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Perspective | Culturally responsive teaching

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The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the March 2023 episode of Education Matters on culturally responsive teaching. 

When students enter a classroom, they bring with them their entire selves. Their identities, strengths and weaknesses, their interests, and their culture often impact how students engage and what they take away from each lesson. North Carolina’s student population is incredibly diverse. Culturally responsive teaching aims to ensure that all students can see themselves in the curriculum, and centers cultural differences as assets to the classroom and school communities.

Culturally responsive teaching raises expectations for all students by removing the assumption that their identities or cultures could be a barrier to academic success. Teachers using culturally responsive practices draw on students’ existing knowledge, experiences, and cultural backgrounds to inform curricula and classroom discussions. These practices benefit all students by helping them to connect the class content to their everyday lives. We know from research and from what we hear from students today that culturally responsive teaching leads students to be more engaged, motivated, and successful. 

Culturally responsive teaching also allows educators to improve their cultural competence and better connect with students. Teachers’ ability to connect and build relationships with their students is essential to good teaching. And we know that teachers are the No. 1 one school-related factor impacting student outcomes. Having this connection with their teacher and seeing themselves represented in the curriculum can help students feel valued and empowered. 

The value of culturally responsive teaching extends far beyond the school experience, as it develops the critical skills in students that are needed to thrive in a global economy. By cultivating empathy, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, students learn to work collaboratively with others who bring different perspectives and experiences. The demands of the 21st century society and economy will require graduates to identify, analyze, and develop solutions to address real-world problems — like climate change, public health crises, political divides, and systemic inequities. Our students are already living in this complicated world, facing hard realities as they navigate current events and reckon with historical truths. We must meet them where they are and ensure they are fully prepared to become leaders in their communities. 

We have made progress toward a more just and equitable world, but we still have much more work to do. Being willing to shift the way we educate our students and engage them more deeply in class content is a part of that work. We live in an ever-evolving world, and all of the children of North Carolina deserve and are constitutionally entitled to a sound basic education that will prepare them for the future. Therefore we have a duty to make sure education is able to evolve as well.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.