3 Ways to Become a Culturally Responsive Teacher

Given the wealth of diversity in our nation’s public schools, it is no wonder that culturally responsive pedagogy is becoming more of a presence. Culturally responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students’ unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote student achievement and a sense of well-being about the student’s cultural place in the world.

It’s great that instructional theory is advocating a shift toward a pedagogy that emphasizes a comfortable and academically enriching environment for students of all ethnicities, races, beliefs, and creeds. However, implementing this type of educational style in the classroom can be complicated if a few things are not first taken into consideration.

This article discusses some factors to consider as culturally responsive educators.

  1. Teachers: knock down your own biases first.

For many teachers, who hail from a middle-class European-American background, a common side effect of being raised in that dominant Euro-American culture is the self-perception that “I’m an American; I don’t have a culture.”

This is actually untrue—European-American culture simply dominates social and behavioral norms and policies to such an extent that those who grow up immersed in it can be entirely unaware of the realities of other cultures.

Fortunately, initial cultural biases can be overcome via hard work and reflection.  The necessary element for discarding pre-existing biases is a willingness to go through a process of rigorous self-appraisal in order to learn what needs to be changed to teach in a culturally responsive fashion.  A good way to start this process is by writing down reflections about family history, upbringing, and interpersonal relationship styles and how one’s experience may differ from the experience of a person raised in a different culture.

Eventually the focus of this reflection must turn toward one’s ideas about and racism and bias.  The culturally responsive educator should reflect on the fears, stereotypes, and biases that they have about individuals that are different from them. Once the educator can recognize that their own personal tastes are not objectively better than those favored by other cultures, they can begin to investigate and appreciate the traditions and values of those cultures.

  1. Now take a deeper look into the cultures of your students.

It’s easy to be superficial and fall into the twin traps of over generalization and stereotyping when learning about the different cultures of your students. What is important to keep in mind is that each student’s culture is dynamic and individualized.

A person’s culture represents the sum of many spheres of influence, including context within history, gender, age, religion, family relationships, group memberships, cultural beliefs and practices, historical context, and level of education. To avoid stereotyping, the educator must view each student as possessing a personalized culture instead of as a member of a homogenous group. At first blush this may appear to be a daunting task, but in practice there are a variety of methods that can be employed to learn more about a student’s cultural heritage and identity.

For example, classroom assignments can provide a primary window into a student’s cultural beliefs.  Writing assignments can play a significant role in gathering information about student thought patterns and tendencies.  Interviews with family members, assignments asking students to write about learning experiences that occur outside of school, and assignments involving family stories and traditions all can play a significant role in unearthing information about a students’ cultural heritage.  Students’ parents can often be solicited as sources of useful personal information and visiting the neighborhoods where diverse students live can help give educators an idea about the level of social support present and the types of challenges that the student might face outside of the classroom.

  1. Consider how cultural differences might affect academic performance.

A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information. This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.

This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to both learning and school performance.

There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups. Three theories particularly stand out: the cultural deficit theory, the expectation theory, and the cultural difference theory.

The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school. As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as children in other homes. Not being able to read has a negative influence on their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.

The expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students. Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations. In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.

Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.

The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learning in different ways. It is important for teachers to be aware of the differences between the school atmosphere and the home environment. People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults. This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.

Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school. This requires each teacher to develop an understanding of their student’s culture, but also to know who their students are as individuals. It is important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they may all strive to reach their full potential.


Culturally responsive teaching is a theory of instruction that was developed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and has been written about by many other scholars since then. To read more of her work on culturally responsive teaching and other topics, click here to visit her Amazon.com page.

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