Leading Toward Cultural Responsiveness

By Zaretta Hammond

Teacher, Educator, Author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

When I presented at the Association of Alaska School Boards’ 64th Annual Conference in November, we had a great time during our breakout session doing the Power Song strategy. The session was lively and folks had fun with a practice designed to help remind students that they are resilient when learning gets hard and deserve to experience joy during their school day

The challenge is that too many educators believe because they are doing a culturally responsive activity like The Power Song Strategy once, that they are now culturally responsive. They check the CRT box and go back to teaching in a way that doesn’t build student agency or expand cognitive capacity for rigorous learning.

Culturally responsive teaching isn’t a “bucket of strategies,” but instead it is an approach that consists of mindsets and moves that build capacity over time. It involves at least four core areas as I outline in my Ready for Rigor frame – Awareness, Learning Partnerships, Information Processing Ease, and Community of Learners.

The purpose of culturally responsive pedagogy is to help each student, regardless of racial, ethnic, or cultural background, become an independent learner. But we confuse cultural responsiveness with simple multiculturalism to “honor diversity” rather than associate it with building students’ thinking skills. If educators continue to confuse the purpose and process of culturally responsive pedagogy then it will never come to full fruition in Alaska’s schools.

School boards play an important role in helping people separate fact from fiction and bust up misconceptions about culturally responsive pedagogy. The bigger question is: How can school boards help schools move toward greater cultural responsiveness?

I think they can take inspiration from the Heath Brothers’ work in their bestselling book, Switch, that looks at creating institutional change. Becoming culturally responsive is about more than knowing what new practices and content to bring into schools; it is also about making those changes permanent and creating new behaviors and habits in classrooms. We have to translate our high-level school improvement plans and vision statements into on-the-ground, day-to-day practices that result in changes in student achievement.

Here’s the point the Heath Brothers make about closing that knowing-doing gap: For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Things have to change at the individual level, at the school level, and at the institutional level. Too often we think cultural responsive practices are just about individual teachers using new strategies. But that’s too simplistic.

Instead, leaders have to clear the way for everyone at each level to succeed. In short, leaders must do three things:

  • Shape the Path – Script the critical mindsets and moves and offer counter-narratives to deficit thinking about diverse students
  • Direct the Rider – Build habits and routines that make new ways of doing things automatically
  • Motivate the Elephant – Help people find motivation to change despite the fact that it causes anxiety because we experience the dip of conscious incompetence

In the coming months as a guest columnist, I want to unpack these three elements as they relate to leading to greater cultural responsiveness in our schools.

Key questions for us to tackle are:

  • How do we shape the path toward greater cultural responsiveness? What does that look like on the ground for superintendents and principals?
  • What are the habits and routines as leaders we need to build in order to transform into the state and local education systems that serve all students well?
  • How can school boards create the conditions so that schools can integrate social-emotional learning and development with culturally responsive practices that create high trust/ low-stress environments, re-build the natural confidence of the most marginalized students, and improve their ability to turn inert facts into usable knowledge?

I look forward to digging in and exploring these questions with you.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.