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May 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 8

How Leaders Can Support Culturally Responsive Instruction

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One step toward better supporting teachers of color is giving them the discretion to make their instruction relevant and empowering.

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EquityInstructional Strategies
A teacher of color stands in front of a diverse group of students who are working in a classroom
Credit: Drazen Zigic / istock
If I could change anything about my job, I would change the expectations about the curriculum and the content I am asked to teach. Learners deserve to have a worldwide perspective . . . to understand the truth about themselves and other people. The world is so much more multidimensional than it’s portrayed in our textbooks, but I’m limited in how I can respond in my classroom.
Danielle
Danielle’s words resonated with me long after our Zoom conversation concluded. I met Danielle in the spring of 2021, when I was conducting a national study exploring the chosen pedagogies of teachers of color. Danielle, like many of the teachers I interviewed, emphasized the importance of classroom instruction that not only challenged the status quo, but also incorporated perspectives and counter-narratives of underrepresented communities. This sentiment was heightened by the hyper-visibility of inequalities exposed by the pandemic. Danielle, however, felt boxed in. Like other teachers I talked to for the study, she felt limited in her ability to make curriculum and content decisions—a limitation that felt in direct opposition to her deep-rooted commitment to students.
Teachers across the nation grapple with how to best serve learners in an increasingly complex ecosystem. Teachers’ work—and the content they teach—is increasingly impacted by social conflicts, global challenges, and resource disparities in their communities. Yet like Danielle, many teachers of color face obstacles on a local level to teaching in a way that helps learners understand these issues and their relevance to learners’ everyday lives. Standardized testing and instructional mandates often constrain teacher agency. In some cases, teachers’ autonomy is undermined altogether, as when they are subject to harsh consequences for noncompliance with book bans, sanitized depictions of American history, and other policies that make school unsafe, particularly for young people of color (Burmester & Howard, 2022).

A Key Moment to Champion Agency

The weakening of teacher agency has wide-ranging effects in education. Teacher turnover is alarmingly high, further fracturing the stability of the teacher workforce and learners’ access to high-quality instruction (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2019). Many teachers attribute turnover to feeling burned out, ­unsupported, and disempowered as autonomous decision-makers. Particularly concerning is the disproportionate turnover of teachers of color in comparison to their white peers (Ingersoll et al., 2021). A robust research base reveals that teachers of color are associated with multiple benefits for learners, particularly for those of color (Gershenson et al., 2022; Hwang, Graff, & Berends, 2023). Yet teachers of color are often confronted with top-down policies that handicap their ability to develop lessons that are rigorous, responsive to global events, and relevant. Many also often face bias, micro­aggressions, tokenism, and other manifestations of hostile racial climates that further erode their workplace satisfaction and contribute to turnover and attrition (Amos, 2020).

During challenging sociopolitical times, mentoring and coaching offer teachers tailored support in navigating complex issues and incorporating them into their teaching.

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To help bolster the profession amid these challenges, school leaders need to strongly champion teacher agency, particularly for teachers of color. They must intentionally nurture environments where teachers of color feel trusted and empowered. One important step to restoring agency for teachers of color is to support educators in using culturally responsive teaching methods, as many want to, so they can equip ­students to navigate an increasingly interconnected world.

What Is Culturally Responsive Instruction?

Culturally responsive instruction (CRI) is an umbrella term for a diverse set of pedagogies teachers use that identify learners’ current schema and help learners access, display, and gain new knowledge and skills. ­Culturally responsive instruction also positions the classroom as a site for social change and ­collective empowerment. Learners are treated as capable, agentic intellectuals whose insights are resources for learning.
There are different forms of CRI, such as culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2014), culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2013), and culturally and historically responsive frameworks (Muhammad, 2020). While these approaches are distinct, at their core each seeks to amplify cultural ways of being and knowing that are underrepresented, misrepresented, or wholly absent in curricular materials and other aspects of learning.
Within the framework of CRI, how teachers teach is as important as what they teach. High expectations and meaningful relationships between teachers and learners, as well as intellectual and emotional safety, are bedrocks of CRI (Gist, 2014). While culturally responsive instruction can and should be a hallmark for teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, many teachers of color are often especially skilled in—and committed to—using culturally responsive approaches to build relationships with learners, foster critical thinking, and bridge gaps between home and school (Aronson & Laughter, 2016).

Four Ways to Champion Agency for Teachers of Color

Below are four entry points for leaders to support teacher agency and culturally responsive approaches. These ideas are grounded in a combination of research and my experience as a researcher and practitioner who supports culturally responsive educators.

