Cultural Competency: Implications for Education Leaders

Castellano-j120x148Much like the teaching force across America, administrators serving low-income, culturally and linguistically diverse student populations are primarily white. While we continue to recruit more diverse educators to the profession, it is not feasible to think that we can always match the demographics of teachers or administrators with the demographics of their students. Is this even necessary?

How important is it to be of the same demographic group as the students with whom you work?

One answer to the dilemma is developing the cultural competence of teachers and administrators currently in the field. Culturally competent educators work to understand their own biases and patterns of discrimination. They have the skills to mitigate the attendant negative effects on student achievement and the personal courage and commitment to persist. Culturally competent educators need to understand their own cultural history and contemporary status, as well as that of their students and their communities. In particular, if they are to fully appreciate their students’ strengths and needs, culturally competent educators must first identify where and how structural and/or institutional inequities have affected students’ lives.

Can educational and instructional leaders who are not culturally competent be fully effective? How do you challenge your own biases and patterns of discrimination in your school community? How can school leaders be proactive about building cultural competency?

Post submitted by Jaime Castellano, principal and director of gifted education at Ganado Intermediate School in Ganado, Ariz., and 2011 Annual Conference Scholar.


  1. Food for thought, even in a culturally diverse place like Toronto and in a country that espouses a value in diversity through its multicultural policy.
    One suggestion for all of us to to learn to filter the messages from media since we often get our biases from there. Being clear ion the influence of media may help us better figure out where we stand.

  2. It is strange when you think of it. Our founding fathers were Puritans with a common language and core beliefs. Yet our country was built with the labor and talents of immigrants. Our major cities were melting pots of diversity and cultures. The immigrants became citizens and adopted the ways of the new nation. Some held to their native language and customs and some did not.
    Now, more than ever, diversity has come to the states. What is the difference? Are the new immigrants accepting the customs and language of their new land or are they maintaining their own culture and language? Will the states adopt a second language?
    More to the thought of the blog, can an administrator/educational leader who is not culturally aware be effective? In my opinion, no. So much of what we do is built upon relationships and connections with the communities we serve. Unless you are present and participating in the community, you can not build the relationships that lead to trust,respect and understanding. The human connection is critical to the work we do. When you take the plunge to explore, learn and experience the cultures surrounding you, you become a much richer person. It’s a win-win situation.

  3. I think the easy response is “Oh, good point, Jaime, you’re right. Those OTHER PEOPLE need to think about it…” Of course, we’re all someone else’s OTHER PEOPLE. Jaime pushes us to look at ourselves and our contexts.
    Each of us needs to step back and reflect upon the baggage we bring and how that has an impact upon how we perceive the world and how others perceive us.

  4. In my city in Mexico, private schools in English instruction are the most sought out schools. They are expensive and highly quality US-type schools. It could almost be impossible to match the demographics. Schools here higher 35% US and Canadian Teachers. They look for cultural competency and teaching skills.
    But in the end we are still human. The discrimination is mostly toward local teachers, bad foreign teachers easily replace good local hires. The admin positions are mostly reserved for foreigners. We have a saying here in Mexico, “No one is a prophet in their own land.”
    So in my case, discrimination is actually toward the people that best match the demographics.

  5. Diversity is part of the classroom and cannot be avoided. I come from a classroom where there was majority hispanic students, then african americans, then asians, and then caucasians. This was usual to me but I loved it. I am an African American myself. Although majority of my students were hispanic, I was able to connect with them and teach them. I incorporated their culture into the classroom. We all learned from them, as they learned from other cultures. So I think that it is important to have diversity amongst the teachers, but a teacher does not have to be the same demographic as the student. As long as the different cultures are being respected and everyone is learning, then I think that there will be success.

  6. An interesting question… I don’t believe that simply because my ethnic or cultural background matches my students I am somehow a better leader. Leadership is much more complex than that.
    I think the important thing is to lead with an open mind – seek first to understand before being understood as Covey would tell us. I grew up in a very affluent predominantly white community with very little diversity (aside from religious diversity). My early jobs in education were in this same community. But then I moved to an administrative job in a VERY diverse school district. Over 40 languages were spoken in the homes of our students and the large majority were not native English speakers. Our low income rate approached 40%. It was a far different world than I had ever experienced. Yet, despite the fact that my background did not match the community I felt that I was still able to be able to be an effective leader. The key to this effectiveness was a willingness to be open to the community, to learn about the challenges and the joys, and to seek to understand. I learned to appreciate life more broadly and to understand different points of view. This was far more about my openness and the relationships I formed with the community than the color of my skin or my own personal background.

