Monday / December 11

9 Questions to Guide Your Cultural Proficiency

For many years members of the educational community have advocated for educating all students. The still-existing achievement gap is evidence that we have not yet achieved that lofty goal. So, do we hold a set of values strong enough to overcome the barriers that get in the way of educating all learners?

Cultural Proficiency is one frame that encompasses educators’ personal values and behaviors as well as school’s/district’s policies and practices to foster healthy interactions among students, educators, parents, and community members. Culturally proficient educators value their school community shaped by the community’s diversity. This framework enables educators to respond effectively in cross-cultural environments by using a powerful set of interrelated tools to guide personal and organizational change. The Tools for Culturally Proficient Practices allow educators to focus on students’ cultural assets in ways that overcome barriers to student success. Often, educators do not verbalize their values; however, their behaviors and written policies and practices often reflect those deeply held values and assumptions. Change can occur when protocols, like reflection and dialogue are facilitated so educators can confront their values, belief, and assumptions.

Surfacing our values, beliefs, and assumptions

We invite you to read the following nine questions and the brief discussions that follow and employ your skills of reflection and dialogue. First, read each question and the comments and reflect on your personal responses. Ask yourself, what is my truthful, honest response to each question and how do I react to the comments that follow each question? Educators who are willing to look deeply within to examine the why of how they developed certain attitudes and values are well prepared to even better serve diverse communities of learners.

Second, in whatever your role as educator may be, we invite you to engage with your colleagues in dialogue to surface deeply held assumptions and reach shared understanding of what “closing the learning gap” means to the school community. Inclusive dialogue sessions can lead to carefully crafted statements that emerge to inform everyone in your school community of your shared beliefs and values about all students learning. At that point, students will be learning because their culture is embraced as an asset as opposed to being viewed as a deficit that limits their learning.

These nine questions are designed as guides for individual educators and school district educators to probe and understand their core values in working with communities that have populations with cultural characteristics different from their own.

9 Key Questions for Reflection and Dialogue

Do you honor culture as a natural and normal part of the community you serve?

In the last decade, state and federal legislation has brought us face to face with the reality of cultural demographic groups in ways that we have never before in this country. Though achievement gaps have always been present, we now have the opportunity to discuss student learning in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, ableness and language learning. Each of us, as an educator and as a school district, must recognize the extent to which we regard these, and other cultural groupings, as asset-rich resources upon which to build our educational programs, not as accountability inconveniences, deficits, or sources of problems.

Do you recognize and understand the differential and historical treatment accorded to those least well served in our schools?

The disparities that we now acknowledge as the achievement or learning gap in many cases have been developed over many generations. Though we may not have been party to intentional practices of segregation, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism or any other form of oppression, educational disparities are our responsibility to address, reduce and eliminate. Responsibility for change must begin with those of us in the education community and the manner in which we recognize and embrace the achievement/learning gap as our issue.

When working with people whose culture is different from you, to what extent to do see the person as both an individual and as a member of a cultural group?

We believe most of us like to be seen and valued for who we are. We may enjoy being part of a team that achieves; however, one’s group identity does not detract from also wanting to be appreciated for who we are as a person. Yet, when working in cross-cultural venues, some educators too often revert to use of terms such as they and them when referencing people from cultural groups different from themselves.

Do you recognize and value the differences within the cultural communities you serve?

The cultural groups in our schools are no more monoliths that those of us educators who populate the ranks within our schools. Each of the cultural groups we serve has vast differences in education, incomes, faith practices, and life styles. The cultural groups in our school communities are as diverse as the broader community. The socioeconomic differences within cultural groups often give rise to groups having more similar worldviews across socioeconomic lines that they do within cultural groups.

Do you know and respect the unique needs of cultural groups in the community you serve?

A one-size-fits-all approach to education may serve the needs of school at the expense of our students and their communities. Even within schools that have all students conform to grooming standards and physical accommodations, those same schools have learned to acknowledge in their curriculum and in their teaching different learning styles, different cognitive styles, and the different ways people process information. The inclusive educator teaches and encourages colleagues to make the necessary adaptations in how schools provide educational services so that all people have access to the same benefits and privileges as students historically well served in our schools.

Do you know how cultural groups in your community define family and the manner in which family serves as the primary system of support for students?

Prevalent educational practice has been to assume that parents and other family caregivers who really care about the education of their children will avail themselves of opportunities to interact with the school. Increasingly, our schools have become adept at finding culturally inclusive ways of engaging parents and caregivers in support of student achievement. Culturally proficient leaders look for community attributes and assets rather than community problems or issues.

We find, too often, educators and parents have different perceptions of the term parent participation. The terms ‘community centric’ and ‘school centric’ describe these contrasting perceptions.

  • Communitycentric. “Parents involved in activities that meet the basic needs of their children as going to school well fed, rested, and clean.”
  • Schoolcentric. “Parents involved in activities that are structured and defined for parents by schools.” (Lawson as cited in Lindsey, Nuri Robins and Terrell, 2009, p. 105)

Effective and meaningful partnerships between parents and schools require sensitive, respectful and caring school leaders willing to learn the positive nature and culture of the community as well as identify barriers that have impeded progress in school-community relations.

