Why cultural competency matters for teachers

Being able to engage students requires understanding race issues deeply

I BECAME A teacher because I wanted to make a difference, to shape young minds, to be a teacher for social justice. White people today comprise over 80 percent of teachers nationwide but less than 60 percent of students; for those of us who choose to work in communities with large populations of students of color, teaching for social justice becomes a mission and a philosophy. But what does it actually look like in practice? After a decade of teaching English in an urban classroom, I know that white teachers working with diverse student populations must be engaged in effective and on-going professional development in cultural competency if we are to be successful.

I grew up a white Jewish woman in rural New Hampshire, where I had no experience teaching students of color and minimal experience interacting with people of color in general until I started teaching in a large urban high school outside of Boston. During my student teaching, I tutored a tall, dark-skinned senior named “Alula” with whom I developed a particular rapport.

A couple of weeks before my student teaching ended, I sat down with Alula to help with a paper for his African-American literature class. That was when I discovered that he didn’t define himself as black; I had assumed, wrongly, that Alula could identify with the book’s black author, and he became increasingly frustrated when I insisted that other people (including myself) saw him as black, when he clearly delineated a line between himself – an Ethiopian immigrant – and his African-American peers whose families had been in America for generations.

In the end, I wasn’t much help with his paper. Even worse, my wrongheaded attempts to convince him that my definition of race was right destroyed our mentor-student relationship.

The next year, in my own classroom, I was haunted by the specter of my encounter with Alula. Even as I used many of my teacher training strategies for curriculum, instruction, and classroom management, I found myself struggling to connect with my students. My classes were populated with children of color, immigrants, and low-income students. I had the best of intentions – and very little practical understanding of their lives or how to teach them in ways that operated outside of my narrow sphere of experience.

I became lucky in my second year. I found mentors who taught me how to look critically at myself and my classroom and how to encourage my students to do the same. I sought formal professional development opportunities in anti-racist teaching, such as SEED and IDEAS. I self-educated with books, scholarly articles, and blogs. I began to train myself to listen more and talk less. I also began to challenge my own curriculum, re-centering how I taught certain books to focus on themes related to power and privilege, choosing texts to include more authors of color, and teaching literary theories of race, class, and gender.

Today, I feel that I can actually own the phrase “teaching for social justice” because I can point to my curriculum and instruction and know that I am doing more than paying lip service to the ideals of justice. This success comes in part because I am continuously learning about race and pedagogy. But I am also successful because in my classroom, I am transparent about my own process and share my own story with my students.

I acknowledge that I am not an expert and that I will probably make mistakes when talking about race. I emphasize that we must all have time and space — and guidance — to have “difficult” conversations, ask questions, and disagree with each other. I encourage my students to use not only literature but also their lives as the curriculum. I try to guide them toward pro-active and positive societal change, and teach them that struggle is part of the process but not a reason to stop trying.

These are difficult conversations to have, but they are necessary. If we white teachers truly want to teach for social justice, we need to concede that good intentions are not enough. Both teacher training programs and in-district professional development can do more to provide meaningful cultural competency training, but where there is a gap, teachers can and should take initiative.

Meet the Author

I wish I could go back ten years ago to that conversation with Alula. There is so much I would have done differently, knowing what I know now. I can’t change what happened, but I can move forward, continue to learn from my mistakes, and strive every day to do better for my students.

Ariel Maloney is an English teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.