Cultural Competence
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  Closing the Gaps

Cultural Competence

Why is cultural competence such a hot topic?

As educators, we want the best for students and seek ways to meet the needs of all learners in our classrooms. We sometimes find that this requires skills and knowledge far above and beyond the content area we are teaching.

While the demographics of Washington’s student population are changing rapidly, our educators and other school staff do not reflect the diversity of the classrooms we serve.

Cultural competence provides a set of skills that professionals need in order to improve practice to serve all students and communicate effectively with their families. These skills enable the educator to build on the cultural and language qualities that young people bring to the classroom rather than viewing those qualities as deficits.

Cultural competence training asks educators to confront the stereotypes held both consciously and unconsciously about students. Bias affects the way that we perceive and teach students and has the potential to negatively affect student achievement.

Teachers who aspire to become more culturally competent can build relationships based on trust with students and their families, even though they experience the world in different ways. This is essential to closing academic achievement gaps and to fulfilling all students’ civil right to a quality education.

What is cultural competence?

“I will never know everything about every single culture.” Educators feel overwhelmed by the notion that they may need to learn how to say hello and shake hands in the multitude of cultures represented in their classrooms. Fortunately, cultural competence goes beyond memorizing a checklist of surface-level customs and cultural differences.

Cultural competence allows educators to ask questions about their practice in order to successfully teach students who come from different cultural backgrounds.

Developing skills in cultural competence is like learning a language, a sport or an instrument. The learner must learn, re-learn, continuously practice, and develop in an environment of constant change. Cultures and individuals are dynamic — they constantly adapt and evolve.

Cultural competence is:

  • Knowing the community where the school is located
  • Understanding all people have a unique world view
  • Using curriculum that is respectful of and relevant to the cultures represented in its student body
  • Being alert to the ways that culture affects who we are
  • Placing the locus of responsibility on the professional and the institution
  • Examining systems, structures, policies and practices for their impact on all students and families

Cultural competence is not:

  • Good intentions
  • Cultural celebrations at designated times of the year, in designated ways
  • Kumbaya diversity
  • A list of stereotypes about what people from a particular cultural group do
  • Assumptions that all students from one culture operate in similar ways and have had similar experiences
  • The responsibility of children, their parents or the community
  • Color-blindness (treating everybody the same)
  • Simple tolerance


Read about effective cultural competence training

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