The traditional, often stereotypic, image of Euro-American homes of family identified as one mother, one father, and the children is now recognized as a limited view of “family”. Today, culturally proficient school leaders acknowledge single parent families, multiple-generation extended families, same gender parents, foster care homes, and residential care homes as “family”. Whatever the configuration for the children in our schools, their family is their family.

Do you recognize and understand the bicultural reality for cultural groups historically not well served in our schools?

Parents/guardians and their children have to be fluent in the communication patterns of the school as well as the communication patterns that exist in their communities.  They also have to know the cultural norms and expectations of schools, which may conflict or be different from those in their communities, their countries of origin or their cultural groups.  In ideal conditions, their children are developing bicultural skills, learning to “code switch” to meet the cultural expectations of their environments. However, parents may not have these skills for adapting to new and different environments.  Parents or guardians and their children may be penalized because they do not respond to the norms set by educators because they do not navigate well the educational systems of the public schools.

Do you recognize your role in acknowledging, adjusting to, and accepting cross-cultural interactions as necessary social and communications dynamics?

We have encountered few educators who fail to recognize the historical and current impact of racism and other forms of oppression on current school environments. It is also our experience that our educator colleagues who do recognize and understand the huge toll that oppression takes also understand how people not affected by those same systems benefit it unwitting ways. It is precisely the awareness of the dynamic nature of oppression vs. entitlement that enables such educators to be effective in responding to the educational needs of cultural groups within their schools/districts.

Unless one has experienced intentional or unintentional acts of discrimination or oppression, a person cannot fathom the every day toll it takes on one’s day-to-day life experiences. The over representation of students of color in special education programs and their under representation in advanced placement and gifted and talented programs is not new information. Educators who are aware of such dynamics employ strategies and tactics that engage parents as partners in beneficial placements for their children.

Do you incorporate cultural knowledge into educational practices and policy-making?

Experienced educators recognize the need to learn the culture of the new school they join. Their very survival depends on appropriate responses to cultural norms of the school community. Effective educators, additionally, are aware of their own cultures and the impact their culture has on their school/district. Knowledge about school culture, our individual cultures, and the cultures of our community rarely arrives to our desktops in a 3-ring notebook or a PDF file. Cultural knowledge is possessed by those who are keenly aware of themselves, their community surroundings, and the legacies and challenges experienced by cultural groups in our country and local communities.

Educators who possess this self awareness and are effective in cross-cultural settings avoid phrases such as, Doesn’t everyone know that . . . ?, or I would hope parents see that as their responsibility, or It’s the way we do things here and they will have to adjust. Phrases such as these marginalize outsiders and serve to perpetuate an ‘us against them’ mentality.

Culturally proficient educators share their own cultural knowledge, engage with the community, and invite community experts knowing that such actions, over time, will lead to appropriately institutionalizing cultural knowledge. Such educators recognize that re-culturing schools to be responsive to diverse constituencies is an internal, intentional and on-going process.

Responses to these nine questions can be the basis for guiding principles, or core values, that inform and support for culturally proficient leadership. The principles help frame and focus the behaviors of educators intentionally on all students learning at levels higher than ever before.

So, what’s your response?

The learning gaps are ours to rectify. Shifting the culture of a school or school district

  • from responding to learning gaps as compliance issues
  • to responding in ways that transforms organizational culture relies on use of educators’ skill assets of reflection and dialogue.

This intentionality is a 2-step process of personal reflection and purposeful dialogue with colleagues. Response to these 9 questions provides the basis for developing mission statements and core values intended to serve a diverse community. To be effective in schools today educators need strong core personal and organizational values. In addition to the values you currently hold, the values of cultural proficiency explicit in the nine guiding principles illustrated in the 9 questions above can serve as the foundation on which to re-culture and transform schools/districts.


Adapted from – Delores B. Lindsey, Raymond D. Terrell, Kikanza J. Nuri, & Randall B. Lindsey, (April/May, 2010). Focus on assets, overcome barriers, Leadership, Sacramento, CA: Association of California School Administrators, 39(5), 12-15.

Written by

Randall B. Lindsey is emeritus professor at California State University, Los Angeles and has a practice centered on educational consulting and issues related to equity and access. Prior to higher education faculty roles, he served as a junior and senior high school history teacher, a district office administrator for school desegregation, and executive director of a non-profit corporation. All of his experiences have been in working with diverse populations and his area of study is the behavior of white people in multicultural settings. It is his belief and experience that too often white people are observers of multicultural issues rather than personally involved with them. He works with colleagues to design and implement programs for and with schools, law enforcement agencies, and community-based organizations to provide access and achievement. He and his wife and frequent co-author, Delores, are enjoying this phase of life as grandparents, as educators, and in support of just causes that extend the promises of democracy throughout society in authentic ways. He is the co-author of many books, including Opening Doors: An Implementation Template for Cultural Proficiency and Culturally Proficient Instruction: A Guide for People Who Teach .

No comments

leave a comment