I was asked recently if I would give a three-minute “testimonial” of what how cultural competency has helped me become a better teacher. It’s a harder question to answer than one may think.
As a teacher of English Language Learners who has lived abroad a couple of times and has taught only in high-poverty, racially diverse schools, I thought I was culturally competent. After all, I had lived and I had learned:
- I learned way back in my teens that growing up in the Midwest made me a bit myopic. I was taught from the time I could breathe that the United States was the best country ever; I learned through living elsewhere what I had believed may not be so true, depending on one’s perspective.
- I even have an aunt who is a lesbian whom I have defended to my very Catholic parents.
- I had lived in so many places: Two years in Germany (one when it was still West Germany) and two more in the People’s Republic of China. I learned to speak pieces of at least three different languages. I was in the Peace Corps and dedicated my life for two years and beyond to the goals of that organization.
- I had taught kids from dozens of countries, had defended my own when necessary, and fought to help my students’ parents get what they needed.
Surely all this made me culturally competent.
And then I joined the committee. I listened to people speak passionately about their beliefs. But not even that was enough.
Once upon a time, as a journalist fresh out of college, I had been assigned to interview the leader of the Black Caucus in Kentucky to find out how wonderful it was that finally another African American had been elected to office. I was told to ask the question: What will it take to get Blacks on par with Whites? I asked. I was berated. I was told it’s just not that simple. But that was the question my editor wanted me to answer. This man invited me then to go to a predominantly Black church so that I could at least talk to some people. It would never be enough, this gentleman said, to get me to understand, but it would be a start. Did I go? No. Of course not. I was busy with my own life.
And lo these 20-some-odd years later, reading about what I gave lip service to but failed to live and breathe has helped me to finally begin to understand.
As a committee member, I read Courageous Conversations About Race. And then I read 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say. And I began to listen with a new perspective. I began to realize how un-culturally competent I really am. I saw myself in those pages. And I saw many of my colleagues. And I began to realize how far I have to go.
I knew all the right things to say, but I don’t know that I ever really “bought in” to the entire idea of being culturally competent, of having those difficult conversations, of understanding that the differences among us are our strength.
I am not one to overthink what I have to say. I have no effective filter on my thoughts; they fly. And some day this will get me in trouble, as it has before. But now, I am trying to slow down.
I am trying to understand that when a parent comes in so frustrated about one small incident and then throws everything that ever happened to her children at this school in my face, it’s not because she’s trying to kitchen-sink me. It’s because she wants to be heard. So I say, “Tell me more.”
I am trying to get people to see that there are two sides to every story, and that the boys who I teach have reasons behind acting out. So I say, “Tell me more. Help me to understand.”
I am learning patience. Patience is helping me become more empathetic. And that one small thing is helping me become a better teacher. Every day we have this unique opportunity because of the very special place we live and the community in which we teach.
There is so much I don’t understand. But if you’ll tell me more, maybe I will finally begin to see the light.