1. Acknowledge that culturally responsive instruction matters.

Championing teacher agency and culturally responsive instruction requires understanding the benefits of trusting teachers to use methods they know can be impactful for learners. True cultural responsiveness is not just teaching about “heroes and ­holidays”—it’s a catalyst for learning and academic growth, including improved literacy and math achievement and test score improvement (Bui & Fagen, 2013; Choi, 2013). Teachers can integrate culturally responsive instruction into their classroom to support positive identity development. Such instruction validates and leverages students’ background knowledge and experiences, meets them where they are, and provides affirming methods and materials. Leaders can signal to teachers that cultural responsiveness matters by integrating these principles into a school’s vision and mission. In this way, leaders demonstrate that cultural responsiveness is not an add-on but a central ­component of the school’s identity and purpose.

2. Assess your school’s readiness.

Getting your organization positioned to support CRI is essential because teachers of color thrive in environments where there’s a synergy between the school’s values and their own goals. This requires that schools affirm the cultural backgrounds and strengths of students (particularly students of color) and trust the professional judgment of teachers of color to implement strategies that empower their learners. Yesenia, a new teacher whose administration supported her culturally responsive methods such as using bilingual texts, told me, “Coming to school is something I look forward to every day, knowing that the diverse backgrounds of my ­students of color are appreciated.”
Leaders can assess organizational readiness for CRI by conducting a landscape analysis of materials like district curricula protocols, instructional guidebooks, scope and sequences, and book lists. It’s important to consider what cultural approaches and interpretations are emphasized in various content areas. If different cultural backgrounds and interpretations are presented, leaders should reflect on how they are presented—whether these representations reinforce cultural stereotypes or reflect a narrative of dignity, shared humanity, and joy. It’s also helpful to examine any professional development materials to explore the types of pedagogical approaches that are endorsed and the extent to which teachers are empowered to explore different approaches that honor learners’ cultural backgrounds.
Assessing organizational readiness must also center teacher voice. Teachers spend countless hours reviewing data, engaging learners in the classroom, talking with families, and preparing lessons. They know their learners best. It’s critical to honor the perspectives of teachers of color, particularly when they hold shared backgrounds with their learners. Leaders can use surveys or brief touch points, sometimes called “pulse” meetings, to learn about the strengths and missed opportunities teachers see in the curriculum.
Once a leader emerges with the findings of the landscape analysis, it’s critical to create quantitative, time-bound goals and metrics for making the school more supportive of CRI and communicate these to all involved parties. Goals may include choosing new curricula (and inviting teachers and community members into the process) or creating institutional policies and systems that give teachers more autonomy over their daily classroom decisions.

3. Support teachers’ capacity to use culturally responsive instruction.

Leaders can use many strategies to support teachers’ knowledge of, and implementation of, CRI, including the following:

Peer Learning and Collaboration

Peer learning and collaboration involve creating opportunities for teachers to engage with peers who share similar pedagogical interests, allowing them to learn from each other’s instructional practices. During collaboration sessions, teachers can share and refine lesson plans, co-develop instructional strategies, evaluate student work, or showcase successful classroom activities. Peer learning and collaboration become even more crucial when teachers need to present to students complex or controversial content. By drawing on the insights of peers, teachers can ensure they are teaching content in ways that are relevant, engaging, and sensitive to the diverse needs of their learners.
Peer learning and collaboration can be integrated into professional development days or scheduled during common planning times. It’s crucial for school leaders to allocate specific times during the school day for these collaborative sessions. This time must be safeguarded and not encroached upon by other duties. By doing so, leaders emphasize the significance of teachers exchanging ideas and developing learning opportunities in line with their collective goals for culturally responsive instruction. It’s also helpful to set up ways for teachers to observe in each other’s classrooms, such as through instructional rounds.
As a leadership coach working with schools and districts, I’ve incorporated these strategies into my work with teacher leaders. We’ve established weekly collaborations where grade-level or content-area teams meet to develop shared lessons or instructional practices. This process not only fosters a sense of community among teachers, but also enhances the quality of instruction.

Mentorship and Coaching

Mentorship and coaching can enhance teachers’ understanding and use of CRI. During challenging socio­political times, mentoring and coaching become especially crucial; they offer teachers tailored support in navigating complex issues and ­incorporating them into their teaching.
For example, Dixon, an assistant principal I’ve worked with, has teacher leaders and experienced educators of color mentor novice staff members of color. He arranges for teacher leaders and novice teachers within the same content team to co-teach a class, naturally facilitating the transfer of effective teaching ­strategies and innovative techniques. He’s careful to match teachers of color who have similar pedagogical interests.

