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4 Steps to Becoming a Culturally Sustaining Teacher

Written by: Naashia Mohamed
Published on: Oct 25, 2021

students learning English as a second language
Photo credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

In this unprecedented time of a global pandemic and increased tensions that have arisen as a result of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences between groups in diverse societies around the world, education has been upended for millions of students and families. These events have compounded disparities in learning and achievement, and have been particularly challenging for students who are minoritized because of their race, ethnicity, language, religion, or socioeconomic status.

While an educator cannot singlehandedly transform schools into equitable places, they can be agents of positive change. By adopting culturally sustaining approaches, teachers can

  • make students feel valued,
  • help them to affirm positive identities by sustaining cultural practices,
  • connect learning to students’ backgrounds and funds of knowledge,
  • call attention to inequities that exist within schools and societies,
  • and bolster opportunities for all students.

Why Is a Culturally Sustaining Approach Necessary?

When a child experiences a disconnect between the language and culture of the home environment and that of their school, they may feel alienated and consequently disengage from learning. This is particularly the case when deficit approaches to schooling are adopted.

Classrooms today are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of the cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds of the students. This makes it more necessary to foster inclusive practices that will validate the values, knowledge, and practices of all our students. A culturally sustaining approach to teaching views knowledge as being multifaceted by acknowledging multiple perspectives and incorporating various ways of knowing. It is a pedagogy that recognises the importance of including students’ cultural values, practices, and knowledge in all aspects of learning, and regards their cultures, languages, and ways of being as assets to be promoted and sustained.

What Can You Do?

So, what can we do to adopt more culturally sustaining pedagogical practices? I would like to suggest four steps we can take to get started on our journey toward cultural responsiveness.

1. Reflect on Our Own Cultural Lens

The first step in adopting culturally sustaining practices is to do an internal audit of our own life experiences and identities that influence our beliefs, behaviour, and biases. Biases and prejudices can be unwillingly internalised. So, it is important to take some time to ask ourselves hard questions and reflect on past and current practices.

  • Are there assumptions you may hold about people from other cultures?
  • Do you make an effort to learn about other cultures and their practices?
  • Do you see cultural difference as a problem for teaching and learning to be solved, or do you approach it as a valuable resource for your teaching and the learning of the whole class?

To dismantle stereotypes, an open mind and a willingness to view cultural differences as a learning opportunity rather than to pass judgment are crucial. Through regular critical reflection, we can develop cultural competence to understand, appreciate, and be sensitive toward the histories, values, experiences, and practices of others.

2. Get to Know and Involve Learners’ Families and Communities

We cannot create a culturally sustaining classroom if we do not take the time to get to know our students and their families. At the start of the academic year, it may be helpful to meet with students one-on-one and find out about them, their families, their cultural practices, the languages used at home, and their preferred ways of learning and communicating. Alternatively, students could be asked to write about themselves and their families. It may also be possible to ask parents to fill out a questionnaire about their children, and also about their background. Another way to initiate this may be to arrange a meeting with the family at a mutually convenient time and location.

Engaging with the family early on in the academic year will help to establish good relationships with them, and pave the way to involve them in the school lives of students. Clear communication in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways is necessary to reach out to and build a partnership with families. When parents understand what their child needs to do to succeed in their learning and how to support them, there is likely to be a positive impact on student achievement.

3. Incorporate Learners’ Funds of Knowledge

Research has shown that students are more engaged in learning and learn more effectively when the knowledge and skills taught are presented within the context of their own experiences and cultural frames of reference. Funds of knowledge refer to the knowledge and skills that are acquired during everyday familial experiences that are historically and culturally unique. Funds of knowledge are an essential aspect of identity and, when used as a resource in our teaching, can help to establish stronger connections to students’ prior knowledge.

Students will be more excited and energised to participate in classroom discourse if they see their traditions and values embedded in the lessons. Cultural scaffolding provides links between new academic concepts and learners’ funds of knowledge. It also helps students value their own and others’ cultures and show respect to differences in society. We can invite student input into our teaching and complement our existing curriculum with examples, stories, experiences, and traditions from cultures represented in our classrooms.

4. Model High Expectations

All students, given equitable access to curriculum and resources, can achieve high levels of learning and success. As teachers who adopt culturally sustaining pedagogical practices, we need to understand that students marginalised because of their race, culture, language, or socioeconomic status are vulnerable to negative stereotypes about their intelligence, academic ability, and behaviour.

By modelling high expectations for all students, we can combat deficit approaches and work toward restoring justice and equity. High expectation can be conveyed to students through encouragement and by providing them with opportunities to contribute in class. Tailoring our feedback to be specific, consistent, and individualised also helps learners to achieve their potential.

Making any kind of change is a slow and challenging process. But these four steps can help to make our classrooms spaces in which students of all cultures and backgrounds feel supported to learn and succeed. By embracing culturally sustaining approaches to teaching and ensuring that our classrooms are spaces of inclusivity where everyone feels safe, valued, and heard, we can help students to feel a sense of belonging in school.

About Naashia Mohamed

Naashia MohamedNaashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

View all posts by Naashia Mohamed →

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.