  7. The most culturally competent people I know are good listeners first. Being a good listener transcends demographics and helps the culturally competent educator sympathize, but at the end of the day, only someone with a similar experience can truly empathize. At-risk students need both kinds of adults in their lives. Schools are systems and by definition, systems need diversity to excel. Students need to have adults that look and sound like them–who understand them. They also need adults who will listen to them and support them, but most of all they need realize that no one overcomes obstacles by making excuses. I once saw a drop out prevention program skyrocket in participation of hispanic students simply because we hired a competent hispanic to run it. The competent white person just could never get it done. In many situations regarding cultural competency, race matters, but in the end humanity matters more.

  8. I am a biracial educator who was actually denied a job because I refused to choose only one race to fit our racial balance system two years ago. I work in a rather large urban school district that until recently, actually went out of their way to balance the teacher demographics at the various schools. They went so far, that they began telling teachers they could not pick a school if they were not the correct race needed to fill the quota. Somehow, this was legal, which still boggles my mind to this day. What I found especially interesting, was that the schools they were attempting to racially balance the teachers with, were extremely unbalanced as far as students. At the time, I too wondered, does it actually matter? I could not believe that in this day and age, a school district would actually spend its time racially balancing teachers. Where does it end? Should we balance teachers based on eye color or hair color next? To me that seems just as preposterous. I do not believe that the color of your skin has remotely anything to do with your ability as a teacher. Like you said above, as teachers, it is our responsibility regardless of our own race or nationality, to learn about and understand the cultures of our students. Our job is to provide our students with a multicultural education, and learn ways to best teach students of all races, cultures, and learning styles.
    I understand the importance for culturally diverse students to see culturally diverse teachers within their classrooms. Yes, that can be extremely encouraging for them. However, an effective teacher can encourage and empower their students, even if they do not share the same culture, race, or even language. I have been in classrooms where I had students who spoke only Spanish, and now work in a room where some students are English Language Learners (ELLs) who speak Russian. I have no Russian in my heritage, but I make it my duty to learn more about the Russian culture and ways to best serve this group of students. It is slow process, but I have seen improvement and feel I have been able to encourage them. I think cultural competence is a process. Teachers can work towards this competence by participating in professional development, taking college courses, and even doing some research of their own. I recently began a Master’s Degree program in Reading and Literacy to further my own education in that area.
    I do not believe teachers who are not culturally competent, or at least working towards this competence can be effective in a classroom. Especially when the rate of students from other countries and cultures is growing so rapidly. I think school leaders need to encourage their staff to stop adopting the, “I don’t see color” mentality. Sonia Nieto(2003)reminds us that our students do not come to us “colorless”, therefore we should not be “colorblind”. An effective teacher welcomes diversity and culture into their classroom, and utilizes it daily to best reach all their students.
    On a final note, when my school district recently signed new contracts, the racial balance system was finally eradicated from the district’s policies. Now the leaders of this district need to focus on ensuring they have effective teachers of all races within their classrooms.
    Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York, NY: Teachers College Press

  9. To be given the title of teacher places on the bearer an awesome priviledge and responsibility. Teachers are the shapers and molders of a society’s future, as well as carriers of its legacy. If we truly aspire to gain expertise in this ‘the best of all possible professions,’ then we must develop and nurture a deep respect for, factual knowledge of, and genuine concern for those who are placed into our care. We do this not because of any monetary considerations, but because it is our ethical responsibility to do so (Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler. 2005). Culturally incompetent teachers are not only ineffective– they are unethical. Compassionate empathy for their students is the hallmark of the effective, professional educator. We must model the behaviors we want our students to adopt. If our goal is a future wherein our society is comprised of culturally competent/compassionately empathetic individuals, we must be the exemplars of that in our every day interactions with our students. Not every (nor even the most important) thing we teach can be quantitatively measured, but it will be seen in the measure of the men and women who will people our society’s future.
    Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., & Kottler, E.(2005).On being a teacher: The human dimension. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin Press

  10. While I do not believe that an educator needs to be of the same demographics as the population that he/she serves, I find it hard to imagine that an educator can be effective without being culturally competent. Perspective and understanding of different points of view, in my opinion, are part of the foundation of a successful learning community. I am grateful for the time I spent working in my family’s store in NYC with co-workers from all over the world. I learned, first hand, about different customs, beliefs, and struggles. It opened my eyes and my mind to so much that I had never learned in school. I loved the education that this experience provided!
    One of the best courses that I took was based on Ruby Payne’s work, Understanding Poverty. I was focused on finding out more about background knowledge and the impact it has on learning. I had considered myself to be an open-minded individual. It forced me to consider looking at students from different socio-economic backgrounds through a different lens than mine. I gained insight and understanding into a perspective I previously had not understood. I am a different teacher as a result of it.

