Making Culturally Appropriate Practices The Norm

In my early years as a principal, I did not fully understand the significance of seeing my work through a culturally responsive lens. My current role as an instructor of educational leadership allows me to work with and learn from a diverse group of equity-​oriented school leaders who are dedicated to making culturally appropriate practices the norm.

I have seen growing numbers of principals take up the work of leading culturally responsive schools. New leaders not only recognize bias and the harm it inflicts on students, but they also work courageously to confront prejudice and other forms of bigotry in their local contexts. They act with cultural humility and are deeply aware of the power imbalances that lead to disparities in children’s life chances. They seem to be naturally driven to increase opportunities for the most neglected and vulnerable students.

Regrettably, affronts against children by race, class, culture, creed, and nationality happen all too frequently in our schools. Newcomer immigrants, refugees, and students of racial or ethnic minorities are typically those who suffer the most. No student should be the victim of injustice.

Set the Foundation for Inclusive and Bias-Free Schools

Before leaders can set the stage for inclusive and welcoming schools, they must give serious thought to their school’s culture and climate. The first step is creating a shared vision of the school’s core values and purpose to create an inclusive school centered on diverse student identities.

Quick checks on the current reality help inform the mission. (See Quick Check questionnaire below.) After discussing the key indicators of culturally responsive curriculum, instruction, and materials, new and aspiring leaders are asked to assess their schools on essential questions. Then they identify and discuss the bright spots and areas of challenge. They learn they have already acquired a foundation for leading culturally responsive and bias-free schools.

Engage the Community in the Work to Re-Norm Schools

Meeting the challenge of re-norming schools for cultural responsiveness is no easy task. It takes a collaborative effort among diverse stakeholders to develop a worldview that welcomes the cultural wealth of the school community. Collaborators must first consider the history, routines, and practices of the local community. The broader challenge is to establish a shared agreement that education is a community-based responsibility and that relationships are central to re-norming schools as culturally responsive places of learning.

In culturally responsive schools, principals put their values into action by forming alliances across differences and uniting the whole school community around the common mission. Principals must model the way forward with authentic engagement in the local community. This work can help recharge the school and engage the community’s youth, families, and elders in practices that are asset-based, affirming, and culturally appropriate.

Employ Practical Tools for Leading Culturally Responsive Schools

The following 10 tools offer seeds of inspiration for emerging and veteran principals who aspire to put culturally appropriate practices into their learning communities and daily classroom routines.

  1. Initiate a community conversation to address the difficult questions.

Find out what is important to families and caregivers in your local community. Consider ways your community can work with you to minimize bias and prejudice and ensure all children are treated fairly. Support families with tools to create dialogue with their children about difficult issues. Use resources such as “Talking with Kids” from ChildrenNow.org. Julian Weissglass outlines how to ensure safety in sharing cultural stories in his Educational Leadership article, “Deepening Our Dialogue About Equity.” Equity protocols can lead to personal transformations that are necessary for creating culturally responsive schools.

      2. Reflect on the message in your vision statement.

Does your vision honor students’ multicultural and multilingual identities? Language is crucial to sustaining culture and heritage. Invite families and community members whose home language is not English to help reframe the vision. Reflect on your role as principal in shaping school culture and cementing ties with the broader community. Relationships with business and community members can yield rich resources that are available in your school’s backyard.

        3. Assess your school’s culturally appropriate practices.

Use the Quick Check questionnaire to assess your school’s culturally appropriate practices. Go deeper with an equity audit provided by Linda Skrla, Kathryn Bell McKenzie, and James Joseph Scheurich in the book Using Equity Audits to Create Equitable and Excellent Schools. Provide dedicated time for your leadership team to rethink the policies and practices they want to discard and those they want to retain or launch. Getting to the heart of equity-oriented policies is necessary if schools are to dismantle deficit thinking and dispel the myths that keep students from achieving their potential. Lois Brown Easton suggests ways to make this happen using the protocol “so what, now what” in her book Engaging the Disengaged: How Schools Can Help Struggling Students Succeed.

