Hiring for Cultural Competence

Fall 2017

By Cris Clifford Cullinan

There isn’t an independent school in this country that isn’t struggling to attract and create an increasingly diverse and complex student body. And, it’s safe to say, there isn’t a school that doesn’t want to have a faculty and staff that mirrors that complexity and is able to prepare all students to thrive in this multicultural, hyper-connected, 21st century world. 

And yet, as the U.S. population becomes more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, skin color, cultures, countries of origin, languages, and configurations of families, schools often do little to identify the knowledge and skills needed to bring diversity to our schools. This is not simply a matter of working not to discriminate; that’s the equivalent of saying that we can identify good drivers by finding those who have not had catastrophic accidents. This is about identifying the knowledge and skills that are required to design and execute curriculum and pedagogy, to evaluate and evolve programming, to examine and revamp policies and practices, and to participate in effective teams that commit to ongoing feedback and skill development in the area of cultural competence.

Simply put, if we continue to seek out only those who have backgrounds and experiences similar and familiar to ourselves, we will continue to attract, hire, and retain those who “fit” rather than those who will help our schools grow and evolve. A school climate created by a dominant majority, whose implicit biases dictate that only community members like themselves are the “most qualified,” is one that will struggle and fail to have the reality of our classrooms and workplaces live up to our rhetoric about equity and inclusion. To recruit and develop the best minds and talents, we must broaden our search to include culturally competent individuals who are able to design curriculum and choose activities that have the best chance of increasing the learning among a diverse group of students.

Why it Matters

When we search for culturally competent faculty, administrators, and staff, we are amplifying our parameters to include knowledge and skills needed to work respectfully and inclusively in a multicultural, multicolored, multinational, and otherwise diverse educational environment. If we don’t make cultural competence an imperative, our schools, employees, students, and communities lose out. Here’s why.

We miss the opportunity to learn from and problem-solve with others who have different and valuable insights that are necessary if independent schools are to continue to grow and evolve in using the most effective educational practices.

We wear out, discourage, and ultimately lose teachers, administrators, and staff who have cultivated knowledge and skills in areas related to cultural competence, but have tried and failed to get a school and its leaders to move forward in these areas.

We betray our mission of education in general, as well as much of the rhetoric we have incorporated into our strategic goals and plans in the last decade about providing a welcoming, respectful, and inclusive environment for all members of our school communities.

Where Do We Begin?

When we seek cultural competence in hiring, we start by identifying the knowledge and skills a qualified candidate needs to have to work with, teach, and lead groups of diverse individuals in respectful, equitable, and inclusive ways. Knowledge and skills related to cultural competence are integral to building school and classroom environments where every person has an opportunity to reach his or her full potential and is valued for their unique qualities and contributions.

We have all likely worked with faculty, administrators, and staff who have failed in their responsibilities to support such equitable and inclusive environments by, at the very least, being unaware of the stereotypes from which each was acting, and at worst, deliberately attempting to exploit, exclude, insult, or shame a student or other employee.

We can be more conscious in hiring so we minimize the likelihood of perpetuating these patterns. We can change the structure of our hiring processes so that we seek out, support, and reward cultural competence—from position descriptions to advertising to question development to candidate evaluation.

Ideally, culturally competent candidates will be attracted to apply for a position based on the school’s reputation for taking issues of equity and inclusion seriously. To that end, a school’s website, job advertisements, position descriptions, requirements, preferences, and interview questions should all speak to issues of how cultural competence and other 21st century skills are significant factors for successful candidates. The message should clearly be that successful applicants for this position are expected to be developing and practicing cultural competence in their teaching, team work, and leadership. If this is clear, candidates who are not qualified will likely not apply for the position.

Beyond the initial job posting, there are multiple other opportunities to assess cultural competence throughout the hiring process.


  • Seek evidence that demonstrates a candidate is culturally competent in his or her teaching, teamwork, and leadership ability.
  • Use supplemental questions as part of the application process to ask for specific examples of doing this in an educational setting (see "How to Develop Effective Interview Questions" below).


  • Compose and ask questions designed to gauge the candidate’s ability to apply culturally competent practices.
  • Make sure members of search committees understand appropriate and effective strategies so that they know how to evaluate responses.


  • Compose and ask questions designed to elicit descriptions of candidate’s behavior that demonstrate use of appropriate knowledge, leadership, and skills in working with diverse populations.
  • Ensure that responses are evaluated according to appropriate criteria developed as part of the hiring process so that nonresponsive references are not given a “pass” because you are impressed with the candidate overall.

Work samples:

  • Provide applicants opportunities to demonstrate appropriate and effective knowledge, leadership, and skills in carrying out the responsibilities of the position.
  • Ensure that these are evaluated according to appropriate criteria developed during the hiring process.

How to Develop Effective Interview Questions

Step 1: Describe an area of responsibility for the position where cultural competence is particularly important to the success of students.

Step 2: Describe the cognitive knowledge and its application to look for in applicants to help evaluate their competency in this area.

Step 3: Describe the skills and their applications to look for in applicants to help evaluate their competency in this area.

Step 4: Write questions that would invite the candidate to provide specific examples of how each has developed and applied the necessary knowledge and skills.

Step 5: Discuss and agree on the specific criteria to judge answers to these questions. If there’s no agreement on these criteria, review the questions again to see how they can be changed. (For an example of this process, see “Question Generator for a Teaching Position” below.)

Step 6: Evaluate the candidate’s answers based on these criteria. Using one page per question, combine the information gathered from Steps 1 through 6 into a candidate evaluation form.

How Well Are We Doing?

In educational and workplace environments that value and support cultural competency, the following 10 structures, policies, and practices are evident; they are recurring patterns rather than isolated or onetime events.

