Cultural Competence and Belonging

Tim Leet (August, 2021)

This summer we’ve all witnessed a very sloppy public conversation about how race should be discussed in schools. Good ideas have been put in a blender with bad ones and the resulting mix set on a hot stove and brought to a boil.  One of the targets in this angry, misinformed debate is the essential work of cultural competence.

Culturally competent teachers understand that the classroom cultures they create inevitably reflect their own home culture.  Embedded in that culture are unspoken answers to questions like, Is physical touch a reassuring signal of care or an unwelcome violation of a personal boundary?  What is an acceptable level of emotional expressiveness in the classroom?  Is helping a struggling classmate with an assignment a community act of collaboration or an individual instance of cheating?  Our answers to these questions and many others shape a classroom culture that will be familiar and inviting to some students and uncomfortable and alienating to others.  A culturally competent teacher understands this and uses strategies that generously expand the cultural space so that students from a variety of backgrounds may experience a sense of belonging.

I’d like to share a few reasons why I believe we should all be advocates for cultural competence.

Let’s begin with the sacred trust parents place in us. Parents share their children with us in good faith that we will greet each as a distinct individual, and our responsibility as educators is to forge a connection to each child in a personal way that communicates unambiguously, “I see you and I welcome you as you are.” To see children in this personal, affirming way is to see them in their staggering complexity. Every day we recognize and accommodate a wide range of academic talent and social skill, but today, the suggestion that we should recognize and accommodate the wide range of life experiences that follow predictably along lines of race, social class, and religion is seen somehow as prejudicial and unfair. Call it attending to the whole child or meeting the terms of that sacred trust, but we are no more free to disregard race and other dimensions of identity in the name of fairness than we would be to disregard health, trauma, or learning differences. I can only see you if I see all of you. I believe our commitment to cultural competency starts here.

Seeing and accepting children on their terms is only the beginning. Every day we must strive toward the goal that each child we welcome into our classroom feels as if they belong in our classroom. This is precisely the work cultural competence asks of us. If we decline this work and simply invite children into our classrooms and hope that each manages to fit into the available niches, we are placing the entire burden on the student.  The desire to belong despite the cultural obstacles, however, is so strong that these students often put on masks or code switch and do their level best to fit in.  But fitting in is a poor substitute for belonging and often results in cultural alienation and a child’s sad sense that he is just a visitor in someone else’s school.

It’s important to anticipate that when we do the work of cultural competence and broaden the space of what we welcome, families who previously felt at home in our school culture may be shaken out of their ease and comfort.  It’s not hard to imagine that these families experience this challenge as a loss and, perhaps, as a threat. However, what is being threatened is simply the privilege of moving with ease within a rigged system. I, for one, cannot see how any school can fulfill its mission and the sacred trust placed in us by parents if we do not challenge these assumptions.

My final point concerns the use of the word “fair,” a word in wide-circulation this past summer and one that everyone engaged in this frothy debate claims to own.  It is unfortunately confusing, but to say that a person or school champions fairness is to say not very much at all. Who doesn’t champion fairness?  It’s like saying we champion goodness. As often comes up in discussions with my sophomores in ethics class, fairness can be understood in terms of equality or in terms of equity. In other words, the difference between ensuring everyone is treated the same (that is, equally) and ensuring everyone has the same opportunity to succeed (that is, equitably).  If we’re playing a game of Monopoly or running the 100-meter dash, fairness-as-sameness is absolutely appropriate. But when it comes to the sacred trust placed in us by a parent to play a key role in the growth of their child, fairness-as-sameness is the wrong model. We can only see children if we see all of them. We can only broaden the cultural space and make belonging possible for them if we are willing to see them in that staggering complexity. Culturally competent teachers know that treating everyone fairly does not always mean treating them the same.

At Heart of Character we champion the ABCs of self-determination theory because promoting autonomy, belonging, and competence promotes intrinsic motivation for academic work, fosters character development, and promotes the wellbeing of our students.  Here I’ve focused on the “B” of belonging, as it is the most conspicuous target of cultural competence work. Resonance exists, however, with the needs for autonomy and competence, as well.  I will save those reflections for another posting, and in the meantime, encourage you to develop your cultural competence and not to lose faith during this time of heated public controversy.