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The Value of Cultural Competence in Education

I suppose before we can talk about the value of Cultural Competency, we must first talk about what it is. A short definition of Cultural Competence is one’s ability to understand, empathize with, respect, and want equality for cultures outside of your own. Oftentimes, people who are of the majority may not see the value of or even the awareness that they lack Cultural Competency. In a sense, it is a privilege not having to relate to and understand the lives and cultures of others (the minority.) In this blog, most of what I will discuss will be in reference to teacher-student interactions. However, it will all be applicable to any person you interact with of another culture.

In education, one aspect of being culturally competent, and honestly, to me, the foundation and most important, is building relationships. The key to understanding someone is getting to know them. In a classroom setting, believe it or not, many educators find it difficult to carve out the time to get to know their students. With the pressures of performance rates, standardized testing, and administration down your back, building relationships may seem trivial and impossible to find time for.

In my blog titled “The Power of a Quick Check-In,” I discuss how I used writing prompts at the beginning of some of my classes to get students to open up and let me into their world. These prompts are most likely completely irrelevant to math, the content I teach, or even school. Finding the time, whether it be 5 mins or 15 mins, has such a huge impact in the long run. By finding time to build relationships with your students, you let the students know that you care about them as a person. It tells them that they are not just a number to you, but that you see them and want to be a part of their lives.

I oftentimes have conversations with people about the difference between my students’ behavior in my class and their behaviors in some of their other classes. I had a student one year who was really dealing with heavy depression. There were days when he would come to class and his friends would say, “Miss, he’s really having a bad day.” I would think, ‘Already? It’s only first period.’ I spent time every time he was having a bad day, along with some days he wasn’t having a bad day, just talking to him and trying to encourage him. I often would let him know that whatever he was going through wouldn’t last forever. We needed to find him someone to talk to who will help him work through what was holding him back. Building a relationship with this student was difficult because he didn’t want to discuss the specifics with me. It wasn’t until I realized that some of the issues he was having he wasn’t comfortable talking to me about because I was a female. So I found him a male in the building who I trusted, who I knew would be able to help him

From that I learned that my relationships with each of my students will be different. And that isn’t a bad thing. This student wasn’t closed off because he didn’t trust me, he just didn’t think I could understand what he was dealing with. And when I found out what it was, he was right. Had he opened up to me about it, while I would be able to listen and comfort him, I had no knowledge of that type of stuff. I still would have needed to bring him to someone-a male-who could really talk to him and relate. But building the relationship with him and trying to be there for him as best as I could, resulted in him putting in more effort in my class. Even on his worst days, he would really try and push himself to be present and get the work done. It was very clear that it was really hard for him but he tried. Whereas, in some of his other classes where he had no relationship with his teachers, his head was down.

Another aspect of being culturally competent is having a desire to know and understand. People of different ethnic groups oftentimes have different cultural beliefs and norms. Without having a desire to understand those differences, it is easy to misjudge and misunderstand the simplest of behaviors. I’ll give an example of a story shared from a book I read.

There was a Caucasian teacher who taught lower elementary students, I believe kindergarten. She was having trouble with one particular student of color. Her issue was that the student wouldn’t listen to her. As a result and out of frustration she asked a colleague to come in and observe the student. When the student would be out of his seat, the teacher would ask “Don’t you want to sit down?” When the student was talking, the teacher would respond “Shouldn’t you be listening to the story?” Once the observation period was over, the teacher went to their colleague and said, “See! He didn’t listen all class.” The observer, who happened to be a person of color, began to explain that children of color are used to directives. In their homes parents ideally tell them what to do explicitly as opposed to posing the request as a question. “Clean your room,” “Wash the dishes,” “Do your homework.” The child wasn’t ignoring the teachers requests or not listening. He simply took it as a choice to decide if he wanted to do xyz, as opposed to a directive from her telling him to do it.

Such minor differences in dialect and language used can create huge misunderstandings when you don’t understand the culture of your students. By no means am I saying that you should know every single detail, but you should have a desire to know. You should have a yearning to continuously learn about your students and the lives they live.

Another component of being culturally competent as an educator is understanding the value of sharing parts of yourself with your students. I have been teaching in urban schools my entire educational career. A huge part of urban culture is music. Music tells a story and people gravitate to a specific type of music because they feel as though they can relate to it. Artists tell stories through their music, even if it’s not their own story to tell. They reel their audience in by writing or releasing music that people can empathize with. The same thing happens in the classroom.

Great teachers share parts of their lives with their students. It allows the students to see that their teachers are human. They share stories of when they weren’t “perfect.” They share stories of when they had to fall hard, to learn a lesson and not make the same mistakes. They share the good moments they have with their families. They are an open book to their students, which naturally builds the relationship they have. Of course there are boundaries in what they share, as to only sharing what is school appropriate. But the sharing of themselves allows their students to also know that this teacher is someone they can come and talk to about anything. Those relationships and the trust that is built is more valuable than one can imagine.

While this blog was intended to discuss the value of being culturally competent when interacting with students, these components discussed can apply to any person in any field. We should all have the desire to understand the values and culture of the people we interact with on a daily basis. It gives us an inside perspective on who they are and why they do the things they do. I hope that you were able to receive something from this and apply it to your everyday life.


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Am I the only educator who still gets the first day of school jitters? I mean I’m going into my 9th year of teaching and still find myself rather restless the night before and morning of the first day


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