Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Requires Culturally Responsive Schools

Spring 2019

By Jennifer Zaccara and Roberto d'Erizans

Everything starts with dreams. If students cannot imagine their futures and if they cannot see some facet of themselves in what they are taught, cultural components of curriculum or pedagogical strategies are just ideal paradigms. Students become disenfranchised and absent from dialogue and questioning. Culturally responsive pedagogy is both a teaching philosophy and an educational commitment. To be responsive means that teachers must anticipate what students need, know their students, be flexible when challenges arise, and be aware that much happens in the realm of the unplanned. As educators, to be responsive means that we need to cultivate our capacity to dwell in ambiguity and with our own evolving growth.

Outstanding schools recognize embracing and promoting diversity and inclusion as a pillar of academic excellence, and they also know that cultural competency is a driver for faculty professional development, curricular innovation, and student learning. This work is often characterized in terms of goals; however, achieving authentic, culturally responsive schools that reflect and embrace diversity and equity requires a multifaceted approach with lasting cultural changes at all levels. A school’s commitment to diversity and cultural competency should be evident in several areas: school missions and value statements; recruiting strategies for diverse students and faculty; focused professional development efforts; chief cultural and diversity officers with a seat on the executive team; and the development of methods to meet the individualized academic, social, and emotional needs of each child. This work is not time-bound with an end date; it needs to be continually revitalized to ensure its permanence. Cultural competency must permeate all aspects of a school’s aspirational identity for it to be realized and embraced. 

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Geneva Gay describes culturally responsive teaching as having the following attributes: It is multidimensional, emancipatory, transformative, empowering, and validating.1

Developing culturally responsive teaching practices is exciting, joyful, and multidimensional. It is not just about content that is taught; it is also about relationships, environment, context, assessment practices, and classroom management. For marginalized students, culturally diverse pedagogy is emancipatory because it frees them from approaches that have constrained their achievement. Often this means that teachers have to teach to different learning modalities and to recognize that doing so benefits all students. It also means opening previously barred doors to culturally diverse students, particularly those who are not part of the majority. Educators empower students because they create the conditions for them to become better individuals and more successful learners. The totality of this culturally responsive approach is transformative because it reaches beyond traditional educational paradigms and makes academic success non-negotiable. Ultimately, culturally responsive pedagogy is validating because it says, “I see you, you are here, you are worthy, you belong, and what we do includes and speaks to you.”

Culturally responsive teaching is also validating because it recognizes the importance of cultural diversity in learning, deliberating, and decision-making. James Surowiecki remarks in his seminal book, The Wisdom of Crowds, that
groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives.2

To be culturally responsive is to ensure diversity of perspective in the myriad aspects of school life. For example, decision-making tables must be empowered by including diverse voices; after-school learning must be transformative by opening minds and hearts; assemblies must be validating through both affirming and conflicting voices; and teacher and student recruitment must be multidimensional. Boards must embrace the tenets of culturally responsive schools, and heads must defend their significance and power. 

Culture and Politics

Sometimes cultural differences live side by side with political ones, and it is incumbent on good teachers to present cases, cultivate debate, advocate for ideas, and teach students how to dwell in ambiguity. For example, teaching students to understand the U.S. Constitution and its amendments seems quite important today in our divisive political climate. What does the document say? How is what is and is not included tied to current debates, Supreme Court cases, and policy decisions?

We need to ask questions that challenge students to find evidence for opposing arguments. Aristotle once remarked that the gift of the power of speech to humankind makes us inherently “political” and in relation to one another. Responsible cultural pedagogy involves the act of consciously cultivating student voice and engagement. As educators, we aspire to promote citizenship in our students with the hope that they will be change agents for a better world. This imperative can be achieved only through open dialogue that is untinged by political bias. Bias does not belong in our classrooms and hallways. It exists, but we must recognize and fight against it while educating our students for the true realities of the world they will enter. This includes working through our own biases and preconceptions. 


Pedagogy involves choice. What text choices are you making? Do these texts represent multiple perspectives? Do they represent the student body? Our curriculum should no longer be solely dominated by binaries or pendulum swings between the classics or the Western canon. We have the freedom to teach any text through multiple lenses, alongside disruptive questions that explore the assumptions that stand behind these perspectives. In addition, culturally responsive classroom libraries and text choices should acknowledge the home cultures of our students, building on the uses of languages and contexts with which they can identify. Familiar stories help students express their unique cultural heritage and personal narratives. 


