Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators

Found in: Teaching Strategies - National Education Association

Cultural competence is the key to thriving in culturally diverse classrooms and schools - and it can be learned, practiced, and institutionalized to better serve diverse students, their families, and their communities. Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.

Cultural competence doesn't occur as a result of a single day of training, or reading a book, or taking a course. Educators become culturally competent over time, but researchers suggest some places to start.

Main Issues

We all have a culture that shapes us personally and professionally. According to NEA's C.A.R.E. Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gaps, "Culture is the sum total of experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests represented by the diversity of students and adults in our schools. While culture is often defined and perceived by schools as the celebration of important people, religions, traditions, and holidays, as well as an appreciation of the customs of different groups, it is also more than that. Culture is as much, or as little, as the everyday experiences, people, events, smells, sounds, and habits of behavior that characterize students' and educators' lives. Culture shapes a person's sense of who he or she is and where he or she fits in the family, community, and society."

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.

There are five basic cultural competence skill areas. They apply to individual educators as well as the schools they work in and the educational system as a whole. Growth in one area tends to support growth in another (Adapted from Diller and Moule, Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators, Thomson Wadsworth 2005):

  • Valuing Diversity. Accepting and respecting differences—different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.
  • Being Culturally Self-Aware. Culture—the sum total of an individual's experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests—shapes educators' sense of who they are and where they fit in their family, school, community, and society.
  • Dynamics of Difference. Knowing what can go wrong in cross-cultural communication and how to respond to these situations.
  • Knowledge of Students' Culture. Educators must have some base knowledge of their students' culture so that student behaviors can be understood in their proper cultural context.
  • Institutionalizing Cultural Knowledge and Adapting to Diversity. Culturally competent educators, and the institutions they work in, can take a step further by institutionalizing cultural knowledge so they can adapt to diversity and better serve diverse populations.


Culturally responsive teaching is how instructional staff (and schools) demonstrate—or implement—their cultural competence. Geneva Gaye, in her essential text, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice, published by Teachers College Press in 2000, defines culturally responsive teaching as using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through students' strengths.

According to researchers at Brown University, culturally responsive teaching is characterized by:

  • Communicating high expectations
  • Learning within the context of culture
  • Culturally-responsive curriculum
  • Teachers as facilitators
  • Student-centered instruction
  • Positive perspectives on parents and families.

Coordinated Program Review

Shrewsbury has completed the Coordinated Program Review in the areas of Special Education, Civil Rights, and ELL. We received really positive feedback during the exit review which, is a testament to the great work you are doing. We will be receiving the report in the next few weeks, but please let me congratulate you on the work you are doing that made this review such a success.

I would like to thank the following staff for being part of the interview process during this review:

Rebecca Connole, Cathy LaRoche, Amy Clouter, Kelly O'Connell, Jessi Walsh, John Shapazian, Nga Huynh, Susie Eriole, Erin Hruskoci, Jen Schafer, Liz Camire, Julia Holdren, Joe Sawyer, Barb Malone, Mary Beth Banios, Todd Bazydlo, Lisa McCubrey, Angela Poppalardo, Joanne Fitts, Beth Neiman, Julie Leifer, Sheri Vaillancourt, Anne Egan, Kelly Finneran, Kelly Boulay, Melissa Johnson, Patrick O'Connor, Kristen Clifford, Miya Hanna, Annie McNamara, Kara Vincelette, Janet Murphy, Gretchen Martinez, Cindy Mietkiewicz, Erin Finn, Alicia Heymann, Deena Sebell, Deborah Quinn, Julie Withers, Joan O'Brien, Noreen Christie, Liz Hebert, Suzanne Margiano, Kristin Herrick, Linda Derosier, Lisa Robinson, Sarah Matthews, Jean Marie Johnson, Jennifer DiFrancesca, Loubaina Buxamusa, Susan Prior, Andy Moran. Dorothy Wentworth, Tina McGrail, Patty Waterhouse, Jen Flemming, Dan Shaughnessy, Sharon Wade, and Gina Ruggieri

My Final Thoughts, gratitude, and Farewell

Dear Colleagues,
As I was writing this newsletter I had an overwhelming sense of nostalgia because I realized this will be my last one. In a recent article written by Dr. Robert Brooks (link is below), he writes "Most of us have experienced a day filled with nostalgia, a day that evokes memories of significant, positive moments from the past". For me it is not just a moment or a day, it is the last eight years. I have been blessed with many unique career experiences over the past 30-years, but working in Shrewsbury has been the highlight and most rewarding experience. There is not enough time and space to talk about the last eight years and the positive moments I have had. What I can say is that it has been truly remarkable to be part of an organization with so many talented administrators, educators and staff. I feel honored and humbled by so many positive experiences throughout my tenure here. Although there may have been some bumps in the road along the way, I believe I have grown tremendously as a leader and I want to thank you for that! In turn, I have seen so many of you grow and succeed working with our students.

A brief recap of some of the amazing work we have done together:
* Expanded the ELC (Educational Learning Center) programs to all nine schools.
* Two clinical coordinators supporting the district
* Developed an amazing continuum of services to address mental and behavioral
health needs.
- consulting psychiatrist
- Family Success Partnership - Social Worker support
- Mental Health First Aid
- UMass Psychiatry Fellow rotations
- Check and Reflect surveys for students
- Yoga, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and other strategies being taught to students across various schools
* Implementation of Social Skills curriculum based on Michelle Garcia Winner's work
* Started an ILC (Intensive Learning Center) at Sherwood with two more starting next
year at the elementary level.
* Developed a Co-Teaching program at the 5th and 6th grade levels.
* Designed and supported the construction of a program (Evolution) for students 18-22
operated by Assabet Valley Collaborative.
* P.A.C.E. program at the high school
* Unified Sports team - Track and Basketball
* Community Based learning experiences at Sherwood, Oak and the High School

I am also grateful to have been able to witness the amazing hard work and success of so many students over the years. I started when some students were in elementary school and now they are attending the high school or have graduated. The perseverance, growth, and success of these students continues to inspire me in this field.

Although I could continue to write about all the accomplishments we have shared, it is with trepidation that I say farewell. I wish everyone in Shrewsbury continued success and greatness in everything you do. I will be eternally grateful for the experiences you have given me these past eight years. And, yes I will think of Shrewsbury often and the eight years worth of nostalgia not just a day.

Warm Regards,

Melissa Maguire