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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Woods



How can one truly value a culture that they do not represent? The demographic of teachers in our country (mostly white female) does not mirror the students that they are currently teaching in k-12. Culturally relevant pedagogy has pushed educators to embrace a multicultural format, but teacher’s preconceptions hinder this process from accurately taken place. ECIA re-positions culturally relevant pedagogy as a professional development practice promoting teacher reflection on instructional strategies to identify and tackle implicit biases we have pertaining to students.


The term “culturally relevant” has become the new buzz word in education circles concerning professional development for in-service and pre-service teachers. The social and political changes in our country have accelerated to a point where educators are forced to reflect on teaching practices that are inclusive for all students. However, education research tends to focus heavily on student learning without developing ideas on teacher learning. According to Kennedy (2016), “…research should attend more to how PD (professional development) programs motivate teachers, how they intellectually engage teachers, and to whether programs are meaningful to teachers themselves” (p. 974). This proposal seeks to situate itself within Kennedy’s assertion to build on the notion of encouraging teacher learning/reflection to improve student achievement. Although most culturally relevant strategies rely heavily on student input, they lack minimal dialogue for combating teacher’s perceptions. The lack of tackling this conflict reinforces the fear of engaging in honest reflections to identify ideologies that do not support these initiatives. Many of these apprehensive perceptions come from the lack of multicultural awareness and implicit bias towards others (Buehler, 2013; Casteel, 1998).

When examining these different components, it becomes inconceivable to assume equitable conditions are taking place in public schools. My broad argument pulls from teacher’s cultural inhibitions and questioning the effectiveness of culturally relevant teaching strategies. I propose we shift the conversations about culturally relevant pedagogy from not only being a way to engage students in the classroom, but use it to encourage teacher reflection in their instructional methods. These protocols will allow students to voice their perceptions of the culturally relevant strategies teachers use in their classrooms. We can use this dialogue to combat conflicting agendas within the school identity and create a stronger rapport between all participants.

Rationale of problem  

The current teaching workforce is overwhelmingly homogenous; with the teaching field composed of 82% Caucasians (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). When you compare that with the “projected 50.4 million public school students entering prekindergarten through grade 12 in fall 2016,” the numbers are disproportionate. “White students will account for 24.6 million. The remaining 25.9 million will be composed of 7.8 million Black students, 13.3 million Hispanic students, 2.7 million Asian/Pacific Islander students, 0.5 million American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 1.5 million students of Two or more races” (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Although educators have witnessed student demographics change in the past with European immigrants during the latter parts of the nineteenth century (Cremin, 1961, pp. 66-75), this modern-day variation has one element unforeseen by our ancestors: race. The Americanization of European students stemmed around stripping “the immigrant of his ethnic character,” and instilling the “dominant Anglo-Saxon morality” (Cremin, 1961, p. 68). Although one could argue the pros and cons of such stances, the assimilation of these various cultures into the framework of American society has allowed them to reap the benefits of white privilege.

White Privilege

In Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she makes the argument that Caucasians are taught not to recognize their own privilege. Additionally, they have not been instructed on the social constructs that enables them to have an “unfair advantage” in a “damaged culture” (McIntosh, 1992, pp. 30-31). In a conversation with one of her peers, Elizabeth Minnich, she shared similar thoughts:

“Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow "them" to be more like "us"” (p. 31).

To combat this savior mentality, McIntosh set out to reflect on her unrecognized advantages that she is afforded due to white privilege. Ironically, even during this self-reflection, she repeatedly forgot each of the advantages until she wrote them down (p. 33). As the analysis of her whiteness continued, she acknowledged the protection from “daily anxiety, worry, fear, and anger owing to others' treatment of people” in her racial group (p. 34).

           In a rather bizarre shift, McIntosh then regresses back into her comfortable bubble of white superiority by undermining her own argument:

“…the word "privilege" now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one's race or sex” (p. 34).

This contradiction of fully capitalizing on her own argument, while concurrently lessening its impact to the reader, highlights the fear I have with teachers understanding cultural hardships by their students. The limitations of cultural tendencies will continue to serve as an inhibitor for these interactions until a change is made by educators. McIntosh’s own inability to separate herself from her perceived advantages (even while actively self-reflecting), serves as an example of not skimming over obvious differences between students and teachers.

Cultural Relevancy in Teaching and Learning

I am not trying to imply that teachers cannot teach students of different races, I am just highlighting we should not underestimate the importance that cultural differences play in students and teachers daily interactions. As current conceptualization of schooling continues to debate the “Americanization question,” the variables have changed dramatically in classrooms (Cremin, 1961, p. 70). Educators can no longer impose unintentional “Anglo-Saxon moralities,” since many of the minority students are already American citizens, and are not white (p. 68). This dichotomy puts reliance of old methods out of commission, and begs for educators to inject new ways of tackling these issues (Hess, 2010, pp. 19-21).

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings was one of the first scholars to initiate conversations pertaining to culture and the intersections it has with teaching and learning. Culturally Relevant Teaching is “distinguishable by three broad propositions or conceptions regarding self and other, social relations, and knowledge” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 483). Ladson-Billings herself acknowledges the importance of teachers understanding themselves in a quest to teach students in these intersections regarding culture. However, McIntosh’s article already illuminated the difficulty in separating oneself from perspectives of power and advantages (especially when race can be involved). Paris (2012) himself was critical of the research that has spawned from the “umbrella of cultural relevance and responsiveness” practices. As he noted, “the result of both deficit and difference approaches was the explicit (with deficit) and implicit (with difference) expected outcome that students would lose their heritage and community cultural and linguistic practices if they were to succeed in American schooling (p. 94). Although Paris does not explicitly point to the racial disparity between teachers and students, he does hint at the disconnect in cultural practices that takes place, even under the most unintentional aims to “sustain and support” multilingualism and multiculturalism (p. 95).

How can one truly value a culture that they do not represent? Educators cannot continue to accept the fantasy that having the conversation about tolerance will ensure compliance. This is not to imply a lack of empathy on others, but to acknowledge that we will resort to assimilating others based on our customs and views. We tend to ignore the overwhelming responsibilities we lay at teachers and principals as we seek to universalize education for all students. As Hess (2010) reminds us, we should not be surprised “that schools (are) encouraged to be everything for everybody,” yet have, “found it difficult to be exceptionally good at anything” (p. 101). The delusion that educators can actively partake in equitable conversations leads me into the next section.

 My peers in class come from various backgrounds and all have a passion for promoting education for all students. The class is constituted of foreign students (ex: Russian and Turkish), different genders, race, professional backgrounds (ex: public and charter schools), and years of practical experience in schools. Due to the multiple intersections that makeup our cohort, the conversations routinely stretch from one extreme to another. Although I have enjoyed all the discussions immensely, one helped solidify the importance of my project. During one discussion, we talked about Darling-Hammond and Rothman’s book, Teaching in the Flat World. The book examined how multiple countries like: the United States (specifically programs in North Carolina and Connecticut), Finland, Canada (Ontario), and Singapore, have initiated ways to improve teacher quality. The authors took an admirable detour from similar comparison-contrast literature, and isolated the components that would cloud one’s judgement (see pages 2-3, Examining Systems). Fascinatingly, our discussion did the complete opposite.