11/24/2010 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Importance of Culturally Competent Teachers

Many of our urban schools have a problem. The problem is one of cultural competency. Many of our teachers within urban communities lack the cultural awareness component as classroom managers and deliverers of pedagogy. It is not as simple as knowing the cultural traditions of African American and Latinos. Cultural competency for all teachers means recognizing and understanding the norms and tendencies of their student populations which are dictated mostly by societal, ethnic and socioeconomic influences. Cultural competency also provides teachers with an awareness of white dominance and privilege in American society -- that is the social arrangement of cultural and institutional dominance imposed on non-whites due to historical events and influences and how that dominance and privilege impacts societal interactions. All teachers must understand that they are in a fight for the lives of their students. While we ought to focus on raising test scores, increasing proficiency in reading and mathematics, as well as encouraging our students to engage in the sciences, we must remember that the initial weapon of the school teacher is the relationship they forge with their students. The common thread in all teacher-student relationships inside and out of the classroom is that they are relationships first. The job of a teacher is to mentor their pupil through the learning phase. Yet the job of the urban school teacher is to raise standardized test scores and close the achievement gap? School districts, specifically urban districts need to get back to the basics -- forging meaningful relationships between teachers and students and that starts with the cultural competency of teachers.

Simply put, teachers need to be able to get to know their students. That means doing the research and getting the information about their population. While working at my school, I see the daily conflicts between teachers and students. There is a disconnection and it hinders the teacher's ability to teach and the student's ability to learn. It really doesn't matter how good a lesson a teacher has prepared or how smart the students in that classroom are. If that teacher has failed to connect with their students on a culturally responsive level, students may disengage from the learning. There are ways for teachers to ensure that doesn't happen in their classrooms. First, teachers must look at the demographic data of the community surrounding the school. Is that school in a heavily impoverished area; what is the racial composition of the neighborhood surrounding the school; what is the population of homes that speak another language other than English; what is the percentage of people in that community with or without a high school diploma? These are the questions that teachers need to ask themselves in order to gain an understanding of the student population. One cannot generalize based on these answers or statistics, but the knowledge of these facts are essential in hearing the hearts and emotions of students shielded in the answers and opinions they give in classroom dialogue.

Second, teachers must step outside of their comfort zone and engage themselves with getting to know and understand who their students are; what are their likes and dislikes; what music do they listen to; do they read leisurely; what are their recreational activities; do they live with one parent or both; are they from this country or from another. These are essential questions to ask students both formally and informally. If there is a question posed to the teacher concerning a group collective experience, the teacher has a unique opportunity to make that particular day meaningful for those students. Teachers can take that information and craft lessons, activities and field trips. Using what students know to teach them what they don't know is a powerful method of making student comfortable with subjects and concepts they might otherwise feel uncomfortable with.

Also, teachers must allow themselves to be taught by their students. Teachers must not be afraid to allow themselves to be "schooled" by their students -- meaning that the teacher figuratively "takes a seat" and allow their students to teach the teacher social norms amongst the students that the teacher either did not understand or knew nothing about. Teachers not only learn information but they witness firsthand the informal ways students police each other. Those certain aspects of culture; societal, ethnic and socioeconomic influences impact the expressions of acceptance, rebuke and discipline amongst the students. That happens both on the playground and in the classroom. Knowledge of the informal ways students keep each other in line teach the teacher classroom management techniques that do not involve sending students to the principal's office once a teacher feels disrespected. A collective knowledge that a student will not be penalized for their way of voicing frustrations with themselves or with the lesson changes the culture and environment of that classroom and can assign a level of credibility to a teacher he or she wouldn't have had otherwise.

One important way to close the achievement gap is to ensure that teachers are culturally competent so that they can provide their students with the educational experience they deserve. Culturally competent teachers assure that the curriculum will be taught, that the curriculum will be delivered in a way that is responsive to the collective norms and experiences of the student population and that the relationships forged between teacher and student is built on respect and sincerity -- a relationship where that teacher will assure that their students will not only learn the coursework, but grow as individuals. Here is what it will take: teachers who are ready to grow as individuals themselves. It was Malcolm X who said, "We cannot teach what we do not know and we cannot lead where we will not go."