I work in healthcare as an oncology social worker so you may be wondering why I’m writing a blog for Christian educators. There are two reasons, and they are interrelated (I hope to explain why as you read along!) The first reason I’m writing is because I’m passionate about “cultural humility” as highly valuable in working with people of different backgrounds—whether colleagues, patients, and yes, even students. The second reason I’m writing is that I am interested in how cultural humility might play out in Christian education, because I am the parent of a preschooler and am looking at Christian schools for a kindergarten and elementary program.
Cultural Competence in Education
As you probably already know (from the experience of a loved one, friend, colleague, or perhaps even your own personal experience), cancer does not discriminate. Cancer affects people of every color, nationality, income level, neighborhood, age, and circumstance. Because of this, “cultural competence” is taught as an integrated part of all healthcare settings. As an educator, you may already be familiar with this term; as Shannon and Bylsma (2007) explain, “Cultural competence, a concept borrowed from the health and human services areas, is increasingly discussed in educational circles. A definition of cultural competence in education… [includes] descriptors such as awareness, respect, sensitivity, understanding, and empathy” (11). But as the name implies, cultural “competence” focuses on the professional developing “expertise” about how to work with people from different and diverse cultural backgrounds.
Until recently, cultural competence was a key focus of my practice. But as I encountered more and more people from various ethnic groups who had beliefs or behaviors that differed from what I was taught, it became clear that I needed to change my practice in order to truly meet people where they are (which is a basic social work “tenet”). In other words, I found that my personal “competence” was not enough to either relate to my patients or care for them well. So I started focusing less on what I knew as the professional, and on asking more questions, assuming less, and listening more as patients and their loved ones helped me understand them, their experience with illness, healthcare, and their worldview from their own perspectives. What I didn’t know until last year, when I started doing some reading on the topic, is that my practice adaptations had a name—cultural humility. This exploration ultimately led me to write on the concept of cultural humility in my field.
What is Cultural Humility?
The term cultural humility was coined in 1998, when Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia used it to describe an approach to cross-cultural work that incorporates three main components:
1. Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection. While learning about practices of other communities (typically the focus of cultural competency) is important, cultural humility holds that it’s even more important to engage in a simultaneous process of self-reflection and self-awareness. This is the idea that our focus shouldn’t just be about “others” but rather that we bring our own values, attitudes, and beliefs to interactions—including our own stereotypes and biases. Lifelong learning requires a commitment to continually being open and humble enough to “assess anew the cultural dimensions of the experiences of each patient.” There is no “discrete endpoint” to one’s learning.Lifelong learning and reflection help us develop an attitude of “not knowing” it all, but rather taking a posture of humility and learning from the patient (in my setting). As a Christian, this reminds me of two verses in the Bible regarding humility. In 1 Peter 5:5b we are instructed, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” And in Philippians 2:3-4 we are told, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” A key concept in both of these scriptures is that humility is demonstrated in relationship, and that it starts with us (our own attitudes and behaviors). When it comes to cultural humility, what I love is the idea that instead of trying to master the culture of another and risk stereotyping or misunderstanding the person in front of us, it allows that person to become a more integral part of the relationship within which we’ve entered. Whereas I apply this concept in my work with cancer patients, the application is similar for Christian school educators who are teaching students with different backgrounds than themselves. Do you view students as made in God’s image, who need to be understood as unique individuals? Do you cultivate that understanding through authentic relationships that help you see how God has shaped each child?
