“Cultural Competence: A Journey to Excellence”

We have to be watchful that fellow educators are not being silenced or marginalized. 

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.