these should be acknowledged and praised by culturally responsive teachers.
Culturally Responsive Teaching is the Future of Education
Diversity within the U.S. public school system is increasing every single year, and it is important these students not only feel welcomed, but are able to see themselves in their curriculum. Culturally responsive teaching is essentially just a long way of saying inclusive teaching. Educators should strive to include students of all backgrounds in their classroom curriculum. Not only that, but educators should be aware of structural biases integrated into U.S. school systems, and advocate for better treatment for their students.
With approximately 5 million Emergent Bilingual students in U.S. public schools, the classroom is a place where linguistic cultures converge every day. This Educational Insight from Lexia® will help teachers flip traditional thinking upside down and embrace culturally responsive teaching.
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