In addition to text choice and our questioning techniques, we also need to reflect on how we provide access to opportunities for all of our students. For example, are your AP or honors classes composed of homogeneous groups? Do course admissions processes unintentionally bar particular students from accessing these opportunities? Are there unconscious structural biases in the way?

Being a culturally responsive school means engaging in these tough questions. We charge schools to examine student placement through culturally relevant exclusions that might be passive indicators of other areas that need attention. Perhaps we need to focus on preparing students for higher-level courses through greater differentiation and attention to varied learning styles, providing opportunities for enrichment and ensuring that students from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds have access to support structures or services for English as a Second Language students. We send messages unwittingly and often against our true intentions. 

Social Marketplace

Culturally responsive pedagogy is not confined within fixed classroom walls. The nonacademic cultural stories that play out in the social marketplace affect academic achievement. There is a kind of law of social economy that creates an exclusionary norm and conditions that isolate students. Does your school have specific places that students congregate according to class, race, gender identities, etc.? Schools should engage in active reflection about these spaces and how other students walk by them, stop, interact, and leave—or fully engage. School culture includes these story-filled spaces. Whether it’s noticing who is not present, who is isolated, or who retreats, it’s our call to notice. Noticing, engaging, and acting are imperative components of culturally responsive schools. Students watch and model what we say and do, and our silence is complicit in perpetuating norms. 


Identity is a jam-packed idea. As students develop, so do their identities. There are school-wide, group, and individual-sized identities. Many schools today are digging deep to define their niches—who they are. It seems appropriate that while we are engaged in this important task for our own sustainability, our students are also exploring who they are. The difficulty lies in that identity is more an evolving consciousness than a fixed paradigm. Identity is not static; it evolves as the multiple energies in our midst exert their forces on our self-awareness. If our school identity is too strictly defined, we run the danger of conformity and exclusion.

How can you engage in the ongoing process of culturally responsive pedagogy? The conditions to make this possible require a systematic approach, encompassing current diversity and inclusion efforts. 

In Our Schools

At Vermont Academy, we have started this culturally responsive work by backing up and exploring our educational philosophy, our standards for teaching, and our hopes for our graduates (Portrait of the Graduate). Soon we will scrutinize our mission, purpose, vision, and core value statements as we also explore a new schedule. Our use of time and space sends messages about how much we are willing to devote to culturally responsive education. We have thus chosen to begin with a foundation for a new era in education and our own historical trajectory. In addition, we host a yearly diversity, culture, and inclusivity conference with peer schools and look at ways that schools can collaborate and connect on the basis of the tenets of this imperative work. Networks matter.

At Graded-The American School in Sao Paulo, we have engaged in this work through purposeful PK-12 curriculum reviews that focus not just on best practice but also on broadening our students’ perspectives. We have begun to explore our social-emotional learning program and approaches in and out of the classroom, so that we can support and harness student motivation and self-efficacy. We are developing a scholarship program for students from the nearby favela* to enter in middle school because we know the importance of building a solid foundation before the high school years. This program has the dual benefit of opening our eyes to the world just beyond our school limits and simultaneously pushing teachers to explore new instructional methods to meet the needs of diverse learners. We know the totality of what we want to achieve is grand and aspirational and that it will take hard work. To that end, we are convening a group of experts from around the world to participate in a think tank to help guide and ideate our work and to ensure that leaders don’t become trapped by the limits of their own experiences.

Building culturally responsive schools requires tapping into our own cultural knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. It begins with us. It is highly emotional work that explores existing beliefs, values, opinions, and unconscious biases. Because cultural differences are assets, heads of school, administrators, and teachers need to create safe spaces where these differences are valued and affirmed.

Diversity and culture are important and should be a vibrant entity born from a school’s mission and lived in lesson plans and unexpected teaching moments. However, this means nothing if we don’t recognize plurality as reality and as an agent in freeing students who have otherwise felt marginalized by content, assessment, or instructional approaches.

*Favela: a low and middle-income unregulated neighborhood that historically has received governmental neglect.


  1. Geneva Gay, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2nd ed., Multicultural Education Series (New York: Teachers College, 2010).
  2. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies and Nations (New York: Anchor, 2004).
Jennifer Zaccara

Jennifer Zaccara (  is the head of school at Vermont Academy, an independent boarding and day school in Saxtons River, Vermont.

Roberto d'Erizans

Roberto d’Erizans (  is the principal of the Middle School at Graded-The American School in São Paulo, an international independent school in Brazil.