My Ongoing, Messy, Roundabout Journey Toward Cultural Proficiency

Do you notice yourself remembering the names of the white kids more easily than the names of the Asian kids?” 
This was asked of me last year by a close friend and colleague. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. Because as I thought about which students I acknowledged by name in the hallway, who I would ask teachers about, who I took time to build rapport with I was unconsciously investing more time in the white kids. Research says that we do tend to have a natural affinity for  people that we see as like us. In fact, an article published by Phi Delta Kappan “recent studies have found that children as young as three months old can racially categorize people” (Hagerman, M.A., 2019). 
AND I am someone that sees myself as an advocate for marginalized groups. I speak out, often to the point where it makes my family shift in their seats, about injustices in the world. I recognize that as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, English speaking woman, I have a huge amount of privilege. I feel a duty to use my privilege to support others and dismantle systems of traditional power in the world. And yet, I still hold implicit bias and look for what’s familiar and comfortable. 
An article published this summer by actor N’Jameh Camara talks about why some names are more memorable than others. She speaks honestly about how when people don’t use her name and instead use a “generic substitute,” she notices. She challenges us to think that names are not “hard” or “difficult to say” but rather “unpracticed.” I love that. Perhaps my favorite quote is, “but as a person who was taught to respect and say Tchaikovsky, Brecht, Chekhov, Stanislavski, and Hammerstein, I know my name can be learned too. What matters most is that we see ourselves as people whose vulnerability and mistake-making hold the potential to bring us closer” (Camara, N., 2019).  
Fortunately, recognizing that we hold implicit bias is a crucial first step in doing something about it. Founder of the C6 Biliteracy Framework and honorary ISB Dragon, Dr. José Medina, shares the Cultural Proficiency Continuum in his trainings and I find myself referring to it constantly. It has supported me in recognizing when we are being culturally destructive. This continuum has given me the language and tools to reflect and speak up when I hear things that are not inclusive and supporting of our community. 

Original source of continuum: Lindsey, R.B., Robbins, K.N., and Terrell, R. D.  (2009). Cultural Proficiency A Manual for School Leaders. Examples and quotes original.  

As a coach at ISB, I get the honor to work with and learn from the incredible educators here. I am so fortunate to see the high-quality teaching and care teachers share with students. I am all in when it comes to helping others who I coach, I care deeply about them as people and care completely about nudging them to where they want to grow. But as coach, as Elena Aguilar says in her article, “I have to keep the faces of all the children who [teachers] are responsible for, whose lives [teachers] affect, in my symbolic peripheral vision, equally in focus and present and part of the conversation. I am accountable to those children” (Aguilar, E., 2014). Coaching or collaborating without a focus of creating equity and access for our students is a missed opportunity we cannot afford to pass up.  
My journey towards cultural proficiency is not over. I still slip up, or occasionally bite my lip when I hear something that marginalizes others. But I am also committed to improving. If you have books, research, ideas, people you follow, tips and suggestions, or just want to talk about this with someone, I would love to learn. 

References: 
Aguilar, E. (2014). Why we must all Be Coaches for Equity. Education Week. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2014/12/why_we_must_all_be_coaches_for.html 
Camara, N. (2019). Names That Are Unfamiliar to you Aren’t “Hard,” They’re “Unpracticed”. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/names-that-are-unfamiliar-to-you-arent-hard-theyre-unpracticed?fbclid=IwAR0rwGC_Xxs59fUSKgBErE2vl9tA2ASVmmwHfqmNwdULnJm17cs0Qup3k_A 
Hagerman, M.A. (2019). Conversations with Kids about Race. Phi Delta Kappan. https://www.kappanonline.org/conversations-children-race-childhood-racism-hagerman/ 
Lindsey, R.B., Robbins, K.N., and Terrell, R. D.  (2009). Cultural Proficiency A Manual for School Leaders. 

2 thoughts on “My Ongoing, Messy, Roundabout Journey Toward Cultural Proficiency

  • September 25, 2019 at 1:04 pm
    Permalink

    What a brilliant article.
    There’s nothing I hate more than getting a student’s name wrong! It can feel like a huge setback in those early formative stages of a new class when everyone is finding their place and voice. Throw in the fact that many of those names are likely unfamiliar, culturally, and in many cases students have different preferred names to their given names and it can feel like an insurmountable challenge. For this reason, I can be slow to use students’ names at the beginning of a new school year. What this article tells me is that it’s ok to make mistakes with names, what matters is that we make an effort to practice them.
    Incidentally, I threw a tiny party for myself just this week when I realised I had (finally) fully learnt 3 classes of student names 🙂
    Thanks, Kathryn!

    Reply
  • September 25, 2019 at 1:04 pm
    Permalink

    What a brilliant article.
    There’s nothing I hate more than getting a student’s name wrong! It can feel like a huge setback in those early formative stages of a new class when everyone is finding their place and voice. Throw in the fact that many of those names are likely unfamiliar, culturally, and in many cases students have different preferred names to their given names and it can feel like an insurmountable challenge. For this reason, I can be slow to use students’ names at the beginning of a new school year. What this article tells me is that it’s ok to make mistakes with names, what matters is that we make an effort to practice them.
    Incidentally, I threw a tiny party for myself just this week when I realised I had (finally) fully learnt 3 classes of student names 🙂
    Thanks, Kathryn!

    Reply

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