As Educators We Should Make Cultural Competency Part of our DNA

I recently wrote about the teacher shortage, the absence of teachers of color, and our imperative not only to prepare more educators for the classroom, but to bring more African American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, and Native American teachers into the lives of our students. We have another obligation as well: to prepare teachers who are culturally competent.

What is cultural competence? At the most basic level, it’s the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with persons from cultures or belief systems that are different from one’s own.

One of the best definitions I’ve found, offered by Dr. Yvonne Pratt-Johnson, an award-winning education professor at St. John’s University, explains it this way: “Competence in cross-cultural communication requires diving below the surface to see the rest of the iceberg, and it involves onion peeling, too: acquiring a corpus of deeper cultural information that might affect how a teacher instructs and how a student learns.”

(There are several markers to help you identify your level of cultural competence; the National Association of School Psychologists offers a helpful checklist on its website.)

Delegates to the 2015 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly adopted New Business Item 118 to encourage all pre-teacher education programs to include a cultural competence course, such as “Introduction to Multicultural Education.” Embedding cultural competence across the curriculum and making it a focus of field experience and student teaching is the best approach. But a course on the subject, which many educator preparation programs already offer, is a good place to start.

Cultural competence is essential in preparing beginning teachers to make connections with students’ prior knowledge, deepen student learning, motivate their students, and relate to families and communities. Additionally, beginning teachers often are very concerned about how ready they are to meet the diverse needs of students; more training in cultural competence can prepare them for these challenges.

The issue of cultural competence has been part of the NEA’s agenda for a long time, even if we didn’t call it that. We offer lots of resources for making sure our students are exposed to diverse books and ideas in the classroom. And it’s our obligation to take the lead in diversifying our profession and ensuring that college students preparing to be teachers are culturally competent.

Our leadership in this area stems from our fight for the right of all students to have the support they need to be successful in school. That support includes being willing and able to put ourselves in our students’ shoes, regardless of who they are, where they live, or what their socioeconomic background is. A teacher can be the best “explainer” on the planet, but if he can’t understand and empathize with students who a) don’t look like him, b) don’t share his experiences, and c) don’t share his ethnic or cultural heritage, he’s missed an opportunity to truly connect, inspire, and uplift.

I’ve called on the leaders of teacher-education associations to be part of this process and I’d like you to join me. Find out where your educator preparation program stands. Does your program offer at least one course that addresses cultural competence as a lens through which we must view the world? Or, even better, does your program actually infuse and model cultural competence throughout all of its courses and field experiences?

If not, point them in our direction and we’ll be glad to help. Let them know that part of being a caring, committed educator is learning how to reach students whose backgrounds are different from our own. We must be the caring educators our students deserve, and that means making cultural competence a part of our DNA.

Originally published at

Like what you read? Give Lily Eskelsen García a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.