Educator Spotlight: Culturally Responsive Teaching with Carola Suarez-Orozco
The students entering schools in the United States this fall are the most diverse cohort in the country’s history. Across the world, the remarkable diversity of students has prompted many educators to reflect on their own teaching practice. What can they do to ensure that their classrooms support rigorous, relevant, and reflective learning for all their students? One answer is to learn and adopt culturally responsive learning practices.
University of Washington Profession of Education Geneva Gay defines culturally responsive teaching as “the behavioral expressions of knowledge, beliefs, and values that recognize the importance of racial and cultural diversity in learning. It is contingent on . . . seeing cultural differences as assets; creating caring learning communities where culturally different individuals and heritages are valued; using cultural knowledge of ethnically diverse cultures, families, and communities to guide curriculum development, classroom climates, instructional strategies, and relationships with students; challenging racial and cultural stereotypes, prejudices, racism, and other forms of intolerance, injustice, and oppression; being change agents for social justice and academic equity; mediating power imbalances in classrooms based on race, culture, ethnicity, and class; and accepting cultural responsiveness as endemic to educational effectiveness in all areas of learning for students from all ethnic groups.”
To learn more about culturally responsive teaching, we turned to our own Carola Suarez-Orozco. Carola is leading a Spencer Foundation study of Measures of Effective Teaching. Included in that work is a tool for observing culturally responsive teaching. We have adapted the tool to encourage reflection on our own culturally responsive practices as educators. In our discussion with Carola, she reflects on the importance of culturally responsive teaching.
Adam: How did you get interested in culturally responsive teaching?
Carola: There are myriad reasons to be interested in this topic.
I personally first became hooked on the topic when doing classroom observations (first as a school psychologist and later as a researcher) I noticed that students were more likely to be engaged in the enterprise of learning, when the topic of study, somehow reflected them in some way in the lesson.
I have had cultural responsive teaching the back of my mind for quite some time now for a couple of reasons. One is that my topical area of interest in research has been student academic engagement; cultural responsive pedagogy is a means to that end. Secondly, the population that I have concentrated my work with has been immigrant origin students—the fastest growing student demographic in our schools and currently one-quarter of our school population.
Adam: How do you define culturally responsive teaching and what does it look like in the classroom?
Carola: Jim Banks and his colleagues including Geneva Gay and Sonia Nieto have thought about this topic longer and harder than I and have, and have elaborated on this idea at length. A really good read is—Diversity within Unity in which they elaborate 12 principles of teaching in a diverse society.
My focus, probably because I was trained as a clinical psychologist, is the WHO of is in our classrooms. What histories (both familial and personal) do students bring to class? What do they have on their minds as they come to school as they arrive at school? Are they treated respectfully in daily interactions? What will intrigue them, spark their curiosities, and engage classmates in conversation?
Adam: What led you to develop a tool for considering culturally responsive teaching in the classroom?
Recently, I began a study, funded by the Spencer Foundation which provided my research team with the opportunity to view hundreds of video tapes of classrooms gathered as part of the Measures of Effective Teaching Study. As part of our study, we wanted to have a systematic way to code across classrooms the degree to which culturally responsive teaching was happening.
Adam: What have you seen so far?
Carola: Our findings are still very preliminary but I have been struck by how infrequently we see culturally relevant pedagogy—particularly the degree to which cultural knowledge of diverse cultures, families, and communities to guide curriculum and classroom discourse.
Adam: What can teachers who have diverse classrooms of students including immigrant origin students do to be culturally responsive?
Carola: The first step is to stop, reflect, and self-assess to get a baseline of your own teaching. From there, you can think about where you can work to enhance your teaching to become more culturally responsive. Talk to your colleagues and discuss strategies. Reading on the topic as well as attending professional development is another strategy. Remember that this is a continual process; by engaging reflectively each individual student, your whole class, and you will grow in the process.
We have modified our scale and created a culturally responsive teaching teacher reflection checklist as a way to begin this process. We hope you find it helpful.
 Gay, Geneva. 2010. Culturally responsive teaching: theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College, 31.