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Out of the Shallows: Four Principles for Diving Deeper into Culturally Responsive Practices

The continued presence of the racial achievement gap is not merely an indication of how poorly individual students perform, but more of an indication of a school’s lack of effectiveness to teach certain students. True or false? Depending on how one answers the previous question ultimately depends on one’s understanding of the importance of culturally responsive practices in the classroom. Critical to the reform of negative educational opportunities, outcomes, and experiences for marginalized students is the presence of effective and culturally responsive educators in the classroom (Banks, 2019; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009). Unfortunately, many culturally conscious efforts fall short of meeting the needs of diverse students because many educators have not had practice in developing sound, in-depth principles of culturally responsive teaching. If teachers are ever going to get real about the equity efforts in education and become truly responsive educators, they have got to get out of the shallows, dive more in-depth, and start getting real about what it takes to become a culturally responsive teacher.

Unfortunately, in today’s educational landscape of increased efforts and attention towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural responsiveness, many educators have shallow understandings or flat out rejections of many of these approaches. In its purest form, “culturally responsive teaching involves using the cultures, experiences, and perspectives of African, Native, Latino and Asian American students as filters through which to teach them academic knowledge and skills” (Gay & Kirkland, 2003, p.181). It also involves, but is not limited to, “…unpacking unequal distributions of power and privilege, and teaching students of color cultural competence about themselves and each other.” (Gay & Kirkland, 2003, p. 181). These deep and critical understandings are needed to increase our effectiveness with our diverse learners and create more positive and equitable learning environments for them.

It may feel like the recent surge of attention surrounding these efforts is an indication that culturally responsive teaching and its practices are now commonplace, openly accepted, and implemented by educators at large. Unfortunately, for many classrooms and schools across the country, culturally responsive teaching and its practices are not the norm, yet. Many marginalized students attend schools and reside in classes with teachers who are not effective in culturally responsive practices. As a result, it is common for many students of color, many English language learners, students with special needs, and many students living below the poverty line to experience learning environments that are not only unresponsive, but negative, discriminatory, and academically unengaging (Milner et al., 2019).

After years of witnessing (and participating in) various forms of this phenomenon as a student, educator, and a parent, this idea of growing and deepening teachers’ understanding of how to become genuinely culturally responsive educators has become an immediate pursuit for me. In the pursuit of working with educators on deepening their understandings of culturally responsive teaching, I found four guiding principles to be effective in helping educators become truly responsive educators. Ultimately, to become a truly culturally responsive educator, teachers must know how to embrace, empower, educate, and include every student, every day.

Embracing All Students

Every student deserves to enter a learning environment that is welcoming and affirming of the many identities they bring into the classroom. This kind of environment works to ensure that every race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, language, religion, and socioeconomic status is not only acknowledged as essential but relevant to the learning process. Ultimately, this is an environment that embraces all students and makes all students feel safe. It is also a foundational aspect of building a positive and caring school climate. To do this, we must know more about student likes, dislikes, learning styles, family background, learning preferences, favorite books, and even communication patterns. Even more so, we must have authentic knowledge about their cultures and identities. Essentially, teachers must begin to reconcile with the warnings from multicultural scholars such as Dr. James A. Banks (2019), Dr. Geneva Gay (2010), and Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2009). They must understand that transforming the educational opportunities and outcomes for our diverse students “requires that they have knowledge of the cultural characteristics of different ethnic groups and of how culture affects teaching and learning” (Gay, 2010, p. 245).

Empowering All Students

An empowering school culture is a collaborative one! Building collaborative relationships between students, families, and their communities is a critical element in helping students and families make the positive changes they hope to see in education and the world! This kind of education does not just teach “the standards” but allows students to think critically and question their learning environments. It also empowers them to remove any barriers that keep them from fair and equitable learning opportunities. Ultimately, an empowering school is the embodiment of positive change by advocating for their students and being the change themselves. Just as a doctor cannot be an effective surgeon if they cannot advocate for the needs of their patients; schools in today’s multiracial society cannot be effective in educating diverse students if they do not commit to eradicating all forms of individual and structural oppression, inequality, and discrimination present within classrooms and schools.

Educating All Students

The historical and current trends in underachievement for many marginalized students underscores the need for reform in the way schools educate diverse students. High expectations and rigorous curriculum for every student are essential in making sure this happens. Instruction should also consider how different students learn and encourage students to take intellectual risks in growing in their understanding of the world around them. A 21st-century school does not just prepare students to succeed academically on standardized tests, but also to think critically, and function positively cross-culturally in a growing global economy and world. To do this, the voices and needs of culturally, linguistically, socioeconomically, religiously diverse, and differently abled students need to be included in the creation of school practices, policies, and curriculums. The low-quality curriculum and low expectations that many students of color have experienced and continue to experience on behalf of teachers and schools should no longer remain pushed under the rug and covered-up with surface-level approaches to diversity, but critically exposed and culturally responsive solutions put in place to reduce its occurrence in the future.

