Like many of you, I spend a lot of happy energy getting ready for the holiday season. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas feel like the best time of year to me. The air becomes crisp, and the impulse to draw those I love close to me swells in my chest. So many things about the holidays bring me joy, like Christmas present shopping for the people I love. And then, of course, wrapping mountains of packages, which end up taking me hours longer than I think it will, mostly because I have to stop in the middle of wrapping to watch the scene where Uncle Jaime proposes to Aurelia in Love Actually, and pretty much any scene with Diane Keaton in The Family Stone. And then there are so many tiny things to enjoy during the holidays. Things like little kids all squirmy and excited in holiday pajamas, lighting candles at midnight mass, cooking a giant feast, or watching my husband at the kitchen table, drawing pictures with my nieces and nephew lined up next to him. And maybe more than anything, I love Christmas lights. Tacky, tasteful, over-the-top, underwhelming, I really don’t care. Light represents hope to me, and I love them all.
100% me, all day long.
I could go on and on about the holidays, and many of you would nod your head because you watch Love Actually as religiously as I do. Or maybe you, too, pile up in the car on Christmas Eve to drive around and look at lights. Perhaps your holidays are also rooted in Christianity and involve the story of a savior's birth.
I could continue to gush over the warm and rosy picture I’ve painted for you, but I do have a point, and it’s this: that holiday that I’ve just described? It may be similar to the experiences of so many other middle class, white, American women my age, but it is most definitely not universal. My holiday season will be built from my individual beliefs and perspectives, my socioeconomic background, and may include other social advantages that can seem to many like the norm for all Americans. In reality, there is no single norm. And this brings me to my point: one of the most important elements in your educator toolkit, especially during the holiday season, is cultural competence.
The concept of ‘Cultural Competence’ as you may know it today originated in a 1989 publication by Cross et al titled Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I, and the definition has evolved over the years. Nevertheless, the basic components are straightforward and worth revisiting. There are five elements that contribute to an institution’s ability to be culturally competent. Adapted from Diller and Moule, Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators by the NEA, they include:
1. Valuing Diversity. Accepting and respecting differences—different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.
While Christmas may seem like the most important holiday of the year, I encourage you to discover what other holidays your students may be celebrating. Do your students celebrate Eid al-Adha? Or the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali? Celebratory festivals and traditions can be a fun and positive topic for appreciating diversity.
2. 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.
Achieving self-awareness is no easy feat on a personal or a cultural level. It can be difficult to consider one's own idea of 'normal' as simply one of many versions of normal. However, recognizing one's own culture as an equal among many is both liberating and rewarding as a world of possibility is open to explore.
3. Dynamics of Difference. Knowing what can go wrong in cross-cultural communication and how to respond to these situations.
It would be nice to think that cultural clashes won't happen in your classroom, but I think you already know they will. While you can't prevent all conflict, you can take the time to consider how a student's culture might be affecting her behavior.
4. 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.
How are you getting to know your students? Do you play ice-breakers during the first week of school? Do you memorize your students names? Probably so. But how about getting to know their families and communities? Do you reach out to parents regularly? Is the line of communication open for parents to reach you? Forging a strong, sincere connection with your students' families is proven time and again to increase outcomes.
5. 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.
Whether it be through professional development activities or a training program, cultural knowledge must be present in school policies, programs, and publications. In order to do this with fidelity, schools must have a strong relationship with the families and communities they serve.
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These five elements don’t come standard with a teaching certificate. They must be learned and practiced to better serve diverse families and their communities, and that takes time. Done well, cultural competence allows educators to successfully reach students that come from cultures different from their own.
This holiday season, as you are wrapping up a hectic semester, preparing for your own unique family functions, and praying that you can just make it to winter break without a meltdown, I encourage you to mindfully appreciate the diverse group of individuals that make up your classroom or your school. Appreciate the strength that can result from varying perspectives and backgrounds coming together in the spirit of learning - and then, reach out to your school community. Talk to families, engage with parents, listen to differences in perspectives and consider how to better serve diverse populations. Not only will you improve and evolve as an individual, but you will strengthen the vitality of your school and demonstrate to your students that you are truly here with them and for them.
Peace and love to you during this holiday season and always!
Ellen Lee brings a background in socio-cultural anthropology to her work at SchoolStatus connecting educators and parents. Her passion for inter-cultural dialogue speaks to the SchoolStatus idea that parent-teacher communication should be measurable, easy, and fun. Find out how you can strengthen your parental engagement with tools by SchoolStatus here.