Is Culturally Relevant Teaching just Good Teaching?

While I was reading the article of Ladson-Billings about culturally responsive teaching, the reaction of teachers to her advice made me think: what is good teaching? Culturally responsible teaching is good teaching, but is it “just good teaching”? Is good teaching equivalent to culturally relevant teaching? Does culturally relevant teaching require more than “just good teaching”?

Characteristics of good teaching – Why good teaching does not mean culturally relevant teaching?

Dr. Richard Leblanc lists the top 10 requirements of teaching (click for the source). Here, I will discuss three of these which I selected. One of the requirements for good teaching is passion. Most of us probably encountered the teacher who sees her job just as a chore and performs it in a dehumanized way. In several types of performance, whether it is singing, acting or another artistic performance, the emotions of the performer passes to the audience. Similarly, in a classroom environment, the teacher’s feelings pass to the students. Therefore, when we encountered that teacher, we promptly notice it if not immediately. Therefore, the number one rule of good teaching is being passionate about teaching.

Being aware of the fact that each student is different is another requirement he lists. Every person is unique; therefore, everyone has different needs. The first step to understand a student’s needs is listening. Listening and really trying to understand the student helps teachers see the situation from the students’ eyes. It will also enable us to ask the right questions and take action accordingly.

One of my favorites in this list is that “good teaching is about caring, nurturing and developing minds and talents”. Unfortunately, caring about each and every student in the classroom is not something every teacher does. Sometimes teachers just ignore the students that they perceive inferior to give all their time and attention to the decent and high performers instead of nurturing each student and encouraging everyone to make progress at their own pace. This helps teachers to have very successful students in the class; however, according to my personal experience, teachers who try to help every student are the ones who are making a real impact.

So far, these practices might seem very similar to the ones discussed as culturally relevant teaching; in theory, it is similar. However, there is a big difference in practice: cultural lens. Even the greatest teacher who is very passionate, trying to understand and respond to every student’s needs, and nurture students, usually do these in their own way. In a classroom with students from different ethnic groups, this causes a problem because the teacher usually is familiar with her own culture and naturally has that culture’s lens. In that situation, the teacher is sometimes unable to respond to the needs of certain students although she tries to do so. For example, a teacher who has a collectivist cultural lens might be perceived as offensive by a student who has an individualistic cultural lens. Conversely, a teacher who has an individualistic cultural lens might be perceived as unempathetic by a student who has a collectivist cultural lens. In either case, it is obvious that the help attempt of the teacher is not helpful—maybe even harmful. That’s why good teaching does not necessarily mean culturally relevant teaching.

Why culturally relevant teaching is good teaching?

My discussion so far is to say that good teaching might still be limited in considering cultural factors in teaching practices. What we see as culturally relevant teaching is not very different than good teaching—it is good teaching with the awareness of cultural differences. It is important for a teacher to gather information about students’ backgrounds in the class, be aware of the limitations of her teaching practices across different cultural lenses, and extend her repertoire of teaching so that teaching practice is meaningful across different cultures. By considering the cultural context, a teacher can satisfy three aforementioned requirements and practice good teaching that is good across different cultures.

In summary, I believe that making a distinction between good teaching and culturally relevant teaching is important. Culturally relevant teaching is good teaching, but it is more than “just good teaching”. It is good teaching with the awareness of cultural differences. Culturally relevant teaching requires multiple lenses, empathy, and background about the students. In a diverse classroom, in order to practice good teaching with its fullest, we should strive for more culturally aware practices and be open to different approaches in our pedagogy.