By Rann Miller
That educators are culturally competent matters more than ever.
COVID-19 has upended the school year for students nationwide and educators are working diligently to assure that quality learning opportunities continue for students remotely. While remote learning should be a priority for educators, they must also prepare to meet the opportunity gap once students return to schools. That requires that teachers and administrators work to infuse cultural competence within both classroom instruction and schoolwide systems.
While remote learning has its benefits, racial and economic disparities are hindering students’ opportunities to receive the education they need. As nearly 40% of low-income Black and Latinx families go without decent web access, Black students are impacted heavily.
A quarter of Black teens say they can’t always finish their homework due to the digital divide—13 percent of them say this happens often, whereas just 4 percent of White teens and 6 percent of Latinx teens say they have the same problem.
Once students return to schools and educators seek to assess learning that has taken place remotely, I suspect that Black students suffering from the opportunity gap prior to school closures may be even further behind. When working with these students, it is important that educators not to fall into the trap of ascribing to racist ideas as the reason for further gaps in learning. Rather, educators must respond to closing any gaps with a culturally competent strategy.
It’s not that culturally competent educators never mattered before.
When you consider the various statistics concerning Black student discipline, teacher demographics and what the lack of Black teachers means for Black students, it is imperative that educators work to be culturally competent. By that I mean having the skills and compassion to both appreciate one’s own culture and be fluent in at least one additional culture.
If you work with Black students and you wish to close the opportunity gap, you must be fluent in Black culture; with both skill and compassion. Are educators ready to meet the moment that is to come? I like to think so. Why else would one educate for any reason other than helping young people becoming their best selves? Doing so requires that educators not attempt to fit square pegs in round holes; it requires that teachers become culturally fluent.
What does this look like and how do district leaders work to get there?
It begins with educators growing their culturally competent fluency. This involves removing a Eurocentric lens. That is a worldview centered on Western civilization while either minimizing or erasing non-Euro histories, experiences and/or contributions to history.
Growing in cultural competency is also stepping out of your comfort zone to do life with different people – specifically in non-White spaces. Maybe you visit a restaurant, shop for groceries or attend a religious service similar to your faith in a non-White space.
Next, educators must recognize how cultural competence impacts brain function with respect to learning. According to instructional coach Zaretta Hammond, cultures with a strong oral tradition, like African American culture, rely heavily on the brain’s memory and social engagement systems to process new learning. African American culture, and others based on oral tradition, rely heavily on the reticular activating system (RAS) to activate learning. The RAS seeks information that validates self and one’s own beliefs based on experience.
That understanding must inform how we teach students of color, particularly Black students.
Educators must utilize tools such as call and response techniques. Incorporating storytelling and music is a worthwhile strategy. So is incorporating texts and assessments that are culturally responsive and culturally affirming.
It is also understanding cultural nuisances that can make the difference between a student opening up to your teaching or shutting down.
For example, Black students may have initiated call and response before you even considered utilizing it in the classroom when calling out an answer. However, calling out is frowned upon, even when correct, and a student usually gets reprimanded for doing so. When this happens, not only has a teacher failed an opportunity to create a call and response process, but a Black student is disciplined for a cultural response while learning, and that student may shut down to learning in that particular classroom.
Lastly, the above example is reason to work with teachers to no longer suspend Black students disproportionately. Black students can ill afford to miss valuable classroom instructional time due to suspension. Nationwide, Blacks students, with or without disabilities, receive more out-of-school suspensions, and disproportionately so, than any other race of students. Consequently, Black students lose more school time due to suspension more than any other race of students.
Educators must work to identify any systemic policies that contribute to this within their schools and/or districts and also equip teachers with the cultural competency tools necessary to strengthen their classroom management capabilities.
The academic success of Black students, and all students of color, upon arrival back to school from this pandemic, will depend on how dedicated educators are in becoming culturally competent. Whether we realize it or not, how we educate children is now changed moving forward. In order to meet the opportunity gap on behalf of Black students, it is especially incumbent that educators not return to school the same way they left to do the same things they did.
Now is the time for educators to be courageous enough to teach students with their best interests at heart, versus students learning despite their teachers.
Rann Miller is a Ph.D. Candidate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. His writings on race, education and politics were featured in the Hechinger Report, Education Week and Black Youth Project.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.