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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


Why Culturally Competent Teaching Matters: Tips on How to Prepare Teachers in Supporting Students from Diverse Backgrounds

Precious Elam, CEI Intern

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Currently in the U.S., more than 60% of students in the public school system identify as racially and ethnically diverse (Cherng & Davis, 2019, Marks & Coll, 2018). Trends predict student diversity will only continue to increase at steadfast rates, yet teacher and administrator diversity rates are not growing at the same rate. This can create a disconnect in the classroom, especially if there is no understanding of the cultural differences present, the needs of the students, and the appropriate tools required to effectively bridge the gap between diverse cultures (Cherng & Davis, 2019). When teachers differ racially from the background of their students, they can fail to understand how culture has shaped their students' experiences. Knowledge to overcome this disconnect is essential - and interventions, trainings, or workshops provide ways for teachers to learn about culture, race, and bias, in order to better understand and support their students.

To address the racial climate in education, teachers must have knowledge not only of curriculum and instruction, but also of multicultural sensitivity, diversity, and cultural competency. The push for increased training was birthed from the awareness that culture impacts all sectors of life and that there are specific needs required to effectively engage with individuals from diverse backgrounds in any setting, especially in education. Far too often, students of color are marginalized and unsupported in schools; far too many teachers lack the appropriate tools, training, and knowledge of how to support students from diverse backgrounds (Cherng & Davis, 2019). However, as Libcomb et al. (2021) noted in their study of teacher understanding of cultural diversity in early childhood, when teachers participate in online training such as the Roots of Resilience program, they can increase their cultural sensitivity, further positive classroom interactions, and nurture resilience for students from ethnically diverse cultures (Lipscomb et al., 2021).

Unfortunately, to date, most preservice teacher training programs do not adequately address cultural diversity. Many preservice teacher training programs only require one multicultural elective during the certification process (Loomis, 2021; Marks & Coll, 2018). This is inadequate preparation for teachers who then go onto teach students from diverse backgrounds. Policies around teacher education need to directly focus on multicultural education, equity, and cultural awareness so that teachers are prepared to work with students and administrators whose cultural backgrounds and perspectives differ from their own (Cherng & Davis, 2019).

School-Wide Initiatives

Although teachers have their work cut out for them, it is imperative that we move forward to promote school-wide initiatives that better support all students and help teachers find confidence in effectively engaging with and providing adequate instruction for students from all backgrounds.

One way this has recently been achieved is through schools adopting cultural competency and cultural humility frameworks.

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What is Cultural Humility?

Cultural humility is the awareness of how culture shapes individuals' perspectives, ideas, and experiences while recognizing the role privilege and oppression play within that context (Fisher, 2020). We have each been shaped by our own culture, our own privilege, and the oppression we may have experienced. In examining your own life, Ibram Kendi recommends that we consider how race and culture have shaped our experiences and how we engage with others. Kendi explains how we subconsciously have inherited beliefs about culture through a racist lens, which requires awareness and understanding of power and privilege to address and dismantle (Belli, 2020). Cultural humility is a tool created to help people acknowledge how their cultural experiences, coupled with societal notions about race, impact their views of others (Fisher, 2020).

In schools, tools such as cultural humility align well with culturally responsive pedagogy, creating an atmosphere where the school, as a whole, works towards multicultural awareness and understanding. Cultural competence helps teachers recognize the effects race, culture, racism, and discrimination have on students while providing an understanding of how these factors can disrupt classroom behavior, learning, and engagement (Whitford et al., 2019). For instance, students who may be unseen or unsupported may become disengaged in the content. However, teachers who may perceive a student's academic ability based on their own implicit beliefs may have lower expectations of the students, thus grading easier on assignments rather than equitably (Irizarry, 2015). As Jackson and McDermott (2012) suggest, it is imperative that we maintain high expectations for all students, including students of color, even as we strive to provide instruction and classroom support that more accurately matches students' needs and interests.

Why is this Important for Educators?

When teachers are blind to the disparities their students face, they are less likely to respond positively or with compassion. Instead, teachers are more likely to react out of negative bias, punishing students' behavior rather than taking time to understand the child and situation in a deeper context (Whitford et al., 2019). This is more common with students of color because teachers often hold implicit biases around particular people groups that lead them to respond based on their beliefs about that community. This has led to disparities in punishments, expulsions, opportunities, and achievement within various cultural groups (Cherng & Davis, 2019).

