Out of the Shallows: Four Principles for Diving Deeper into Culturally Responsive Practices

The continued presence of the racial achievement gap is not merely an indication of how poorly individual students perform, but more of an indication of a school’s lack of effectiveness to teach certain students. True or false? Depending on how one answers the previous question ultimately depends on one’s understanding of the importance of culturally responsive practices in the classroom. Critical to the reform of negative educational opportunities, outcomes, and experiences for marginalized students is the presence of effective and culturally responsive educators in the classroom (Banks, 2019; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009). Unfortunately, many culturally conscious efforts fall short of meeting the needs of diverse students because many educators have not had practice in developing sound, in-depth principles of culturally responsive teaching. If teachers are ever going to get real about the equity efforts in education and become truly responsive educators, they have got get out of the shallows, dive more in-depth, and start getting real about what it takes to become a culturally responsive teacher.

Unfortunately, in today’s educational landscape of increased efforts and attention towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural responsiveness, many educators have shallow understandings or flat out rejections of many of these approaches. In its purest form, “culturally responsive teaching involves using the cultures, experiences, and perspectives of African, Native, Latino and Asian American students as filters through which to teach them academic knowledge and skills” (Gay & Kirkland, 2003, p.181). It also involves, but is not limited to, “…unpacking unequal distributions of power and privilege, and teaching students of color cultural competence about themselves and each other.” (Gay & Kirkland, 2003, p. 181). These deep and critical understandings are needed to increase our effectiveness with our diverse learners and create more positive and equitable learning environments for them.

It may feel like the recent surge of attention surrounding these efforts is an indication that culturally responsive teaching and its practices are now commonplace, openly accepted, and implemented by educators at large. Unfortunately, for many classrooms and schools across the country, culturally responsive teaching and its practices are not the norm, yet. Many marginalized students attend schools and reside in classes with teachers who are not effective in culturally responsive practices. As a result, it is common for many students of color, many English language learners, students with special needs, and many students living below the poverty line to experience learning environments that are not only unresponsive, but negative, discriminatory, and academically unengaging (Milner et al., 2019). Educational research confirms this as it says these students are routinely sent to the office more often for subjective infractions (Milner et al., 2019). At the same time, they receive suspensions at higher rates for the same offenses as their White counterparts (Howard, 2016); have higher and more violent interactions with school resources officers (Milner et al., 2019); and receive harsher punishments (Wilson & Yull, 2018). They also receive less than engaging curriculum (Hammond, 2015; Loewen, 2007) and are often exposed to lower expectations and deficit beliefs about their abilities and potentials on behalf of their teachers (Valencia, 2010).

After years of witnessing (and participating in) various forms of this phenomenon as a student, educator, and a parent, this idea of growing and deepening teachers’ understanding of how to become genuinely culturally responsive educators has become an immediate pursuit for me. In the pursuit of working with educators on deepening their understandings of culturally responsive teaching, I found four guiding principles to be effective in helping educators become truly responsive educators. Ultimately, to become a truly culturally responsive educator, teachers must know how to embrace, empower, educate, and include every student, every day.

Embracing All Students

Every student deserves to enter a learning environment that is welcoming and affirming of the many identities they bring into the classroom. This kind of environment works to ensure that every race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, language, religion, and socioeconomic status is not only acknowledged as essential but relevant to the learning process. Ultimately, this is an environment that embraces all students and makes all students feel safe. It is also a foundational aspect of building a positive and caring school climate. To do this, we must know more about student likes, dislikes, learning styles, family background, learning preferences, favorite books, and even communication patterns. Even more so, we must have authentic knowledge about their cultures and identities. Essentially, teachers must begin to reconcile with the warnings from multicultural scholars such as Dr. James A. Banks (2019), Dr. Geneva Gay (2010), and Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2009). They must understand that transforming the educational opportunities and outcomes for our diverse students “requires that they have knowledge of the cultural characteristics of different ethnic groups and of how culture affects teaching and learning” (Gay, 2010, p. 245).

Empowering All Students

An empowering school culture is a collaborative one! Building collaborative relationships between students, families, and their communities is a critical element in helping students and families make the positive changes they hope to see in education and the world! This kind of education does not just teach “the standards” but allows students to think critically and question their learning environments. It also empowers them to remove any barriers that keep them from fair and equitable learning opportunities. Ultimately, an empowering school is the embodiment of positive change by advocating for their students and being the change themselves. Just as a doctor cannot be an effective surgeon if they cannot advocate for the needs of their patients; schools in today’s multiracial society cannot be effective in educating diverse students if they do not commit to eradicating all forms of individual and structural oppression, inequality, and discrimination present within classrooms and schools. 

