Leaders Building Leaders Consultant Shelly Watson and her family in Washington, D.C.

Leaders Building Leaders Consultant Shelly Watson and her family in Washington, D.C.

This weekend I had the honor of taking my children to an important historic event: the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We stood on the National Mall and watched as the 1st African American president spoke and then rang the bell for the opening. During his speech, President Obama shared that the national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are.

“By knowing this other story we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story,” he added. “It is central to the American story.”

US President Barack Obama speaks during the opening ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C. / AFP / ZACH GIBSON (Photo credit should read ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo source: Fortune.com

This was a very touching moment for me and made me reflect on my life as an educator and how we as school leaders can work to ensure cultural competence in our schools. Some may ask: What exactly is cultural competence? It is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry. This understanding informs and expands teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom.

“By knowing this other story we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It is central to the American story.”

American classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse. As National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel has noted, “Educators with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to value the diversity among students will contribute to an educational system designed to serve all students well.”

It is important that we as school leaders see ourselves as part of the change process. It does very little good to schedule cultural competence trainings for your staff and have poor attendance. We are all cultural beings and as such are prone to bias. Increasing our knowledge, skills and awareness will help us become better able to scrutinize practices in our schools in order to make sure that bias does not exist. It also supports our roles as leaders and change agents.

“Culture is established in our brains at a very young age, but cultural understanding is not really intuitive,” said Mercedes Naficy D’Angelo, director of business solutions for the consultancy Cultural Awareness International, Inc.

Achieving Cultural Competence

Understanding our culture is important so that we understand how we interact with individuals from cultures that are different from ours. This understanding helps us see our students and their families more clearly and shape policies and practice in ways that will help our students to succeed. Attending a cultural competence training alone will not do the trick. Here are some other strategies we can do as school leaders:

  • Avail yourself of resources on cultural competence
  • Regularly assess cultural competence on both the practitioner and organizational level
  • Include items that assess progress toward becoming culturally competent in staff evaluations
  • Include cultural competence in your strategic plan
  • Enact policies that make cultural competence a priority
  • Recruit staff that is representative of the population you serve
  • Reward & incentivize personal and professional attempts at becoming more culturally competent
  • Engage your staff in regular discussions about diversity
  • Consider culture in treatment planning and staff meetings
  • Form relationships with cultural brokers/liaisons/resources in your community and seek their expertise when in doubt
  • Evaluate whether or not there are barriers to service provision based on cultural preference for treatment options

There are many things that can be done at the level of administration. This list is not exhaustive, but will definitely point you in the right direction. We need to remember the impact of having educators who have cultural competence will have the ability to challenge and motivate diverse student populations and can dramatically improve our educational system and student outcomes for all.

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