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The Importance of Cultural Awareness for Educators

Cultural awareness is fundamental to providing an equitable learning environment for all students. A classroom that values equality is not the same as one that values equity. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent two approaches to teaching with very different goals and outcomes.

Equality is the idea that all students should receive equal treatment: If one student receives a book to take home, all students should receive a book to take home. Equity is the idea that resources should be provided to students based on their needs to ensure all have opportunities to succeed. In the prior example, this might mean that all students receive a book to take home (equality), but students whose first language is not English receive books tailored to their language skills (equity).

Through the Master of Science in Education (MSEd) and Endorsement online programs offered by Southern Oregon University (SOU), students learn the importance of cultural awareness and develop strategies to foster safer, more productive learning experiences.

What Is Cultural Awareness?

Cultural awareness is the first step to building a culturally responsive approach to teaching. Education Next notes that the National Education Association (NEA) defines cultural awareness competence as being aware of one’s own cultural identity and biased views and having the ability to learn and utilize the varied cultural and community norms of students and families. Taking a student’s culture into account as a foundation for learning, communicating expectations and adjusting curriculum to reflect diversity leads to better outcomes.

Cultural awareness does not reduce racial, gender or socioeconomic groups to monoliths. Rather, it helps educators recognize the uniqueness of each student and the differences between groups that make communities — and their school systems — vibrant.

Culturally responsive teaching builds on cultural awareness, using that competence to better communicate with students and their families. The goal is to empower students by understanding their cultural backgrounds and tailoring learning to meet and celebrate their experiences.

Why Is Cultural Awareness Important?

Student performance can be largely impacted by the educator/student “culture gap,” which is any difference between two cultures that prevents mutual understanding or relations. The U.S. is becoming more racially, linguistically and ethnically diverse, with over half of all public-school students a part of underrepresented groups today, according to “The Condition of Education 2021.” Yet, because the U.S. teacher populations consists mostly of white educators, there is more potential for the culture gap to widen, as Pew Research Center notes.

Cultural awareness fosters culturally responsive teaching, which is more of a priority in classrooms than ever before. Not only are student bodies becoming less homogenous, but governing systems and school boards are also beginning to address issues of race, gender and class. Teachers with strong cultural awareness are better prepared to navigate the challenges of the education landscape.

What Can Teachers Do to Develop Cultural Awareness?

The following are just five of the most impactful actions and behaviors that support cultural awareness:

  1. Start with awareness. Before educators can implement cultural awareness into their teaching methods, they must first recognize their own cultural background. Shaping cultural backgrounds are factors like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, socioeconomic status and disability status. Reflecting on one’s own background will help indicate the ways in which it is similar to or different from that of their students. Then, one can begin to identify possible culture gaps between themselves and students.
  2. Confront implicit bias. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “implicit bias, also known as implicit prejudice or implicit attitude, is a negative attitude, of which one is not consciously aware, against a specific social group.” By identifying how their lived experience differs from that of their students, educators can begin to consciously examine whether those gaps have created unconscious attitudes or stereotypes. Questioning those attitudes and encouraging an open mind helps dismantle implicit biases.
  3. Communicate with cultural awareness. A person’s cultural background shapes the way they communicate. Some cultures may avoid direct eye contact, speak a different language than the teacher or have distinct attitudes about authority and family dynamics. Teachers who honor these cultural norms are better able to communicate with and gain input from students and families from all backgrounds.
  4. View teachers as learners. Because teachers do not always share the same background as their students, they must allow themselves to constantly learn from those students and their cultures. Whether through professional development courses or discussions with students and their families, educators who seek opportunities to better understand different cultures can help bridge some gaps that impede learning.
  5. Create culturally adaptable lessons. A lesson or mode of teaching that’s easily understood by one group of students may not suit another group. Limited access to technology, linguistic differences, family dynamics and other factors could hinder some students’ abilities to participate fully in certain lessons. With effort, educators can ensure their lessons are culturally appropriate for all learners with varying access and skill sets.

SOU’s online education programs prepare graduates to apply cultural awareness through many of its courses. For example, courses titled Diversity in the Workplace; Enriching Multicultural Family and Community Engagement; and Culturally Responsive Practices in ECE all focus on helping students apply cultural competence skills to a number of settings.

Advanced Education Program Options at Southern Oregon University

SOU offers many avenues for those seeking an advanced education in a specialized area, including the following MSEd concentrations:

In addition to these MSEd examples, SOU offers a Reading Endorsement program consisting of 24 credit hours. Whether you choose to pursue roles in public health education, reading and literacy, mathematics education or other opportunities, SOU’s options allow you to choose your own path as a culturally aware educator.

Learn more about SOU’s online education programs

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