Cultural Competency, Culturally Responsive Teaching and Equity, Oh My!

Bringing Clarity to the 2021 “Buzz Words”

As we are moving into the planning phases of the 2021/2022 school year, cultural competency, culturally responsive teaching, and equity have all been “buzzwords” floating around. While each of these concepts is extremely important, the question remains: What do each of these mean? I wanted to take a minute and bring some clarity to each of these concepts.

Cultural Competency: There are many definitions out there, but one definition that really grabbed me was this: The ability to think, feel, and act in ways that acknowledge, respect, and build upon ethnic, socio- cultural, and linguistic diversity. Source: Lynch and Hanson, 1998. Cultural competency is not specific to education, and in fact, most of the literature written on this topic (until recent years) was actually pertaining to healthcare. At Pressing Onward, when we train on this topic, we focus on the relationships between a teacher and his or her students, a teacher and his or her students’ families, and the teacher to teacher interactions. We also focus in on a few key areas:

  • Building an alliance
  • Reserving judgment and perception checking, specifically in conflict
  • Intercultural conflict resolution
  • Impact vs. Intent

When a campus or district acquires the course or has the training, Cultural Competency in the Classroom, we actually recommend that everyone at the campus watch this course or attend the training, because it is not instructionally focused. This really focuses on having a culturally competent mindset, expanding our cultural lens, understanding how our perceptions are based on our own cultural lens, and then adjusting our responses to build alliances and responses instead of causing more division.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: This occurs when the teacher creates an educational environment and designs lessons that take into consideration the students’ deep culture, and then move students into academic success. While culturally responsive teaching also focuses on building alliances, the focus is more instructional. Teachers become culturally responsive in the planning phases of teaching, take the time to build language, use scaffolds, focus on vocabulary, differentiate context and do what it takes to move his or her students into a higher level of thinking and achievement. In a nutshell, the target audience is a teacher with his or her students, and we focus on these areas:

  • Building an alliance
  • Creating a language rich and culturally responsive environment
  • Creating a “tribal” or “family” feel within the classroom
  • Planning and facilitating lessons that are aligned, scaffolded, language rich, and differentiated

As you might be able to tell, in order to be a culturally responsive teacher, you will need to have a degree of cultural competence, although all of these mindsets are journeys, and not band-aids. A key difference is that being a culturally responsive teacher is very much focused on instruction.

The last term to discuss is equity. Whew – what a controversial concept this has become. At it’s basic level, providing equity in a classroom means that every student feels valued and has the same opportunity to acquire the learning. This may seem simple, but equity does NOT mean that everyone is treated the same.

I’ve given this example before, but let’s say Student A, my son, is sitting in his 5th grade classroom. He ate breakfast, went to bed at 8:30, has his mom and step-dad both home every night with a very set routine in the evenings. He is limited on video games and we have read before bed every night since he was a baby. He plays on a sports team and volunteers at church. He has never wondered where he will lay his head down at night or if he will eat dinner. He sleeps well and peacefully, and I make sure he is ready for his day each morning.

Now, let’s talk about Student B. He is equally as “smart” as Student A. However, he was home by himself last night while his mom worked her second job. He’s not allowed to leave his home when she is gone, so he played video games until 11:00. He ate a peanut butter sandwich because that’s what they had in the house that he could make. He only reads when he’s required to at school, and besides, there aren’t books or magazines that he would even want to read at the house. He lost his first library book, so he’s not able to check out any more books from the school library. He eats breakfast at school when he can get there on time, but since mom works nights, she is often sleeping in the morning and he has to wake himself up and get himself to school.

Even without any real known “trauma” in Student B’s life, if Student A and Student B are sitting in the same 5th grade reading class, and the teacher teaches them both the exact same way, Student A is probably going to thrive, and Student B may not…not because he isn’t capable or “smart”, but because his brain is not operating the same way. Also, the context that is important to Student A may not be the same as the context that relates to Student B.

Let me give you another example, Student C. Student C has moved here from Central America 3 years ago so her parents can have a better life, but they are both working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Student C wants to do well, but is learning the language and taking care of her 3 younger siblings in the evenings when her parents are working. They are a very loving family, but having to all pitch in to make ends meet.

If Student C is sitting in that same 5th grade reading class, she’s going to need something different as well.

How does a teacher manage all of this? Well, it’s not easy, but it is doable, and it’s worth it! I believe that educating teachers on cultural competency, giving them the “why” behind culturally responsive teaching, and then equipping them tools and support to be a culturally responsive teacher will eventually bring equity in the classroom. Teachers will be empowered. Students will be learning.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Here is a graphic to help with the similarities and differences between cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching.

We are here to help! We have courses, face-to-face training and coaching to move your teachers into a place of cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching!

Go to for more information and to request your free copy of the book Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”!

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