In Practice: Building Schoolwide Cultural Competency with Teacher-Leaders

Fall 2018

By Sara Poplack and Katie Dlesk

In 2015, when the strategic plan at Keys School (CA) called for an intentional focus on diversity and cultural competency, it was imperative that we find a way to foster teacher ownership of the initiative. Our school has a strong sense of community, and there is much trust in the collective wisdom of the faculty. The most lasting and impactful work at our school often grows from teacher ideas and inspiration, and initiatives that work best are informed by research but created from within. We knew that without authentic faculty ownership, the focus on cultural competency and diversity would not endure. The nature of cultural competency work does not lend itself to a top-down approach regardless of the school environment. People must see the value for themselves, which often starts with a trusted colleague leading the way. 
We started our work in the 2015–2016 school year with several full faculty professional development workshops. From the outset, it was clear that consistent full faculty input and involvement in all phases of work would ensure that cultural competency work felt authentic and integrated. During the meetings in that first year, it became clear that teachers wanted and needed a more clearly articulated scope and sequence of cultural competency standards to use in the classroom. This request led to the creation of the Cultural Competency Committee, which has created opportunities for organic leadership development and ownership. Our faculty committee structure empowers teacher-leaders and serves to educate individuals while moving the school in the right direction. Using these two guiding principles of consistent faculty involvement and faculty committee leadership, we’ve been able to take the original call of the strategic plan and turn it into something that emanates from and is carried forward by our faculty.

The Process

In preparing for the 2016–2017 school year, we knew that creating a draft of a scope and sequence was not something we could do without a variety of internal and external perspectives and voices. We also knew we’d need some external guidance. We turned to Alison Park, founder of Blink Consulting, to meet with us regularly throughout the year. She connected us with resources and other schools that had done similar work. She also acted as an adviser, beginning with forming a committee (by soliciting membership both with an open call to faculty, as well as particular asks, to assemble a diverse group of 11 faculty members, taking into account tenure, race, sex, age, faculty role, and even enthusiasm about this work) and consulting with us in planning monthly committee meetings with the goal of creating a scope and sequence of cultural competency concepts and skills. 
The committee members also talked about their own identities. Ice breaker-type opportunities allowed us to develop trust in each other, and we noted the vocabulary we used in these conversations. Our choice of words created foundational knowledge for the teachers in this group to develop their comfort levels in talking about a variety of topics including race, gender, religion, family structure, socioeconomic status, and body image. 
The committee’s work in 2016–2017 built on several full faculty brainstorm sessions, including discussions around why diversity and inclusivity is mission-vital, the projects we already had in place that felt aligned to cultural competency skills, and what skills and knowledge we hoped students at various ages would have. The committee collected these brainstorms and compared them with various external frameworks, such as the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance, developmental milestones outlined in Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 by Chip Wood, various social-emotional learning frameworks already in place at our school (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, and Responsive Classroom), and research on human development and identity formation, including resources from Blink Consulting and Gender Spectrum.                                                                        

Creating a scope and sequence rooted in what faculty were already doing was essential in creating buy-in, and it also helped the committee develop democratic leadership skills, so that they were able to reach out to colleagues with questions about a project and how it aligned with the various resources. We found our committee members quickly becoming trusted mentors for other faculty members.
At the end of the 2016–2017 school year, a group of faculty members presented a series of documents to the full faculty, including background for our school’s essential cultural competency concepts and skills (the school’s mission, diversity statement, and shared definitions of culture, cultural competency, identity, diversity, and social justice), a full scope and sequence of essential concepts and skills by grades, and a list of identifiers most salient in our community, as well as developmentally appropriate essential content for each identifier. While this rich work has certainly anchored our community in how we teach with a culturally competent lens, perhaps more important was that a group of teachers came together to create, adjust, and present this work.