1. Diversity, inclusion, equity, multiculturalism, internationalization, and globalization are considered to be overlapping and interwoven issues, and efforts to advance any of these are connected in deliberations, debates, and strategic planning processes. Institutional development planning mirrors this value and works to explain its value to potential donors.

2. All community members see it as their responsibility to take action if they believe that harassment or discrimination is occurring. People who report such instances are taken seriously, and each report is dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner. Those reporting, as well as those investigating such reports are supported in their efforts to stop any such harassment or discrimination from reoccurring. Investigations of such reports lead to policy and practice reviews and changes.

3. Everyone sees it as his or her responsibility to contribute to building and maintaining equitable, inclusive, and respectful environments for all students and their families, as well as for teachers, administrators, and other staff. Regular professional and student development, including evaluation of results, supports these efforts.

4. The school supports faculty planning strategies that include evaluation and improvement of curriculum and pedagogy. Teachers expect and plan for the fact that differences in the knowledge and life experiences of students in the classroom, lab, or seminar will inform teaching and learning in the classroom and enrich that experience for everyone.

5. People who take these responsibilities seriously, and act accordingly, are regularly recognized for their high levels of scholarship and professionalism (and not just given “diversity awards” on MLK Day).

6. People who do not take these responsibilities seriously, and do not act accordingly, are disciplined like they would be for any breach of professional behavior. There are consequences for not supporting equitable, inclusive, and welcoming educational and workplace environments for all students, faculty, administrators, and staff.

7. Curricula for all professional development activities are set up to include how factors of perceived race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, age, gender or gender identity, skin color, languages, accents, national origins, disabilities, or other characteristics seen as different from the dominant group affect the use of identified knowledge and skills. Separate “diversity” workshops are the exception rather than the rule because issues of equity and inclusion are seen as appropriate subject matter for all professional development classes.

8. No person is singled out because of his or her perceived race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, age, gender or gender identity, skin color, languages, accents, national origins, current disability, or other characteristics seen as different from the dominant group to bear any of these responsibilities for other members of the larger group, either in the workplace or in the classroom. It is not the “job” of the African-American teach to handle the “black” issues for the school. It is every person’s job to do that.

9. Persons who are seen as “different” from the dominant group are rewarded for contributing their perspectives, based on their professional expertise, to the critical-thinking and problem-solving efforts of the whole group, including when their perspectives bring new and challenging ideas into the mix. They are also encouraged and supported to continue in their chosen professional and scholastic development. While we expect everyone to be rewarded for excellent work, what often happens is that professionals of color, for instance, are frequently only recognized for their “diversity” work instead of all the professional areas in which they contribute.

10. Celebrations of diversity are not seen as substituting for any of the actions listed above, nor do these occur outside of accurate historical contexts. Themed “celebrations,” such as Cinco de Mayo or those surrounding Black History Month, are placed in historical perspective. For example, Cinco de Mayo commemorations speak to the Battle of Puebla and why it was important in Mexican history; Black History Month events are embedded with information about the necessity and importance of recognizing often overlooked history. In these two examples, history should never be eclipsed by food, fun, and festivals.


Defining the Talents of Cultural Competence

Is cultural competence at the core of your school hiring process? Ask these five questions.

1. Do we believe people are most open to learning when they know they are seen as worthy and viable learners in the environment?
If so, then we need to seek out teachers, administrators, and staff who can demonstrate that they recognize how implicit bias can operate in a school setting and provide specific examples of times when they have recognized and eliminated it.

2. Do we believe the best teachers are those who can recognize and develop the learning potential of every student and be continuously alert to how their own implicit biases, as well as those of other members of the school community, may affect their abilities to do so?
If so, we must question those who seek to lead, teach, and serve in our schools about their experiences in doing this, ask for specific examples of both their successes and their failures and what they learned, and how they would bring this learning into our schools.

3. Do we believe the best supervisors and managers are those who have the knowledge and ability to use the diverse skills and experiences of all their staff members to build strong and effective teams? Do we believe they must identify and respond appropriately and clearly to biases, harassment, and discrimination that can damage morale and destroy team cohesiveness?
If so, we need to question all applicants, asking them for examples of using these skills in diverse supervisory and administrative settings.

4. Do we believe the best school staff members are those who repeatedly challenge their own beliefs and assumptions and are aware that their worldviews are culturally shaped by their own life experiences. And that those with other backgrounds may see the world, as well as the issues in education and schools, from different perspectives?
If so, we must question all potential staff members about their understandings of cultural bias and how they have learned to identify and deal with their own in an educational setting.

5. Do we believe the best leaders are those who can review, examine, and rework existing policies and procedures by testing them against both their intent and the results for all members of the school community?
If so, then we need to question all potential school leaders about how they see and use multiple and diverse viewpoints to shape culturally responsive policies and procedures. Ask them to provide examples of how they have gathered and meaningfully involved a broad range of stakeholders to identify, understand, and solve institutional challenges and problems.


Get More

Cris Cullinan offers more insights and perspectives on hiring for cultural competence with National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) community members.

In a February 2016 webinar, she explores proven strategies for hiring teachers, administrators, and staff who possess the knowledge and skills to effectively work with cultural differences and identities. Members can listen to a recording of this webinar or view a PDF of the presentation slides at nais.org/culturalcompetencehiring.

In a November 2015 Independent Ideas blog, she writes about why seeking cultural competency in candidates for all school positions is hiring for excellence. Read her post at nais.org/learn/independent-ideas/november-2015/hiring-for-excellence-in-independent-schools-why/.


Cris Clifford Cullinan

Cris Clifford Cullinan is co-chair of the National Advisory Council for the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE) and founder of ALiVE:  Actual Leadership in Vital Equity. She can be reached at [email protected].