Affinity Groups

Teachers of color need access to supportive networks of educators with whom they share similar backgrounds, to understand the challenges they face in the workplace and share tactics to foster resiliency and joy. Affinity groups are gatherings of individuals of similar backgrounds and interests in which people make meaning of shared experiences and collaborate around common goals. For teachers of color, these groups are safe spaces in which they can share identity-based experiences and how these experiences manifest within the workplace. Affinity groups can explore shared interests in terms of instructional approaches, doing things like book studies to deepen their understanding of culturally relevant pedagogies. Leaders might work with teachers to start affinity groups for educators in their buildings or partner with organizations that lead affinity groups for educators of color, such as the Black Teacher Project or Teach Plus. The National Equity Project provides an online repository of national affinity groups.

Assessing organizational readiness for culturally responsive instruction must center teacher voice.

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4. Advocate for systems that uphold teacher agency.

Often the costs of education accountability mandates are a narrowed curriculum, de-emphasis of higher-order thinking, and an environment of external control and monitoring. Describing her experiences as an educator of a tested content area, a teacher named Jamie told me, “I feel micromanaged to teach in one way. My lesson plans are constantly ­scrutinized to ensure I narrowly focus on test preparation materials. . . . If the tasks I give the kids don’t look exactly like the state test, I feel like I’m looked at as a bad teacher.” Jamie’s comments reveal the tensions that emerge when institutional policies de-professionalize teachers. To elevate the status of teaching, leaders must become vocal advocates for policies that respect teachers as content experts and qualified professionals.
Leaders can play a pivotal role by participating in local advocacy groups. In Pennsylvania, where I reside, leaders have collaborated with teacher preparation programs and other education groups to establish the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium. Their advocacy has led to the Pennsylvania Department of Education codifying culturally responsive instruction into nine competencies and embedding these standards into state laws related to educator preparation and professional development. Pennsylvania teachers now have state-supported freedom to incorporate elements of culturally responsive instruction into their teaching.

Empowering Teachers, Enriching Learning

Championing teacher agency through support or cultural responsiveness, particularly for teachers of color, is a necessity, not just an option. Leaders have a crucial role in fostering environments where culturally responsive instruction thrives, empowering teachers to use their expertise and experience to enrich every student’s learning journey. Not only will such environments better support learners, they will help build and sustain a more diverse educator workforce. Through the entry points described here, leaders can work in tandem with teachers to lift student learning and foster a future where critical thinking, cultural appreciation, and ­anti-oppression are realities in schools.

Support and Retain Educators of Color

Andrea Terrero Gabbadon presents six principles to guide school leaders in their efforts to support and retain educators of color.

Support and Retain Educators of Color
References

Amos, Y. T. (2020). “Are you gonna take my job away?”: Latina bilingual education teachers’ relationships with white colleagues in a white racial frame. Urban Education, 55(4), 640–666.

Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163–206.

Bui, Y. N., & Fagan, Y. M. (2013). The effects of an integrated reading comprehension strategy: A culturally responsive teaching approach for fifth-grade learners’ reading comprehension. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 57(2), 59–69.

Burmester, S., & Howard, L. C. (2022). Confronting book banning and assumed curricular neutrality: A critical inquiry framework. Theory Into Practice, 61(4), 373–383.

Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The trouble with teacher turnover: How teacher attrition affects learners and schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 27(36).

Choi, Y. (2013). Teaching social studies for newcomer English language learners: Toward culturally relevant pedagogy. Multicultural Perspectives, 15(1), 12–18.

Gay, G. (2013). Culturally responsive teaching principles, practices, and effects. In Handbook of urban education (pp. 391–410). Routledge.

Gershenson, S., Hart, C. M., Hyman, J., Lindsay, C. A., & Papageorge, N. W. (2022). The long-run impacts of ­same-race teachers. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 14(4), 300–342.

Gist, C. D. (2014). The culturally responsive teacher educator. The Teacher Educator, 49(4), 265–283.

Hwang, N., Graff, P., & Berends, M. (2023). Timing and frequency matter: Same race/ethnicity teacher and student achievement by school level and classroom organization. ­Educational Policy, 37(5), 1349–1379.

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., Collins, G., & Harrison, B. (2021). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force. Research report. ­Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74–84.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. ­Scholastic.

Andrea Terrero Gabbadon (Philadelphia, PA) is a professor of education, professional learning designer and facilitator, and qualitative researcher with a background in teaching and instructional leadership. She is affiliated with Temple University and Swarthmore College and is the founder and senior consultant at ILM Consulting Group.

She presents more than 60 times a year on average and has a principal’s certification, a master's degree in school leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in policy and organizational studies from Temple University.

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