In Progress

With the scope and sequence complete, the work and membership of the faculty cultural competency committee changed for the 2017–2018 school year. The new focus of the committee was on looking outward to cultural competency practices at other schools, generating our own ideas, and bringing those ideas to our faculty for input (see “Leading Questions” below). We also wanted to make sure that leadership in this work continued to be distributed among all teachers, so we adopted a policy of inviting members to return for a second year and invited new members to join. We are now set up to have teachers cycle off the committee after two years, making way for new members each year while retaining some voices of experience. We have set the expectation that everyone will serve on the committee at some point in their Keys tenure.

During the 2017–2018 school year, we took more opportunities to involve the full faculty. When possible, we used existing structures instead of adding something new. For example, in the weekly email to faculty members, which highlights two or three articles circulating in the world of education and upcoming professional development opportunities, we added an article related to diversity and inclusivity work occurring outside of our school. We also highlighted professional development opportunities related to diversity and cultural competency in a separate section. As a result, we saw an uptick in the number of faculty members seeking external professional development in this realm and used an “unconference” model throughout the year to create time and space for teachers to share their experiences.
We also started the year with faculty self-reflections on their knowledge and comfort levels speaking about the identifiers in our scope and sequence, as well as the levels of curricular integration inspired by James Banks, director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington’s College of Education. Using those self-reflections, we started a series of bathroom postings, playfully labeled “Learning on the Loo.” These one-page printouts that hung in our restrooms ranged in content from an initial “What do we even mean by cultural competency?” to essential vocabulary for talking about everything from gender to neurodiversity. These postings sparked conversations between faculty members and even with their students. When it was possible, we tried to layer two- to three-minute mini-PD sessions connected to the postings (usually video clips) into faculty meetings.
As a school, we use Rubicon Atlas as a curriculum mapping software and found that it provided us with a last form of internal, full-faculty growth and reflection. By inputting the scope and sequence the committee developed, teachers were able to document which cultural competency skills were covered in their units. In December, and again at the end of the year, the full faculty looked at reports that demonstrated whether the skills and concepts had been covered in a specific grade band. This held us accountable for the work we’d done in the previous year, and it also prompted reflection and productive conversations about how future units might be further elevated.

Key Takeaways

We’ve seen the benefits of going through this process with teachers as leaders: applications for cultural competency-related professional development are higher, conversations in the faculty room more frequently revolve around issues of cultural competence, and faculty members are more at ease weaving themes of cultural competence into their classroom. By creating structures to help teachers lead and have input, advancing cultural competency has become a part of Keys life from the ground up. Our most important lessons have been:
Recruiting teacher-leaders. At the end of the 2017–2018 school year, 11 of our 45 faculty members will have served on the Cultural Competency Committee for at least a year. By rotating new people in every year while maintaining some continuity, we ensure that ownership of this work really lies with the faculty. Taking the extra step of consulting with a wider range of teachers at various points throughout the year helps distribute leadership further. 
Involving the full faculty. Finding different ways to reach our whole faculty consistently through newsletters, announcements, and by asking for feedback on committee ideas helped keep the work alive for everyone, and helped the committee maintain perspective.
Consistently consulting external sources. Each year, we’ve made sure to stay connected to those doing cultural competency work beyond our school. Whether it took the form of work with outside consultants, reaching out to other schools, or sending people to cultural competency-focused professional development, it was always useful and refreshing to hear ideas from others doing this work.
One of the beliefs we hold strongly to is that cultural competency work is never “done”—there is always more to learn. As we continue to move forward, we face new challenges. A few that we are now grappling with are how to onboard new faculty who have not been on the cultural competency journey of the past few years with us and how to recruit teachers to join our committee who are more reluctant to take on a leadership role in this area. We will continue to work to find paths forward, keeping the principles of teacher leadership and involvement at the fore.
Sara Poplack

Sara Poplack is lower school curriculum coordinator at Keys School in Palo Alto, California.

Katie Dlesk

Katie Dlesk is middle school curriculum coordinator at Keys School in Palo Alto, California.