Message from the Dean - July 2012

Culturally Competent and Confident

The leadership team had a two day retreat to reflect on last year and to gear up for the next year.  During our retreat, we spent a portion of our time discussing items that influence or should influence our programs and curriculum.  I view the course syllabi as the manifestation of our curriculum and the essence of our programs.  During the retreat, we discussed how we could engage faculty in review of their syllabi in a holistic, systematic way in order to be cognizant and embracing of the myriad influences on our programs.  When we reviewed the list which included accreditation standards, InTASC standards, Common Core, Iowa Core, Iowa Standards for School Leaders, Military Child Standards, national reform initiatives, state reform initiatives, and the movement toward cultural, linguistic, developmental, and technological competency, there was some healthy dialogue about the latter.

The essence of the discussion was that some of the leaders believed that cultural competency might already be embedded in what we are doing, but my conceptualization may be different from others; therefore, I was asked to define what was different.  I thought that this concept was so pervasive in the broader teacher education context, that I simply assumed that it was embraced by all faculty members as we moved toward premier status.  I could not fathom that anyone could not recognize and believe in the utility of cultural competency being an embedded part of our professional preparation programs. We all recognize that there are no miracles in the hard task of closing the achievement gap, graduating college- and career-ready students, and preparing the next generation professionals to be engaged citizens in a fast-changing, information-saturated world.   

I was cautioned that our immediate sphere of influence is the College of Education and the professional preparation programs within the College and not all of teacher education.  With this new found enlightenment, I recognized that some may not understand the concept of cultural competency; some may already feel they are teaching this concept; and some may see no utility in the concept, which I truly hope is not the case.  Therefore, I will define and defend cultural competency so that we can put to rest the question, “What does the dean mean when he says, he wants our students to exit our programs as culturally competent and confident?”

Cultural Competency – We want to prepare professionals who have the competency to work with diverse learners which refers to race, ethnicity, national origin, and culture but could also include affectional orientation, socio-economic status, military status, geographical upbringing and a myriad of other factors.  I truly believe in the need to isolate and discuss race because if our pre-professionals do not have the competencies to educate, serve, and lead people of races different than their own, then we are not preparing them fully for the realities of their professions. In order to be culturally competent our pre-professionals must also understand, recognize inequities, and be able to frame dialogue and actions that are social justice-based. Our students must understand concepts such as privilege, access, equity, power, marginalization, disenfranchisement and other terms pertaining to critical race theory and social justice.  We have to make sure that when we interrupt them with cognitive dissonance that we do not leave them vacuous and intellectually depleted and that we replace the old knowledge with new concepts and skills so they can assert transformational dispositions.  For instance, if we teach Peggy McIntosh’s concept of white privilege our students may be initially angry and resistant.  How do we guide them to utilize their privilege to become cultural brokers for others?

Recently, the leadership team had a workshop with Heather Hackman, a professor from St. Cloud State University.  The workshop was entitled Diversity, Cultural Competency and Social Justice Education:  An Introduction to the Similarities and Critical Differences with Respect to Effective Racial Justice Work.   In this workshop, she defined each term which I recaptured below so that we can all have a shared knowledge base around these intersecting concepts.

Diversity – The goal of diversity is the awareness of an appreciation of differences. There is a lack of clarity about what the term diversity actually refers to and thus its application is vague and often reduces efficacy.  Diversity is often used as a euphemism for race/racism and therefore does not allow for these issues to be addressed clearly and openly.  Diversity is not about issues of power, privilege or access which are the core elements of every form of oppression.  A diversity approach will not effectively combat racism, sexism, or heterosexism.  However, this approach will engender a generally positive response toward difference in educational settings, but the vagueness will not get at the heart of the concern.

Cultural Competency – The goal of cultural competency is to learn skills to be able to relate across cultural lines.  The problem with cultural competency happens when the dominant culture does not also interrogate its own culture (values, beliefs, assumptions, ways of being, and power), it tends to reinforce the otherness of the cultures being studied, and as a result ends up being a euphemism for assimilation of those other groups of people to the dominant culture at the expense of their own.

Social Justice/Racial Justice – Social and racial justice examines the micro-societal perspective regarding issues of oppression and social change and carefully considers how the macro perspective informs the micro moment in the classroom or professional settings. A social/racial justice approach attends to seek change at the individual level, but sets its sights on changing the systems and structures that perpetuate inequality and inequity in society.  Power and privilege are addressed along the lines of socially-constructed identities and understands that power is both individual, and more importantly tied to social identity group membership. 

The leadership team will continue to learn more about cultural competency and its intersection with social justice and diversity as we read and discuss the book, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.