For instance, studies have shown that students of color, specifically Black males, receive harsh punishment from their teachers, yet when their White counterparts engage in similar behavior, they are treated more fairly (Blitz et al., 2016; Cherng & Davis). This often results from implicit bias or beliefs that influence how teachers view, engage, and respond to students. Additionally, teachers may fail to refer students of color to programs such as gifted and talented, under the assumption they are incapable of keeping up with the academic rigor. However, with the proper training around implicit associations and cultural awareness, the statistics can change. Thus, multicultural awareness and cultural competency training are crucial to aid teachers in responding fair and not out of implicit beliefs. 

What are Some Practical Tips?

The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) believes in Heart Centered Learning®, where a holistic approach is used so that collectively, students and teachers can approach emotional aspects of learning more effectively. Although cultural competency looks a little different, building off of CEI's framework can provide a strong foundation in beginning to engage in cultural awareness and competency.

Below is a breakdown of the 5 C's within Heart Centered Learning®, and tips on how to begin adopting culturally responsive pedagogy and school culture.


  • Focus training on becoming self-aware of biases and implicit beliefs (Fisher, 2020).
  • We all hold bias, and it is important to address it and confront it.
  • Teachers must be willing to recognize their beliefs and the role they play in their engagement with students.
  • There needs to be a clear understanding of privilege, racism, and oppression.

Compassionate Exercises

  • Incorporate Empathy-Intervention and exercises within training and in the classroom (Whitford et al., 2019).
  • Empathy is the ability to connect with and understand the experiences and perspectives of others.
  • Use empathy as a tool when listening to the perspectives of others.
  • Practice responding with care and concern.
  • Validate and honor students' experiences and emotions as well as colleagues.


  • Create a culture of advocacy in the classroom (chart).
  • Empower students to advocate and speak up when they feel silenced or marginalized.
  • Address barriers that are present and tools to dismantle them.
  • Promote social justice as a tool to ensure all cultures are seen and heard.


  • Engage in courageous discussions within training and in the classroom.
  • Allow teachers to engage in discussions around race, racism, and bias.
  • Provide students the space to speak and share their story.
  • Create activities where children can express their cultural experiences through words, art, or creativity.


  • Create a school culture of self-care (Whitford et al., 2019).
  • Teachers are essential thus valuing them through actions is important.
  • Create a school culture that honors boundaries and supports staff effectively.
  • When engaging in challenging racial conversations, providing the necessary support.
  • Recognize the current duties of teachers, and incorporate cultural competence training in a manner that is effective rather than overloading.


Preparing teachers to further positive engagement with students from diverse cultural backgrounds can go far in alleviating the trauma that these students experience when teachers do not adequately understand their needs, including how to relate to these students in ways that reduce bias and further a growth mindset. More effective preservice is needed so that teachers can enter culturally diverse environments with the requisite sensitivity and tools to enhance positive social interactions.

To effectively implement the needed changes, we must examine not only preservice teacher training but also the culture and environment teachers establish in their classrooms. Heart Centered Learning is one approach that can help repair the cultural divide. Its focus on conscious understanding of self and others and its emphasis on building compassionate environments can help accelerate positive interactions between teachers and students and build inroads that will increase compassionate, culturally sensitive engagement in classrooms, while furthering equity and expanding our human connectedness.

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Belli, B. (2020, December 7). Kendi: Racism is about power and policy, not people. YaleNews.

Blitz, L. V., Anderson, E. M., & Saastamoinen, M. (2016). Assessing perceptions of culture and trauma in an elementary school: Informing a model for culturally responsive trauma-informed schools. The Urban Review, 48(4), 520–542. 

Cherng, H.-Y. S., & Davis, L. A. (2019). Multicultural matters: An investigation of key assumptions of multicultural education reform in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 70(3), 219–236.

Fisher, E. S. (2020). Cultural humility as a form of social justice: Promising practices for global school psychology training. School Psychology International, 41(1), 53–66.

Irizarry, Y. (2015). Selling students short: Racial differences in teachers’ evaluations of high, average, and low performing students. Social Science Research, 52, 522–538.

Lipscomb, S. T., Hatfield, B., Goka-Dubose, E., Lewis, H., & Fisher, P. A. (2021). Impacts of roots of resilience professional development for early childhood teachers on young children’s protective factors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 56, 1–14.

Marks, A. K., & Garcia Coll, C. (2018). Education and developmental competencies of ethnic minority children: Recent theoretical and methodological advances. Developmental Review, 50, 90–98. 

Whitford, D. K., & Emerson, A. M. (2019). Empathy intervention to reduce implicit bias in pre-service teachers. Psychological Reports, 122(2), 670–688.

Jackson, Y. & McDermott, V. (2012). Aim high, achieve more: How to transform urban classrooms through fearless leadership. ASCD.