Nurturing Culture

The United States (U.S.) has a long history of cultural diversity, but the education system fails to support this diversity in the classroom. The content taught in the classroom and the norms in U.S. schools are mainly shaped by Western European traditions. These traditions do not reflect the diverse heritage of the student body. As a result, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students often feel overlooked or undervalued. They often feel that the U.S. education system was not designed with their needs in mind. Some Black and Brown students feel they have to hide or reject parts of their culture in order to succeed. As a result, they may choose not to engage in school or school-related events in order to protect their cultural identity and pride. Therefore, we have an urgent need for what is called culturally responsive teaching. This teaching aims to create an inclusive and fair learning environment.

Students from all cultural backgrounds feel seen and valued in culturally responsive classrooms. Many teachers agree on the importance of this approach and work to be as culturally responsive as possible. However, culturally responsive teaching is complex. Most teacher preparation and continued training programs do not prepare teachers with the knowledge, skills, or resources needed to create a culturally responsive learning environment. In order to understand what types of resources teachers need, we must first define the different parts of culturally responsive teaching. 

 Culturally responsive teaching can be broken down into three broad categories: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Each broad category can be broken down into smaller parts, called elements. There are a total of nine elements of culturally responsive teaching. One example of an element in the knowledge category is knowledge of students’ cultures and how those cultures relate to learning. The skills category contains certain elements such as the ability to adapt course content to be more engaging for specific students and the ability to build trusting relationships with students from different cultures. One example of an element in the attitude category is understanding how structures of power within schools and society as a whole can affect students.

Many teachers are already good at culturally responsive teaching. Studies found that students in classrooms with culturally responsive teaching experience greater advantages compared to students in traditional classrooms. These advantages include higher graduation rates, attendance, grades, and test scores. Interestingly, all students, not just students of color, had better outcomes when learning in these classrooms. 

Researchers explored the types of experiences that help teachers become more culturally responsive. They found that teachers learned to recognize their biases by experiencing a different culture. Teachers also became more culturally aware when they reflected on their personal blind spots. However, few studies explored how the elements of culturally responsive teaching relate to one another as teachers develop. Can all nine elements develop at the same time or do teachers need to develop certain elements first? Do all teachers develop along the same path toward culturally responsive teaching or do different teachers take different paths? Our study sought to understand how teachers developed the elements that are required for a culturally responsive learning environment. 

From 2019 to 2021, we partnered with two school districts that were interested in supporting teachers in their development of culturally responsive teaching. We designed and led a 2-year professional development program for 36 teachers. Our program included two middle schools and two high schools. We interviewed the teachers at the beginning, middle, and end of the program. We also interviewed them one year after the program to understand if it led to long-term changes. We asked what they learned from the program, how they tried to be more culturally responsive in their teaching, and which elements they planned to continue developing in the future.

From our work, we found that the teachers did not move along a specific path toward more culturally responsive teaching. Instead, each teacher stayed in a zone, called a zone of development. 

We came up with four unique zones of development: 

1) consciousness-raising

2) consciousness and relationship building

3) knowledge and practice building

4) practice-refining

The teachers that were in the consciousness-raising zone were focused on increasing their awareness of power dynamics. For example, teachers began to understand how racism within organizations and society as a whole affected their students’ lives and school experiences. The teachers in the consciousness and relationship building zone were building on their prior social justice knowledge and strengthening their relationships with students. Teachers in the third zone, knowledge and practice building, were focused on designing content around their particular students’ cultural strengths, experiences, and interests. Finally, teachers in the practice refining zone were already familiar with the practices of culturally responsive teaching and were mainly focused on deepening their students’ awareness of systems of power and improving cultural responsiveness in the school. 

We saw that teachers remained in the same zone for the entire 2-year program. This shows how long it takes to develop culturally responsive teaching practices. We were also surprised to find that teachers could improve in one category of culturally responsive teaching while still developing in another. For example, teachers became better able to connect students’ experiences to the content (skills category) at the same time they were gaining knowledge of their students’ cultural identities (knowledge category).

Based on our findings, we have recommendations for other professional development programs on culturally responsive teaching. First, these programs should be flexible and individualized so that teachers in any of these four zones of development can feel supported and appropriately challenged. Our study revealed that this process takes time, so teachers should not expect to become culturally responsive overnight or even in a year or two. In fact, it’s a lifelong journey. No one should expect a single professional development program to be enough, and schools should encourage teachers to continually experiment, collaborate, and reflect to improve their skills.

Written By: Dr. Hillary Parkhouse

Academic Editor: Ecologist

Non-Academic Editor: Financial Adviser 

Original Paper

• Title: Mapping How Teachers Become Culturally Responsive

• Journal: Journal of Teacher Education

• Date Published: 28 April 2023

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