          4. Examine the instructional materials in your school.

Do your instructional materials help students find and value their own voices, histories, and cultures? Refresh your school library with stories that feature multiple voices and ways of knowing and understanding life. Frame culturally relevant issues in ways that are accessible to students in your local context. Distribute student-centered materials developed by sources such as “The Learning Network” from The New York Times, or subscribe to Scholastic News, which posts a weekly magazine featuring current events for students in various parts of the world. Such materials can take children beyond their immediate environment to a range of cultural perspectives and worldviews.

5. Ask teachers and staff to examine their own biases. 

Examining one’s own beliefs is a deeply personal matter. Make it clear from the onset that the result of any assessment of bias will not be shared publicly. The score is for private reflection of one’s assumptions, positions, and behaviors. The “Test Yourself for Hidden Bias” assessment found at www.tolerance.org can be used to uncover implicit, or unconscious, biases. The willingness to examine our own biases is an important step in understanding the roots of stereotype and prejudice. Ask teachers to watch a YouTube video by Patricia Devine on “Kicking the Prejudice Habit.” The choices we make can either maintain or break our habits about race, class, sexual orientation, disability, and other biases.

          6. Create a sense of urgency about reducing deeply rooted biases.

Schedule ongoing professional development on what is needed to challenge deeply rooted prejudice and bias. Ask innovative teachers to facilitate job-embedded professional learning on how they are working to create an environment that affirms all student identities. Have any teachers initiated virtual exchanges between your school and a school in another country? How are teachers promoting social and emotional learning, trauma-informed instruction, and multicultural communication in their classrooms?

          7. Examine the results of your hiring decisions.

Do you have an overrepresentation of white female staff or an underrepresentation by race and ethnicity? Personnel who reflect your school’s demographics typically exhibit the spirit of “giving back.” They hold an attitude of reciprocity in mutual learning with and from students, educators, families, and communities. In their article “Diversifying the Classroom: Examining the Teacher Pipeline,” Constance Lindsay, Erica Blom, and Alexandra Tilsley show that students of color do better in school when they are exposed to teachers of their same race or ethnicity. Schools and districts can increase the diversity of their workforce by growing their own pool of diverse candidates and building networks of support across schools to help retain new hires.

8. Engage your leadership team in culturally relevant book studies.

Book studies provide opportunities to nourish your leadership teams in authentic conversations about what it means to support culturally responsive classrooms. Open the book study with what participants agree with, what they argue with, and what they aspire to do for positive change. Geneva Gay’s article, “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching,” serves as a good discussion starter. Follow up with an examination of Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition of cultural responsiveness in her book The Dreamkeepers.

          9. Break down student cliques that perpetuate bullying.  

Start a Friday “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” inspired by www.tolerance.org. When students sit in mixed groups, it becomes more difficult to ignore everyone’s unique assets. Introduce “No Place for Hate” from the Anti-Defamation League. Or initiate peace-building and restorative justice activities that can be applied to overcome silence and foster student voice. Generations for Peace provides tools to engage students in building peace through sports, arts, reading, and dialogue.

         10. Post a global map in the front hallway of your school.

Pin the map with the country of ancestral origin of your students and staff. Encourage conversations that value all points of origin. Knowledge of place tends to deepen understanding of one’s own place in the larger world. The map serves as a visible reminder of what your school is doing to welcome students’ cultural backgrounds and heritage languages into the life of the school.

These 10 tools offer ways to reimagine schools as resilient communities of learning that are immersed in students’ unique identities. Setting the foundation is essential for creating inclusive and bias-free schools. The reward comes when all students find a sense of hope that they can make a difference in their own lives and in their communities.


Sheri Williams, EdD, is an associate professor in the educational leadership program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NM.


Sidebar: Quick Check: Assess your School’s Culturally Appropriate Practices

Rating Scale: 1=Developing; 2=Applying; 3=Innovating

  • To what level is your school’s core curriculum centered on the cultures, languages, and heritages that support student academic success and well-being?
  • To what level is your schoolwide instruction concentrated on culturally responsive teaching practices that create an engaged culture of inquiry and learning?
  • To what level does your school provide students with equitable access to materials and learning resources that are culturally and linguistically relevant to local customs, norms, and the unique identities of your students?

Source: S. Williams, associate professor of educational leadership, University of New Mexico