A teacher left my office in tears. I hadn’t intended to make her cry, but as a new administrator, I took it as my duty to advise the teacher, many years my senior, about how her homework policy could be perceived by different populations of students. The conversation backfired, and the goal of her reevaluating her policy was consumed by the actual outcome: a perception that I was labeling her racist.

Such are the pitfalls of building a “culturally responsive school”—meaning that we use the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and learning styles of diverse students to make learning more engaging and effective. I have learned quite a bit about conducting those conversations in my 11 years as a principal, but what stands out to me is how desperately I needed purposeful training in cultural responsiveness early in my administrative career.

While previously training to become a school counselor, the required cultural immersion course opened my eyes, taught me the importance of empathy, and shifted my thinking about diversity from a deficit to a value. Unfortunately, that experience was not replicated in my principal preparation. And even as I work on my doctorate in education leadership, the prospects for such an experience are not promising. That’s why I was so excited and proud to be part of NASSP’s efforts to promote cultural responsiveness in schools and—more specifically—in principal development. As chair of the advocacy committee for the NASSP Board of Directors, I lead a deliberate process to address the issues of national significance that keep principals up at night. The growing diversity of our student population is cited as a challenge by many school leaders.

A Cultural Snapshot

Nearly half of the students in the United States are students of color, but only 1 in 5 educators similarly identify. This includes 11 percent of principals who identified as black and 8 percent who identified as Hispanic. Research finds that students of color benefit in many ways from having diverse teachers who may serve as role models and are more likely to challenge racial and ethnic stereotypes, build trusting relationships with family members, encourage student engagement, and have higher expectations. Research also shows that teachers from diverse backgrounds and experiences can benefit all students, regardless of race.

NASSP aspires to a more diverse educator workforce, and we advocate for policies to incentivize young people of color to enter and remain in the teaching profession. We also promote strengthening teacher and principal preparation programs at minority-serving institutions, and creating leadership opportunities for teachers of color. But we understand that it will take time to create this new educator pipeline. In the meantime, the percentage of students of color in our schools is expected to grow beyond 55 percent by 2024. Similarly, schools are faced with more students living in poverty; speaking English as second language; and identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). And many students may fall under multiple subgroups.

To educate all students, we have to understand how their backgrounds and experiences provide a filter on how they perceive our words and behaviors. It’s a need to which I am particularly sensitive in my high school of 730 students who speak 11 different languages. But more than facing the challenges of diversity, the NASSP position statement on culturally responsive schools encourages us to embrace people who are different from us and to leverage diversity for the benefit of everyone in the school. It encourages us to provide a space for kids to be who they are, and it asserts that building a culturally responsive school begins with culturally responsive leadership.

Taking Steps Toward Cultural Responsibility

While the position statement offers specific guidance for schools and leaders, we understand that it can be challenging to enact change in your schools without additional funding and support. As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, our priorities focus on strengthening educator preparation programs to help school leaders and teachers know how to create a culturally responsive climate for diverse populations, including children with disabilities, English-language learners, and children from low-income families.

We also encourage states to revise their certification and licensure requirements to ensure that new teachers understand the cultures of the students they teach; how different cultures affect student learning and classroom and school behaviors; and know how to change their management style, discipline policies, and differentiate instruction to embrace the diverse learning styles of their students. Districts can build a baseline for cultural competency for all schools by conducting a cultural audit that incorporates various forms of stakeholder feedback and includes a review of key policies and practices. The results will help district leaders identify areas of improvement and develop strategic goals and objectives.

For me, influenced by University of Minnesota professor Muhammad Khalifa, critical self-reflection is the essence of that leadership. A school can grow outward only if the leader first looks inward and reflects on their own identity, assumptions, beliefs, and values. I must be intentional and transparent in my own—often uncomfortable—journey of cultural awareness before I can credibly accompany anyone else on their journey and, in the language of Building Ranks™: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leadership, “provide actionable feedback that advances the growth of the entire learning community.”

In the context of cultural responsiveness, the reflection-and-feedback loop is absolutely crucial. But it can also be extremely threatening. Consider how teacher behavior is a function of such sensitive constructs as race, religion, or gender identity. A principal who wants to ask people to bare all and be reflective must cultivate a nonjudgmental culture that builds them up and rewards their growth instead of shaming and labeling them. When done correctly, reflection prompts us to reassess values and challenge cultural beliefs, which will ultimately help us honor the diverse identities of the staff and students we serve.

School leaders should examine their data on special education placements; participation in advanced courses; and discipline data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ status, family income, and disability to identify areas for improvement and provide insight on future professional development needs. Plus, administrators must familiarize themselves with culturally responsive pedagogy, and mentor and support teachers as they seek to transform their teaching practices.

That sincere effort cannot happen unless the principal provides a safe space. To that end, small, informal conversations have a bigger impact than large-scale professional development. It is not uncommon, for example, for me to walk through each exchange of a call home about a “disruptive” student to examine how the parent might have heard what the teacher said. Yes, they often get defensive at first. But with a trusting relationship in place, we can overcome defensiveness and consider more transparently what we do and why we do it—without the threat of a racist label.

This transformation begins with leadership. Each of us needs to model the behavior we want to see. From the principal’s perspective, if we can’t have these conversations at the highest level of leadership—in the central office and at district principal meetings—we can’t ask teachers and students to do it. But with a shared commitment, there is no limit to how a focus on cultural responsiveness can empower each student and adult in the learning community to fulfill their own potential and find value in one another.

Aaron Huff is principal of Bosse High School in Evansville, IN, and serves as a chair of the advocacy committee for the NASSP Board of Directors.