Crossing the Cultural Divide

The sociocultural makeup of American students is shifting—while many teaching staffs remain largely homogeneous. This dichotomy can create a cultural divide that is difficult for teachers and students to traverse. Advisers have a unique role to play in helping students and fellow educators navigate cultural differences in school settings.

Student demographics have shifted dramatically over the last 20 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 61 percent of U.S. students were white in 2000. White students now represent only 46.1 percent of our nation’s 50.7 million students. So, in many cases, students of color are not minorities in their schools, but they are minoritized if teachers only teach from the lens of traditional Western educational practices and policies.

The cultural shift in students is not reflected in the demographics of our teachers over the same 20-year time span. NCES shows that 84 percent of teachers were white in 2000. Today, 79 percent of teachers are white. So, over the same amount of time there has been only a 5 percent shift in teacher demographics.

This is all to show that advisers, as educators who take on additional duties of building student leaders and community, have a unique opportunity to become a force multiplier for relationship-building and cross-cultural communication in schools.

The Adviser Perspective

Every educator, including advisers, walks into the building with their own set of experiences and biases. Preconceptions are inescapable, but they do not have to control our actions or our ability to build relationships with the students in our classrooms. Advisers have a special perspective because of their closeness with a student group and typically strong relationships with student and school leaders.

Advisers working with student leadership groups such as student council and government can help a school community overcome implicit bias (in adults and students) by having the student council lead and model cross-cultural communications. Student council members can activate their peers by connecting with them and getting to know them in real ways—beyond generalizations, beyond stereotypes, opinions, fears, and beliefs. To make a student-led activity successful, make sure a definition of success and objective for the council is shared with each and every student in the learning community.

Overcoming Biases and Preconceptions

Advisers can learn a great deal about implicit bias and perceptions by looking at how students are selected for leadership opportunities such as student council or how selection happens to determine who gets into NHS, NJHS, or similar cocurricular activities. Beyond just grades and quantitative data, teachers serving on a faculty council or similar judging program must evaluate students based on qualitative and behavioral indicators to determine things like character, commitment to service, and leadership potential. It is in these types of conversations with colleagues that advisers can learn what works for and against students that may be linked with cultural capital and other personality traits or attributes.

Due to implicit bias, teachers and advisers may lower their standards for students of color, especially Black and Latinx students. This can—unconsciously or consciously—evolve into deficit thinking. Deficit thinking refers to the mindset that certain students are incapable of learning due to limited intelligence, lack of interest in education, or less-than-adequate parental involvement in the educational process. This line of deficit thinking is often due to shortcomings in cultural competency and frustration with student progress. Sometimes teachers mistakenly believe that caring is akin to lowering expectations for academic ability. The way to overcome this mindset is to help educators understand that students of color truly need culturally inclusive lessons that highlight the accomplishments of people who look just like them or have the same cultural background. The road to cultural competency for many teachers begins with developing meaningful relationships and trying to see beyond the “general.”

We often make sense of the world by using generalizations. However, our opinions, fears, and beliefs about students can come out in subtle (but noticeable) ways that impact student outcomes. Students often rise and fall to the expectations of the adults in their lives. If teachers act upon their preconceptions (even inadvertently), it becomes difficult to develop good relationships with their students. This results in adverse academic outcomes. Teachers can sometimes overlook cultural capital and individual abilities when they categorize students’ thoughts and behaviors into racialized categories. Simplifying student behavior in this way causes teachers to develop a confirmation bias that inhibits their ability to take a deep look at their own instructional and engagement practices.

Dr. Fons Trompenaars, a leading consultant in organizational cultural communication, came up with an easy-to-understand framework for moving to reconciliation. Reconciliation is really a state of higher understanding. A strong school community and culture nurtures the following to happen:

  • Recognize. Creating ongoing awareness of cultural differences
  • Respect. Appreciating the value of difference
  • Reconcile. Resolving/trying to resolve differences by finding a common path
  • Realize. Implementing solutions and making them a permanent part of the learning community

Cultural Conversations With Students

As advisers begin to have uncomfortable cultural conversations, they often realize that they do not know as much about their students’ home lives as they originally thought. That is OK! Educators are not responsible for knowing everything. However, we can learn more about student culture by listening without injecting biases and preconceptions into the conversation. The intention behind having cultural dialogue with students is to gain understanding to access their individual worldview and cultural strengths.

Misunderstandings are a normal part of human conversations. As an adult, sometimes educators can be quick to smooth things over or return to comfortable conversations. But developing strong student leaders means giving them the space to practice and utilize conversational tools—such as restating what one hears and affirming feelings. For example, suppose a teacher misunderstands or feels confused about what students are expressing. In that case, they should consider restating the student’s original message to check for understanding before stating an opinion. If an educator accidentally says something hurtful, they should try to seek understanding (instead of defending their mishap) by first acknowledging the feelings of their students. When a student is upset, a great follow-up question is simply: “What did I say that hurt you?” In most cases, students want to feel acknowledged. Teachers can gain an increased level of understanding by asking additional questions and listening for the sole purpose of understanding—instead of seeking to defend their preconceptions.

