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Culturally Sensitive Teaching and the Difference It Makes 

August 7, 2013

Andres Cambronero

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Andres CambroneroMy English class with Mr. H in high school was special. Not only was it taught by someone whose physical appearance stood out from the other teachers (Mr. H was a Scottish man in his early thirties with a shiny stud in his ear and a long braid down his back) but it was the only class that students never complained about. Despite having strict class management rules, like never accepting tardy assignments or closing the door at the hour mark, my classmates and I were always eager to discuss whatever work we were reading. Coming from a class that was reputed among teachers as “misbehaved,” our excitement was highly unusual. What made Mr. H’s class so special was that once he closed the door, the gap between student and teacher all but vanished. We respected Mr. H, but he did not act in the same authoritative manner that other teachers in my school did. Instead, he managed to keep the class under control by engaging our energy on the subject matter, something none of the other teachers did effectively. Rather than using the same discussion questions year after year, Mr. H shaped discussion questions around our interests, or assigned students to be discussion leaders for different class periods. Although I noticed at the time that Mr. H’s teaching style was different, I did not know his technique had a proper name. I now recognized that it was culturally sensitive teaching. In a school with an overwhelmingly Hispanic student body and primarily White faculty, Mr. H was the only teacher who paid as much attention to the students’ culture as to the curriculum. For this reason, it is not surprising that Mr. H is the only high school teacher I remember fondly.

Geneva Gay defines culturally sensitive teaching or culturally responsive teaching as “using characteristics, experiences and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively.” This teaching approach assumes that students learn more effectively when teachers situate the academic discourse within the personal experiences of students and incorporate communication approaches of the students’ culture into the way that the teacher relates to students. At the core of this approach is the idea that students will be more willing to cooperate and better able to explore complex intellectual issues when teachers create a class environment in which students feel nurtured and acknowledged. Ultimately, culturally sensitive teaching is about fostering an atmosphere in which the teacher relates to the student’s reality and the student relates to the teacher’s reality as well as to the subject matter.

Mr. H knew that the best way for him to relate to our reality was to discourage us from seeing him as an authority figure. He knew that angry, pubescent young adults would surely react negatively at someone who tried to impose himself on them. Instead, he presented himself as an intermediate between an authority figure and a peer; enough of a peer for us to be interested in what he said, but enough of an authority for us to respect him. To get this delicate balance, Mr. H often related passages of books to his life growing up in Edinburgh and encouraged us to do the same. For example, when we read A View from the Bridge, a play written by Arthur Miller that explores traditional gender roles, he asked students to share their views on the meaning of manhood. Given that Latin American society is predominantly male-centered, discussing gender roles with Hispanic students would be a chance to tackle deeply engrained issues. Once we shared our opinions, which ranged from being a noble individual to having a hairy chest, Mr. H took a chance to share his opinion just as everyone in the class had done. As he rolled up his sleeves, he told us that as a teenager he believed manhood had to be proven and constantly in display for others to see, so he decided being a “real man” meant getting tattooed. He showed us multiple tattoos on his forearms and acknowledged that luckily his meaning of manhood had evolved since then. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about Mr. H’s tattoos, but it was truly invigorating to learn everyone makes mistakes at some point in their lives.

Sadly, not every student is as lucky as I was to enjoy two whole academic years with such a positive figure as Mr. H, and not every teacher has the same creativity and willingness to engage with their students as he did. Some teachers think achieving high test scores or plowing through the syllabus should take priority over building meaningful relationships with their students, but numerous studies show otherwise. Some show that poor student-teacher relationships during early school years have a negative correlation with students’ math and language achievement up to grade 9. Others found that fifth- and sixth-grade students who had positive relationships with their teachers had higher scores on self- and teacher-rated social and emotional adjustment tests than students with poor relationships. In addition, some studies have found that teacher support is a significant predictor of student motivation. Those instructors that intend to teach without valuing the individual experiences of the students in front of them are only laying the foundations for a truly frustrating experience for themselves and the student.

Given the problems that teachers in urban schools face daily, it is probable that teachers will be resort to an authoritative approach rather than a culturally sensitive approach and create a barrier between students and teachers. According to experts, authoritative teaching is significantly correlated to the teacher’s level of stress. This means that in urban schools, where high enrollments, behavioral problems, high rates of absenteeism, and high poverty rates are common issues, teachers deal with higher levels of stress than their suburban counterparts. You also have to take into account that urban school teachers are often newly hired or uncertified teachers trained to teach middle class white students, who must now work alongside students with experiences different from their own. In such circumstances, teachers resort to authoritative teaching in a desperate attempt to keep student conduct under control. Given the high percentage of minority students in urban schools, it is in these schools where it is critical that the teachers recognize the importance of culturally sensitive teaching. Sadly, in those schools where students need to connect with their teacher the most is where the connection is least likely to happen.

Although it is crucial for teachers in urban schools to become culturally sensitive, teacher training in this approach is a long process and requires constant support and commitment from school staff, a possible deterrent for administrators to arrange trainings. For example, the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, which provides professional development sessions in culturally sensitive teaching, notes that their program requires teachers to attend sessions twice a month and for the administration to provide constant technical assistance.[1] In schools that must deal with more pressing issues, administrators may overlook the importance of providing teachers with culturally sensitive teaching training.

Fortunately, there are teachers who are naturally gifted in this critical skill. People like Mr. H, who despite being assigned a tough class, are able to make every class period enjoyable. The problem is that the Mr. H’s of the world are the exception, rather than the rule. It is much more common for teachers to adopt an authoritative style of teaching than to take into consideration the values and interests of the students and to incorporate them into the syllabus. In urban schools, gifted teachers are few and far in between. Many urban teachers are unable to relate to their students and as a result unable to motivate them. This situation is not unchangeable. Studies show that with proper training, teachers can become culturally sensitive and increase their students test scores. However, to make this change, school administrators must commit significant resources to these training programs.  Ideally, school administrators would realize that to motivate students and to achieve higher scores valuing the cultures and individual experiences of students should be a priority.


[1] McClure, Carla. “Culturally Responsive Instruction.” KCKPS. National Staff Development Council, n.d. Web. 26 Jul 2013. 

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