The Oxford Canadian Dictionary describes culture as “the customs, civilization, and achievements of a particular time or people.” In white European Canada, culture is often thought of as food, dance and the manner of dress that other groups engage in on multicultural days or for specific festivals.
With this understanding of culture, teachers sometimes question whether they are supposed to teach students about their own culture when invited to become culturally responsive educators and feel uncomfortable with this task.
This is not the intent of culturally responsive pedagogy; the emphasis should be placed on the word “responsive” as teachers teach students from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
S. Hollie (Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning) describes culture as rings which sit inside one another like a set of nesting dolls.
His rings of culture are: ethnic culture, national culture, religious culture, gender culture and youth culture, with ethnic culture being the innermost and smallest ring, and youth culture being the outermost and largest ring.
A student’s culture is his or her lived reality at that point in time and includes aspects of all the rings described.
As teachers, being responsive requires not only understanding students’ cultures, but also being fully aware of their own. Lindsey, Martinez and Lindsey, (2007) describe culturally proficient individuals as those who “are aware of their values and beliefs about diversity.”
These authors view cultural proficiency as the journey to learn about oneself as an individual within a white European culture. Culture is sometimes invisible to a white European population as it is so much a part of everyday life and because there is a tendency to view culture as an aspect of the lives of others.
The authors ask readers to self-assess their cultural proficiency based on a variety of questions, such as: do you know how oppression works in society to create dominant groups and non-dominant groups? This area of proficiency entails knowing Canadian history and the ways in which the oppression of specific groups has been hidden in the past. An example of this is the ways in which the history of First Nations and Métis peoples has either been omitted from history texts or not told truthfully. It also means understanding why the deliberate omission occurred.
Another question the authors ask is: can you describe how the values and beliefs of the dominant group are elevated in society while subtle messages are given to devalue other groups?
To respond to this question, individuals need to be able to find and deconstruct messages in the media and society generally about cultures other than the dominant one. This can be challenging for teachers who have grown up in an environment where historical truths have been hidden and in which they have been encouraged to believe the stereotypes and untruths taught about First Nations and Métis peoples.
Understanding the ways in which the white European culture has been and still is privileged in Canada can be a difficult concept for many to understand. Dr. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, explained at a recent conference (SELU, Twentieth National Congress on Rural Education in Canada, 2015) that the fact that Canadians still refer to the English and the French as the founding nations of Canada and to English and French as the two official languages is a prime example of privilege.
As a nation, we are still refusing to acknowledge the role of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in the development of Canada and the importance of their contributions, while raising the status of the English and the French.
Understanding the impact of white European culture on Indigenous peoples and the privileges given to this dominant group in society can be challenging. Few belonging to the white dominant group hold conversations about what it means to be white or about ways in which non-dominant groups are oppressed. Some may not understand how oppression occurs as they have not experienced it. Others may be uncomfortable with the word privilege or may challenge its existence. Regardless of the difficulty, it is important for all teachers to become culturally proficient in order to reach and teach students from a variety of cultures.
Many resources are available at the Stewart Resources Centre to help teachers on their journeys to becoming culturally proficient. Some examples are: Is everyone really equal? by Sensoy and DiAngelo, (2011); Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds, Nieto, (2013); The Culturally Proficient School: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders(2nd ed.), Lindsey, Roberts & CampbellJones, (2013); and Culturally Proficient Coaching: Supporting Educators to Create Equitable Schools, Lindsey, Martinez, & Lindsey, (2007).
The Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit also offers workshops to support teachers in understanding culturally responsive pedagogy.
The Saskatchewan Instructional Development and Research Unit’s publication Seeking Their Voices: Improving Indigenous Student Outcomes states: “There is little question that learning outcomes for Indigenous youth in Saskatchewan, in Canada, and within the international community are woefully inadequate. This comment begs the question: if we are and have been aware of what constitutes appropriate policy and program action, why has more not been done to address this issue?” (p.12).
Coming to understand all aspects of culturally responsive pedagogy provides a large step forward.