A Culturally Responsive Approach to Student Instruction

Effective educational leaders strive for equity of educational opportunity and culturally responsive practices to promote each student’s academic success and well-being.

The principal’s role in creating inclusive schools hinges on their work as advocates for students to have access to appropriately challenging instruction that builds on and respects prior learning and cultures. It’s part of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL): Equity and Cultural Responsiveness. But according to the brief Evolution of the Principalship from a new research series, Leaders We Need Now, from NAESP and the American Institutes for Research, it was a top concern among principals in 2020–2021 that they didn’t have enough time to address, especially during a pandemic and as the national conversation on racial justice swelled.

School’s Changing Role in Equity

The lack of time to substantively address equity and cultural responsiveness led to frustration that more substantive actions on equity and cultural responsiveness could not be addressed.

The pandemic, police violence, and hate crimes highlighted schools’ roles in creating more socially just communities. First, students living in poverty and students of color were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and faced new limitations when attempting to get to school or access virtual learning. Second, many principals said that the national conversation about racism divided some communities and prompted educators to question their beliefs about whether or how schools might have contributed to such inequities.

Despite heightened concerns about equity, most school leaders had not launched professional learning, curriculum review, equity audits, or other efforts to improve equitable access to services, eliminate nondiscriminatory practices, or promote culturally responsive instruction, or they had put related programs or plans on hold for these reasons:

  • The need to listen: Some principals resisted taking immediate actions on fundamental changes to schools because educators felt the need to listen to the national and local dialogue around equity, social justice, and political differences and to understand the experiences of others.
  • The lack of bandwidth: In part, principals did not launch major equity initiatives because schools were engaged in so many other, urgent changes and lacked bandwidth for more actions.

Prioritizing Equity

So how to schools prioritize equity again? A majority of principals planned to launch new, substantive efforts to examine and address inequities after a period of time and reflection. A few principals began to enact new plans to address equity and culturally responsive educational practices:

  • Professional development to examine biases, student inequity, and inclusion by analyzing student data, curricula materials, and instructional practices for inclusivity.
  • Ensuring students have equitable access to technology, food sources, and social supports during the pandemic.
  • Viewing schooling through an equity lens to evaluate school activities from the perspective of inclusion.

To work through strategies to prioritize equity planning, NAESP hosted a Twitter chat to look at ways schools are re-engaging equity planning. Here’s what some of them had to say.

On Representation

“Ensuring that each aspect of teaching and learning reflects and honors the world students live in. Each student must see that who they are and their specific culture is celebrated,” says Donovan Smalls II.

“Engaging in my own PD on understanding my implicit biases to foster that culture for others came first. We continue to diversify our school staff to ensure representation of all cultures matches the makeup of our community. Still more to come but that is our start,” says James Frye.

“Please start with a look at your classroom and school libraries. Are all children and families represented in the books available? And not just during Black History Month. Representation matters!” says Jillayne Flanders.

“Having the courage to ensure the truth is being taught in our history classes, continuing our school-wide equity work, and modeling these actions as the principal,” says Victor Powell.

On Student Support

“Don’t assume that quiet or introverted students don’t have anything to say. Amplify their voices by offering multiple methods of communication. Student voice matters!” says Smalls.

“Meeting students where they are, how they are, and providing safe, challenging, and nurturing spaces for them to achieve self-actualization,” adds Smalls.

“Student voice is truly valuable! Our kids must be a part of the process and discussion,” says Powell.

On Engaging Stakeholders

“Through empathy interviews! Ask stakeholders how they are feeling. What emotions come up from them? Identify common themes and create a roadmap for action,” says William Blake.

“I start with climate surveys, break it down into focus groups and then use that data to collectively identify and prioritize our needs as a community,” says Ryan Daniel.

“Involve them in working groups and conversations about the work. I communicate with my PTO, local government staff, as well as building leadership teams to identify critical needs for our community. Involve everyone who might be affected now or later by decisions,” says Frye.

On Self-Reflection

“Biggest takeaways: This work is heart work. We have to look in the mirror first to do this work. There’s power in the words we choose to use within our communities,” says Daniel.

“We do restorative circles. We talk about brain capacity and ACE scores. Then we also talk about our own reaction to things. For every action there is a reaction,” says Zach Korth.

“This is the true ideal of heart work! It begins with self. Once I acknowledge my bias, I have a clean heart/mind to advance the work. I notice this is the most difficult work to do in our currently reality. Self-awareness is key,” says Blake.

Follow #NAESPchat on Twitter to read responses from this Twitter chat—or add your own! Download research briefs from NAESP’s LWNN research series.