Educating All Students

The historical and current trends in underachievement for many marginalized students underscores the need for reform in the way schools educate diverse students. High expectations and rigorous curriculum for every student are essential in making sure this happens. Instruction should also consider how different students learn and encourage students to take intellectual risks in growing in their understanding of the world around them. A 21st-century school does not just prepare students to succeed academically on standardized tests, but also to think critically, and function positively cross-culturally in a growing global economy and world. To do this, the voices and needs of culturally, linguistically, socioeconomically, religiously diverse, and differently abled students need to be included in the creation of school practices, policies, and curriculums. The low-quality curriculum and low expectations that many students of color have experienced and continue to experience on behalf of teachers and schools should no longer remain pushed under the rug and covered-up with surface-level approaches to diversity, but critically exposed and culturally responsive solutions put in place to reduce its occurrence in the future.

Including All Students

An inclusive environment seeks to elevate historically marginalized and silenced voices, experiences, and perspectives. It welcomes diverse learning styles and aims to dismantle the assumption of the superiority of dominant norms and beliefs in education. An inclusive environment values diversity and sees it as a strength, not a problem. This kind of environment makes sure that all students see accurate, complete, and positive representations of not only themselves but others in their learning environments. Because research tells us that students’ racial identities have direct correlations to their academic achievement (Carter, 2008) and students in identity safe classrooms perform better on standardized tests than those who are not (Cohn-Vargas, 2015); teachers must become equipped to create identity-safe and affirming classrooms for all students. 

Self- Reflection is Key

How are we going to make sure teachers can move deeper into culturally responsive practices? The key component in teachers being able to embody these principals in the classroom relies on them having ample opportunity to examine how their own racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, religious, or political beliefs influence their beliefs about how they think a good student looks, acts, sounds, and thinks. They need to know how their assumptions and knowledge influence how they teach, what they teach, who and where they teach, and how they interact with diverse students and families. It must be clear: Teachers cannot build relationships with and have collaborative interactions among those they fear, hate, pity, or view in deficit or inferior ways.

Also, educational institutions that train teachers need to place more significant investments in culturally responsive, culturally-sustaining, and equity-based education for pre-service and in-service teachers (Jackson & Boutte, 2018). Research explains that many teachers lack enough exposure to ethnic studies and multicultural education in their learning opportunities and leaves them ineffective in implementing these approaches (Jupp et al., 2019). As many teachers enter the classroom with race-evasive understandings of diversity, they effectively exacerbate inequalities in schools and reinforce the discriminatory practices upheld by the current status quo (Jupp et al., 2019).

Not only that, but on-going opportunities for reflective thinking about our culturally responsive efforts should be commonplace in teacher professional development (Gay & Kirkland, 2003; Grice, 2019). Done with purpose, intention, and humility, this type of self-reflection has the power to transform teachers into culturally conscious educators who are now  agents of change in the classroom, who are not only aware of but responsive to the needs of all of their students (Grice, 2019).

The teachers that can successfully do this are going to reap the benefits of having new lenses to see the achievement gaps marginalized students experience as less of a lack of ability but a lack of opportunity and access to equitable schooling. They will be able to see the lack of access students of color have to participate in gifted and talented or advanced placement classes (De La Rosa, 2019). They will be able to overturn the disparities in discipline rates by implementing restorative practices (Milner et al., 2019). They will know and understand that there are cultural differences in learning styles, communication styles, parenting styles, gender role associations, and interaction styles. They will know that these differences are not an indication of a deficit in the student or parent that displays them, but a strength that needs to be cultivated and affirmed (Cooper, 2009; Gay, 2010). Ultimately, they are now going to understand how the historical and structural racism and educational inequality that American educational institutions were founded on can still be seen in present-day school systems. However, with practice in cultural responsiveness and equity education, they will be armed with the tools to eradicate it.

Together Towards Change

Finally, a greater commitment toward action is needed from us all. A more significant commitment is required from teacher-educators, administrators, stakeholders, policymakers, teachers, and parents to hold not only themselves, but each other accountable for creating culturally responsive, positive, caring, and equitable school environments for every student. This accountability should not just be rooted in calling out racism and discrimination in schools but also calling in those stuck in the comforting grips of tradition and complacency and guiding them in grace, mercy, knowledge, and love towards change. Because no one should be on this journey alone, only together will we be able to brave the deep waters of educational inequality.

Together, we can move more profoundly into authentic, culturally responsive practices. Together, we can create schools where all students feel welcomed, valued, and included. I am ready for a lasting change in how we approach culturally responsive education. A change that will take us all on a journey that will not only help us transform our schools but also ourselves. It is time for teachers to become uncomfortable with being comfortable on the surface of their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in schools. It is time to make deeper commitments to culturally responsive education, not just for ourselves but also for our students. 

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