Including All Students

An inclusive environment seeks to elevate historically marginalized and silenced voices, experiences, and perspectives. It welcomes diverse learning styles and aims to dismantle the assumption of the superiority of dominant norms and beliefs in education. An inclusive environment values diversity and sees it as a strength, not a problem. This kind of environment makes sure that all students see accurate, complete, and positive representations of not only themselves but others in their learning environments. Because research tells us that students’ racial identities have direct correlations to their academic achievement (Carter, 2008) and students in identity safe classrooms perform better on standardized tests than those who are not (Cohn-Vargas, 2015); teachers must become equipped to create identity-safe and affirming classrooms for all students.

Together Towards Change

How are we going to make sure teachers can move deeper into culturally responsive practices? The key component in teachers being able to embody these principals in the classroom relies on them having ample opportunity to examine how their own racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, religious, or political beliefs influence their beliefs about how they think a good student looks, acts, sounds, and thinks. They need to know how their assumptions and knowledge influence how they teach, what they teach, who and where they teach, and how they interact with diverse students and families. It must be clear: Teachers cannot build relationships with and have collaborative interactions among those they fear, hate, pity, or view in deficit or inferior ways.

Also, educational institutions that train teachers need to place more significant investments in culturally responsive, culturally-sustaining, and equity-based education for pre-service and in-service teachers (Jackson & Boutte, 2018). Not only that, but on-going opportunities for reflective thinking about our culturally responsive efforts should be commonplace in teacher professional development (Gay & Kirkland, 2003; Grice, 2019). Done with purpose, intention, and humility, this type of self-reflection has the power to transform teachers into culturally conscious educators who are now agents of change in the classroom, who are not only aware of but responsive to the needs of all of their students (Grice, 2019). The teachers that can successfully do this are going to reap the benefits of having new lenses to see the achievement gaps marginalized students experience as less of a lack of ability but a lack of opportunity and access to equitable schooling.

Together, we can move more profoundly into authentic, culturally responsive practices. Together, we can create schools where all students feel welcomed, valued, and included. I am ready for a lasting change in how we approach culturally responsive education. It is time for teachers to become uncomfortable with being comfortable on the surface of their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in schools. It is time to make deeper commitments to culturally responsive education, not just for ourselves but also for our students.


Banks, J.A. (2019). An introduction to multicultural education. (6th ed.). Pearson.

Carter, D. J. (2008). Cultivating a critical race consciousness for African American school success. Educational Foundations, 11-28.

Cohn-Vargas, B. (2015). Identity safe classrooms and schools. Teaching Tolerance.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Gay, G., & Kirkland, K. (2003). Developing cultural critical consciousness and self-reflection in pre-service teacher education. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 181-187.

Grice, S. (2019). The conscious educator: Becoming culturally responsive teachers and schools. Bookstand Publishing.

Jackson, T. O. & Boutte, G. S. (2018). Exploring culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy as praxis in teacher education, The New Educator, 14(2), 87-90.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. Jossey-Bass.

Milner, H. R., Cunningham. H. B., Delale-O’Connor, L., & Kestenberg, E. G. (2019). These kids are out of control: Why we must reimagine classroom management for equity. Corwin.

About the Author

Salandra Grice

Facebook: @ConsciousEd Twitter: @GriceSalandra Instagram: @salandragrice

Salandra Grice is a former educator, national presenter, founder, and lead Equity Education Consultant of Conscious Education Consulting, LLC. She has placed the dynamic strategies and reflective practices she utilizes to support educators in developing an equity mindset into a teacher-friendly yet robust format any educator dedicated to the needs of diverse students can grow within. As a follow-up to her introduction to culturally responsive teaching in The Conscious Educator, this book presents educators with the next practical steps to continue their journey in growing as conscious educators and keeps them aiming for equity in all they do.

Book Description: As K-12 schools continue to grow increasingly diverse, many teachers and schools struggle with supporting the academic, social, and emotional needs of the culturally and linguistically diverse students they serve. Much of this struggle comes from a lack of understanding of the goals and aims of equity in education. As misinformation mounts about the causes and implications of the continued inequities experienced by historically marginalized students, teachers and school leaders need sound, research-based, and practical knowledge about concepts and principles which reverse these trends and best support the academic and social needs of every learner.

Embrace, Empower, Educate, and Include provides educators with ready-to-implement and transformative principles grounded in culturally responsive and equity-focused pedagogies and practices. Full of resources and real-life examples of equitable practices that work, this book is a must-have for every educator in today's classrooms and schools! These four principles: embrace, empower, educate, and include, which are foundational in supporting equitable and culturally responsive teaching practices are what every educator needs to create learning environments that elevate the learning experiences of every student, every day!

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