How Teachers in Diverse Schools Can Improve Their Cultural Competence


If the majority of students entering public schools across the nation are students of color and their teachers are white, schools have to be more intentional about teacher-to-student interactions and relationships.

Do you lead a school with majority white staff and predominantly students of color? When schools develop systems with these demographics, it is not enough to consider what is socially, emotionally and developmentally appropriate for students. School leaders must ensure that white staff implement equitable, culturally appropriate behavioral practices as well.

In 2011, the National Center for Education released survey results revealing that 84 percent of public school teachers were white. According to recent studies, more than 50% of students in public school are students of color. It is projected that by 2022, there will be a sixteen percent decrease in the enrollment of white students in public schools nationwide.

If the majority of students entering public schools across the nation are students of color and their teachers are white, schools have to be more intentional about teacher-to-student interactions and relationships. There is no question that American society battles with racism, prejudice and bias. Without developing culturally competent professionals in schools with diverse groups of students, educators are at risk of perpetuating oppressive systems.

Behavior systems are one primary way in which students of color are oppressed in schools. Schools that invest in race and equity training and assess their behavioral practices have a better chance of dismantling oppressive school systems and prioritizing culturally responsive school practices. School leaders must ask themselves, “Are we asking students of color to surrender to behavioral practices based on negative perceptions we have about their abilities, motivations and backgrounds?”

→  Subscribe to our Blog to stay current with trends and insights around the important topics of PBIS, Improving School Culture, Analyzing Behavior Data, and more!

Common Behavior Practices That May Not Be Culturally Appropriate

If your school falls into any of the following categories, take time to reflect on your behavior systems.

Your School Emphasizes Behaviors Such as “Obedient”

The behaviors that schools enforce and orient students towards reveal not only their values but also implicit bias. It is essential that white staff clarify why they seek to teach and track certain behaviors with students of color. For example, using “obedient” as opposed to “following directions” shows a significant difference in adult mindset. People expect their dogs to be “obedient”. Is “obedience” a behavior that is culturally competent or socially appropriate? Does it help students developmentally grow to make healthy decisions?

Schools must root their behavioral practices in a “why” that is based on adequate research to avoid developing systems on a foundation of poor mindsets about students. When students of color have predominantly white influences emphasizing oppressive practices in schools, they are denied an opportunity to build and sustain power and are taught to be inferior to whiteness.

Your White Teachers and Leaders Seek to Overly Control Black and Brown Bodies

There are certainly classroom practices that require specific physical requirements such as ensuring enough space during carpet time or implementing a lab that could be dangerous if an accident occurs. Yet, some schools expect students to follow specific walking requirements throughout the day and outline exactly what a good working position looks when completing all classwork. Does every part of the day require a mandatory body direction?

Schools should reflect on why they believe “safe” or “productive” bodies look specific ways. Being overly concerned with student posture and fidgeting can be a sign of fearing black and brown bodies. White staff may show a lack of faith in the ability students of color have to control themselves when seeking to have power over their bodies.

You Avoid Providing Adequate Time for Students to Talk

There are times when silence is mandatory to ensure that teachers are able to direct students and provide clear instruction. But does your school day include any time for students to talk? Talking with peers about classroom content can deepen learning, especially for students that are verbal processors. Additionally, it is developmentally appropriate for students to have casual conversations with others. Refraining from allowing students to engage in conversations at school denies them an equitable school experience and tells them that their voice doesn’t matter.

Using one’s voice to speak out against injustice has been progressive for people of color who have been marginalized in the United States. Students learn how to debate with evidence, resolve conflict and express themselves when they practice having productive conversations. Schools that require students of color to be silent for the majority of the school day show a belief that what teachers have to say matters more than what kids, themselves, are critically thinking. It prevents students from adequately practicing developing their voice. And if the majority of school staff is white, it also reveals an ideology that white theory is dominant over the ideas of people of color.

Your Schedule Doesn’t Have Sufficient Break Time

Schools have a big responsibility to ensure that students are academically improving. But that shouldn’t mean that schedules include minimal to no break time. Creating a school day that doesn’t include sufficient free time denies students a healthy school experience. Brains need sufficient time off in order to maximize learning. Additionally, having longer class blocks and less break time doesn’t always correlate with increased results.

Schools that minimize break time or require students to earn recess should reflect on their schedules. White staff that deny students of color adequate brain rest reveal a belief that the students don’t deserve a break, aren’t able to play productively or can’t afford to lose learning time due to learning needs.

Oppressive behavior systems don’t support growth and can trigger declines in student investment and behavior. When students are denied control of their bodies and voices, don’t have adequate break time and are tracked based on their ability to conform to biased expectations, they aren’t set up to have a successful school experience. Schools with majority white staff and students of color should reflect on their cultural competence using this golden question:

If white staff wouldn’t agree with their white child having such treatment, why is the behavioral practice deemed acceptable for students of color?

Staff of color should not be excused from discussions about equity and cultural competence. All school professionals can benefit from having these critical conversations. However, we must not deny the unique work to be done when majority white teachers and leaders are the decision makers in schools with predominantly students of color. This is especially important in a country that was built upon racist systems that still negatively impact people of color today.

Since our founding, Kickboard has worked to give educators the tools they need to create safe and happy schools where students and staff thrive. Given that the vast majority of our schools are comprised predominantly of students of color, the culture and climate work we do with schools inevitably intersects with issues of race and disproportionality in discipline. We recognize our role in developing equitable schools and have partnered with Overcoming Racism, an organization committed to helping schools and organizations disrupt oppressive practices and promote equity. We seek to develop ourselves and improve and extend the services we provide.