  11. One of the challenges this issue and our posts raise is that culture and race can be complicated by class. I have worked in immigrant schools with well off kids
    poor kids in stable families (I was one of these) and poor kids with unstable families. Being poor makes you think and act differently since you often have nothing and no one to help when things go bad. My first school was a welcoming place where students would show up at 7 and stay until 6, in part because we ran many extracurricular programs and in part because there was nowhere else for them to go.

  12. I grew up and currently live in one of the five major boroughs of New York State. I was brought up in a very racist family, but went to a high school that was referred to as “the jungle” due to all of the different ethnicities that were included in the student body. When I was a freshman, I was sure I wanted to be a teacher. When I was a senior, I knew I wanted to be a teacher who was not as ignorant as my family and those who called us “the jungle” when it came to culture. New cultures and ideas have always interested and excited me.
    At least a third of the students in my high school were African American. I learned respect and tolerance from them. I also saw how kinesthetically talented they were and always supported them at basketball games and and Step competitions. Several refugees were also enrolled there from Bosnia, Uganda, Cameroon, and Ethiopia. They would tell me the most graphic stories about things they saw and what life was like where they were from. I was absolutely fascinated and became very appreciative to live my whole life where I had. I met one of my best friends in seventh grade. She had just moved from Korea and she was assigned to sit next to me in English class. As I helped her with English, she taught me the most amazing origami. There is so much that can be learned from people of different cultures, and we should embrace that.
    Can an educational leader who is not culturally aware be effective? Absolutely not! The need to be empathetic and understanding toward people of all cultures in your school is incredibly important. I remember being furious with my seventh grade English teacher on a regular basis. She expected too much, too soon from my new friend and often reduced her to tears. That woman made no effort to form a relationship with her new student and knew nothing of her past and background other than where she once lived. Diversity is a part of the classroom. It is not something that can be avoided, and in my opinion, no educator should want to. We must always maintain an open mind and be respectful. Other students will see this and mimic it. A huge part of every school is the social aspect. This needs to be encouraged, and understanding and respect will soon follow for all cultures.
    How can school leaders be proactive about building cultural competency? Incorporate the cultures of your students into the classroom. Then, yourself and your students can learn something about them. They could also do research outside of the classroom. For example, I am making an effort to learn about the Latin culture, because that is one that I was not exposed to in school and it is becoming a predominant part of our community. I have sought out individuals who have moved here from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras, Equador, Mexico, Peru, and Chile in hopes of learning more about their cultures. They tell me folk stories, show me home videos, and teach me what is special and different about their country.

  13. I have to admit I read this blog and thought I knew exactly how I would respond until I did as Tom suggested and took a step back to reflect. My initial thought was similar to others’ responses that it’s more about how we approach the issue of diversity and our willingness to embrace, accept and learn about all the various cultures our students bring to the campus. Yet, I have been moved by the fact that at times some of our students do seem to need to know that the person they are looking to as a role model and leader truly does understand where they are coming from. I can’t tell you the number of times the picture in my office of my husband who happens to be from Mexico has helped me to build a connection and relationship with students who feel that I understand them just a little bit better than my blonde hair and blue eyes suggest. John and Laurie raise very interesting arguments about class as a demographic. Currently there is much more of a need to understand and learn more about the homeless student, the child whose family now lives at the extended stay hotel due to foreclosure or the child who is living with relatives since one or both parents are incarcerated. I took some time to drive around to the various apartment complexes, hotels and neighborhoods where my students live. I went home to my house and realized that empathy is beyond feeling bad about what is happening to our families and more about what to do next. This was a catalyst for getting a parent/community liaison position for our school, working with public agencies to assist our families and seeking out every possible avenue for building a healthy community. As Jaime states, “if they are to fully appreciate their students’ strengths and needs, culturally competent educators must first identify where and how structural and/or institutional inequities have affected students’ lives.” Culturally competent educators must then also be prepared to take action and relentlessly chose to make a difference.


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