Schools can create relationship-building opportunities for students and staff as a part of their educational program. Some educators utilize morning meetings as a way for students to discuss their feelings and any events happening inside of their worldview with their teacher or adviser. This type of activity is most prevalent at the elementary level but could be utilized in compelling ways at the middle and high school levels. Morning meetings typically begin with an opening prompt, and from there a discussion ensues and a relationship begins to build.

Researchers are now beginning to investigate student perceptions of school support. In these studies, school support is defined as whether or not students believe their school is caring and has high expectations of them. The thought behind this research is that student outcomes are deeply impacted by how they think that we feel about them and how we expect them to perform. For perspective, imagine attending a school in which your teachers demonstrated a lack of concern for you and lowered the academic rigor because they did not believe in your cognitive ability. Regardless of whether those thoughts are real or imagined, they can have devastating impacts on student learning and academic interest.

Improving Cross-Cultural Communication and Understanding

Advisers themselves may struggle at times to demonstrate caring and high expectations simply because they aren’t well-versed in important cultural aspects of their students’ home lives. Cultures sometimes differ in perceptions of empathy, intelligence, respect, and emotional expression. A lack of understanding between students can lead to unintended obstacles for students. Some students may be learning to code switch from their home culture to middle-class, white school culture. Some teachers and advisers misread students as defiant or obnoxious when home language and behaviors enter the classroom. Many middle-class educators are unfamiliar with these types of expressions. These are just a few examples and certainly do not capture the complexity and diversity of experiences a school community may hold. But cultural clashes of this nature often result in excessive referrals for minority students and lower class placements (or reduced access to academic rigor).

Petition School Leadership for Support

Many educators may feel unprepared to have cross-cultural conversations, and students can perceive this as a lack of caring. Administrators should find ways to provide educators with ongoing professional development and resources that lead to improved communication between staff and students. In addition to listening to students—their desire to be heard and their perspectives—administrators should also offer support and create opportunities that allow school faculty to have uncomfortable conversations that will hopefully enable them to overcome biases and develop deeper cultural competency.

Principals can support educators by granting them educational and collaborative spaces to ask questions that are uncomfortable for them. Ideally, training opportunities of this nature should be ongoing and prioritized in the organizational development of the school culture and community. Many districts are credentialing diversity and equity training programs. Credentialed advisers can then train colleagues who want to learn more and be more responsive about the cultures of the students in their classrooms.

In addition to increased training, teachers and advisers who are not culturally competent need the space to grow in their understanding instead of facing public cancellation or ridicule. We really need to focus on intentionality. If a teacher behaves toward staff and students for the purposes of causing harm, that is entirely different from asking a question to gain understanding. It is difficult to acknowledge that you are unaware of the cultural background of your students, and sometimes questions are worded in ways that some may deem offensive. Engaging in conversations about race is even more difficult if teachers are afraid to speak their truths.

Personal Growth and Resources

Educators can invest in their own personal growth in addition to attending school-sponsored professional development activities. There are many free and easily accessible enrichment opportunities available such as joining book studies, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos, and more. Sometimes even talking to a friend with a different perspective can increase your level of understanding.

Many schools and libraries are sponsoring book studies about cultural competency. Two great books that are fostering discussion are White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Advisers may want to start up a book study, designating a selection of chapters to read, and follow it up with a meaningful discussion.

Additionally, many associations are offering free webinars on cultural competency. YouTube features countless educational videos and TED Talks, and educators can also take advantage of free podcasts such as Teaching Tolerance’s “Teaching Hard History” or NPR’s “Code Switch.”

The path to becoming more inclusive and understanding and overcoming our own biases is an ongoing journey. I believe this journey begins with us developing understanding and a willingness to listen. —


TaRael Kee is a school counselor at Collinsville High School in Collinsville, IL, and president-elect of the Illinois School Counselor Association. Nara Lee is the director of student leadership at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.


Students Taking Action: A Look at AWSL Student Leaders

Students across the state of Washington believe that implicit bias and anti-racism training and education are must-haves for everyone in a school setting. This is one of the many guiding principles and promising practices outlined in the Student Equity Guidebook, a collaborative document created by student leaders in The Association of Washington Student Leaders (AWSL). The AWSL Student Equity Cohort (SEC) represents students from high schools in every region of Washington State. The AWSL SEC, charged with a focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, created the Student Equity Guidebook to distribute as a learning document for student and school leaders in the pre-K through undergraduate school system. Published in August 2020, the document outlines the collective insights of students across Washington with the hope for more student voice as schools find solutions to build stronger communities and establish relationships between students, educators, families, and community members. For more information and to download your copy of the guidebook, visit https://awsleaders.org/studentvoice.