Where to and Where NOT to Start: Culturally Competent Teaching

The concept of culture is so vast that researchers and academics alike can’t agree on a single definition.  Perez and Luquis (2008) utilized Rachel Spector’s (2004) definition which defined culture as, “the sum of beliefs, practices, habits, likes, dislikes, norms, customs, rituals, and so forth that we learn from our families during the years of socialization.”  From another perspective, Irvine (1995) defined culture as, “the set of rules or guidelines that influence behavior.”  These, and many other definitions attempt to define the margins of factors that influence our behaviors. However, because of how individual and specific experience and interpretation of such are, no single definition can be a cover-all for everyone’s individual cultural experiences and makeup.

As an educator looking to be culturally competent, culturally responsive, culturally aware, cultually relevant, or any version thereof, this vastness makes it extremely difficult to know where to start and where to focus your attention.  In their list “Recommendations for Working with Diverse Groups,” Perez and Luquis (2008) stressed the importance of making a commitment to multiculturalism- a good jumping off point.  But, Great! I’m committed; I recognize that culture is important, I want to be able to reach my students, AND WHERE DO I GO?!

What Not To Do:

In her book, Sexuality Education Across Cultures, Working with Differences, Janice Irvine proposed that the United States typically views culture from biological standpoint, focusing on the (namely visible) race and ethnicity of the population (1995).  She established strong arguments for this potentially negative, or at least impactful and perspective-limiting approach. She maintained that viewing culture from a racial and ethnic lens creates a framework for distinguishing it based on peoples’ physical characteristics.  Doing so leaves too much room for assumption and error, given that many individuals may have defining characteristics that do not fit their racial background makeup, which could lead them to be “categorized”

wrongly.  In addition, it overgeneralizes the intimate and delicate makeup of more specific cultures that may exist under a larger umbrella of similarities.  For example, though an individual may identify with African culture, there are many subcultures within this context that a student may more strongly identify with.

In a field like sex education, in which content is based heavily on individual behavior and experience of very personal matters, cultural understanding matters.  In sex education, culture and values are a prominent topic of discussion, and not to be oversimplified or underestimated.

Though a teacher may have good intentions when attempting to learn about the cultures that makeup his/her classroom, basing it off the generalized demographics that are often provided to them is only the first step.  These demographics may bring more harm than good.  Teaching Tolerance reiterates the statistical information given to teachers to prepare them for the diversity within classrooms.  This information often includes the learning and economic gaps amongst the students and fails to address the cultural gaps that exist between students and teachers.  “Most of us in the education profession are white, middle-class, monolingual-English speakers,” which isn’t representative of the makeup of students in school across the US today; in fact, the diversity within classrooms is higher than it has ever been (Perez and Luquis, 2008).  Teaching Tolerance postulates that many teachers attempt to do one of two things when working with students that differ from themselves, they either embrace “color-blindness” or the Golden Rule, treating others the way we would want to be treated.

Let’s save the deep, dark hole that is color-blindness for another post and instead explore some of the potential problems with the Golden Rule.

“Treat Others as You Would Like to Be Treated”

The Golden Rule, although like most things – well intentioned – is based on our own assumptions of others.  It assumes that others expect the same things as we do. As student-focused educators, we need to be putting the students’ expectations at forefront, not our own.  Social Justice advocate and comedian Sam Killarman provides a succinct and convincing argument for the use of the new-and-improved Platinum Rule, which suggests that we treat others not as we wish to be treated, but as THEY wish to be treated.  You can listen to his podcast here.

In a sex education classroom, this could mean establishing and respecting boundaries (as a class and within individuals), anticipating a range of comfortability (and thus reactions) with topics, or navigating emotional responses. Just to name a few.

But what you could do:

Now that we have an established understanding of best not-to-do practices, let’s discuss a couple tangible ideas for cultivating a classroom that fosters a learning environment for each student.

  • “To engage students effectively in the learning process, teachers must know their students and their academic abilities individually, rather than relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes or prior experience with other students of similar backgrounds,” (Teaching Tolerance). In other words, building genuine relationships and connections with your students.  This makes students feel important and wanted in a classroom environment.  It emphasizes students as individuals, rather than as part of a minority or as “another one of those.”
  • In his “Reality Pedagogy” approach to teaching and learning that focuses on teachers “gaining an understanding of student realities” as a basis for instruction, teacher and researcher Christopher Emdin calls for a transparent approach to teaching. He suggests that teachers allow students to hold the teachers accountable for fulfilling student suggestions for teaching, giving students voice and a more directive role in their learning process.  In fact, Emdin suggests that content be the last point to focus on when creating a curriculum, claiming that without the correct environment to learn in, content is irrelevant.

Undoubtedly, there are  many other suggestions that might work just as well, in not better for your classroom.  But a running theme throughout the research that the suggestions- focusing on the students as individuals.  No matter how much you know about a culture that a student identifies with, he/she is always going to remain the expert of his/her experience. In other words, he/she will always know more about what is relevant, because he/she has lived it and is ultimately in charge of how the information is received, if at all.  Recognizing this as a tool, as opposed to an obstacle, is key.

Remember what Dr. Seuss said and apply it to your students.



Culture in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.tolerance.org/culture-classroom

Emdin, C. (2014, January 31). 5 New Approaches to Teaching and Learning: The Next Frontier. Retrieved September 27, 2014.

Irvine, J. (1995). Sexuality education across cultures: Working with differences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perez, M., & Luquis, R. (2008). Cultural competence in health education and health promotion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spector, R.E. (2004) Cultural Diversity in health and illness (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


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