2. Recognition of and challenging power imbalances. In this approach, power differentials between provider and client are explicitly acknowledged (Fisher-Borne et al. 2015). The same would also be true in education: there is obviously a power differential between a teacher and a student. We hope and believe that teachers manage that differential appropriately and in love, with the goal of the students learning, growing, and maximizing their God-given potential. However, sometimes even well-meaning teachers (just like healthcare workers!) can make assumptions, fail to really examine those assumptions, and then chart an incorrect course of action that flows out of those assumptions.To share a personal experience, when I was a student in fourth grade this could have happened to me—but thankfully didn’t. My fourth-grade teacher noticed that I would complete my assignments ahead of my classmates. When I finished, I’d often talk in class. She would redirect my behavior, but she did something else that changed the course of my education forever. She called my parents, but not to tell them that I was a “behavior problem.” Instead, she told them that I was completing my assignments so quickly that I was often bored, which led me to talk to classmates who were still working. She went on to recommend that I be moved to gifted and talented classes so that I’d have work that was more challenging. I could easily have been labeled as a “behavior problem,” “not easily redirected,” “fails to follow the rules,” or “talkative at inappropriate times,” but thankfully, in my case, I encountered an educator who observed my behavior and made proper recommendations, and they changed the trajectory of my life. My teacher represented the institution of education and the power that teachers have in the lives of each and every student that they encounter. She may have done her own self-reflection, but most importantly she became the student—of me! She observed, analyzed, and drew conclusions based on what she’d learned about me—not what she’d read about young black students who talk in class and not what she’d learned based on her experiences with other young black students. In my case, I got a label called “gifted and talented,” because my teacher cared enough to use her power for students’ growth and learning.
3. Institutional accountability. Just like for individuals, “self-reflection and self-critique at the institutional level is required” for cultural humility (Tervalon and Murray-Garcia 1998, 122). This point emphasizes the important role of the larger context in shaping relationships. In the case of education, the school context shapes the relationship between the teacher and student. This includes the organizational values, beliefs, practices, and environment of the school. Thus, a key part of accountability is articulating the school’s values when it comes to different cultures and backgrounds, as well as professional development for employees in terms of cross-cultural work. It also means working to hire teachers and leaders that reflect the student body. Returning to my personal example above, it’s worth noting that my teacher was also a black woman; she was able to see beyond my presenting behaviors and give a proper assessment that the level of work was the source of the problem, not my behavior. Are there black teachers that may have missed this? Sure; however, I believe that in her case, what helped was the absence of stereotypes, biases and the “-isms” that often serve as a barrier to proper assessment of the problem (and possible solutions) in a given situation. Having teachers on staff from diverse backgrounds helps students in this way, but it can also help the entire staff in moving toward cultural humility as they engage together in learning, reflection, and life-giving use of their power as teachers.
Seeking Cultural Humility in Christian Education
This brings me to my second reason for writing this post. While I haven’t worked in Christian educational settings, I have been looking for elementary schools for my son. As we sort through our options, I am seeking a place where my son will not only learn to read and master math facts, but also where the adults care for him as an individual, by looking beyond stereotypes or labels and seeing him as God has truly made him—in His image. In line with this, will his teachers not just be “competent” in working cross-culturally, but will their stance be one of humility as they encounter students from different backgrounds? Will the school’s values, beliefs, practices, and environment reflect that same stance? Will cross-cultural work be part of the school’s professional development, and will the school have teachers and leaders on staff whose backgrounds reflect those of their students (something I’m finding out is challenging in the Christian education sector)?
My experience in healthcare has taught me that it takes self-reflection, intentionality, and persistence to practice cultural humility, but I’m convinced that it has made all the difference in my being able to truly care for my patients well. Not only that, but it has helped me to become a better practitioner—of both social work, and of the Gospel. Believing that practicing cultural humility can have the same impact for professionals in any field, I pray that it will bless and help you to grow in your important Kingdom work as a Christian educator.
Fisher-Borne, M., J. Montana Cain, and S.L. Martin. 2015. From Mastery to Accountability: Cultural Humility as an Alternative to Cultural Competence. Social Work Education 34 (2): 165-181.
Shannon, G. Sue and Pete Bylsma. 2007. Nine Characteristics of High-Performing Schools: A Research-Based Resource for Schools and Districts to Assist With Improving Student Learning (2nd Ed.). Olympia, WA: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Tervalon, M. and J. Murray-Garcia. 1998. Cultural Humility Versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 9 (2): 117-125.
About the Author
Eucharia Borden received her MSW from Temple University and is a licensed clinical social worker in Pennsylvania. She has worked with adults living with cancer in both inpatient and outpatient hospital settings for the past ten years, and currently serves as President-Elect for the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW). She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.