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"Cultural Competence: A Journey to Excellence"

This past weekend, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards hosted the 10th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference in D.C.  I was invited to be part of an amazing plenary session organized by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The plenary was moderated by David Johns, and included CTQ's Jose Vilson (founder of #EduColor), Linda Darling Hammond (Stanford U), Dr. Ali Michael (Center for Study of Race and Equity in Education), and two incredible student speakers: Maria Salmeron, a leader in the Minority Scholars Program from Montgomery County Schools, and Marley Dias, 11-year old literacy advocate. 

Although we all came with prepared messages, Mr. Johns wisely decided to turn the session into a more conversational, interview with audience Q & A. If you were there, you know how much we all learned and shared. If you weren't, find the video. 

I wanted to share the remarks I would have made. Some of this I said during the discussion, but several people asked for more. I encourage you to join the conversation here or on Twitter about these critical issues. 

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For 27 years, I have been blessed to teach English to high school and community college students in the Mississippi Delta. I was mentored into teaching by amazing veteran Black teachers. Largely because of their influence and my own upbringing, I see myself as part of the African American tradition of passion for education. A critical part of that tradition is the belief that educational achievement is not only or not primarily for one’s personal advancement, but for the greater good of the entire community.

When I pursued National Board Certification, I had an opportunity to examine my level of culturally competent teaching because that’s what I do every day, and because the Standards require it. Every one of the 25 National Board standards are developed and updated by teachers in those respective fields. Each of the Standards documents includes extensive attention to issues of equity, diversity, and justice. For example, the English Language Arts Standards say:

  • ...we use the knowledge of diverse cultures and contexts to enrich our instruction.

  • ...we advocate for voices that are silent or missing in the classroom

  • ...we empower students to take control of their own lives and decisions

  • ...we respect the cultural values that students bring from home, and

  • ...we never consider our own cultural learning complete.”

These are the Standards; the high bar.

How do we spread these concepts across the profession?  One way is to get them into the hands and hearts of teachers who are leaders within their schools, districts, and organizations. An example is the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI), a collaboration of NBPTS, NEA, and CTQ. TLI believes “a teacher leader should be intentionally growing in cultural proficiency and developing as an advocate for social justice both of which impact student learning and performance.”  

Just as I had a group of elders mentor me on how to teach Black children in the Delta, NEA was wise enough to invite a group of experienced social justice educators to inform TLI as we put together its Social Justice curriculum. That curriculum includes studying what the National Board standards say about equity. The expectation is that these leaders will in turn practice and promote those concepts in their various spheres of influence.

But there’s still much work to do.  Many teachers currently working in schools with students of diverse cultures have had little or no preparation in multicultural education. There are too few teachers of color working in teacher prep programs around the U.S. (with a few notable exceptions), or in schools to provide the kind of mentoring that I received.  Just as African American students have too often been subjected to low expectations; African American educators have been the targets of disrespect and marginalization within the profession. The pedagogical expertise, cultural knowledge, and other contributions of teachers of color have been historically undervalued.

    So, we must continue to work to build cultural competency within the profession and within our professional organizations. We have to be watchful that fellow educators are not being silenced or marginalized.  We should acknowledge that tens of thousands of Black educators have been forced out of  education and what a great loss that has been to our profession. We should fight policies that are designed to restrict the entrance of Black and Latino teachers into the profession. We should push back against unhealthy, color-blind thinking: “I don’t need all that politically correct cultural stuff; good teaching is just good teaching.”  No, good teaching is not generic; it is passionately context-specific.

It is impossible to be a truly effective teacher without being culturally competent, and we cannot develop cultural competency in our teaching force without respecting, listening to, and learning from one another. Whether all our colleagues choose to become National Board Certified or not, we should encourage each other (first of all by example) to make the Standards of highly accomplished teaching our expectation in teaching practice for the greater good.

3 Comments

Treesey Weaver commented on March 15, 2016 at 8:57am:

Renee, I concur with you

Renee, I concur with you whole heartedly. I consider myself a culturally responsive educator and my students who are predominantly Haitian American appreciate the fact that I make a concerted effort to include their narrative in my teaching and I do so seamlessly.  It is not that students can't learn without seeing themselves reflected in their learning but it makes education so much more meaningful. Also the idea that education is culture neutral is a fallacy. The educational system is based on the culture of those who designed it which automatically makes it biased against students not from the dominant culture, so culturally responsive teaching is an attempt to remedy this ill. 

BrookeCrespo commented on April 11, 2016 at 4:32am:

It was a pleasure that I

It was a pleasure that I found this post here. It's a informative and motivative post. It was great going through the inofrmation of 'journey to excellence'. Keep sharing good thoughts.

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Christine Fairbanks commented on March 26, 2017 at 10:07pm:

I really enjoyed reading this

I really enjoyed reading this post. It was very motivational and I can agree that my school also faces similar challenges. At my school 44% of the students are African American and 43% of the total student body is Hispanic. As a second grade ESL teacher I work with 28 students from three different homerooms. The majority of my students come from households where Spanish is the primary language. I also work with many African students whose family members are from Ghana and the language they speak at home is called Twi. Therefore I find it extremely important to create a classroom environment and school community that embraces and accepts cultural differences. As a teacher leader I would like to spread awareness about the importance of embracing cultural differences and I would like to lead my school in participating in various activities that embrace and support cultural differences.

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