Culturally Relevant Education Isn’t About “Indoctrination,” It’s The First Step Towards Justice

Back in 2018, I was really fed up with the major incidents of discrimination and hatred going on around the country. (Remember Charlottesville? Or when two Black men were wrongfully arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks?) It led me to write this piece, challenging educators to appropriately call out discrimination when they see it. The feedback was mixed. 

My message was that silence is complicity, but a few keyboard warriors framed it as some slippery slope towards political indoctrination. It was disheartening to read those reactions because the need for culturally relevant teaching and school policy felt so real and urgent to me. I couldn’t understand how some folks were so dismissive. And now, as communities across the country are joining together to shine a light on the harsh realities of systemic racism, I feel like I’m watching it happen all over again. 

So allow me to push back directly. Culturally relevant education is not about partisanship, indoctrination, or conspiracy. It’s about confronting injustice and doing everything in our power to ensure a more fair society for the next generation. 

Consider where we are right now. Black students, and especially males, experience disproportionately higher levels of disciplinary action than their White peers. Curriculum and classroom texts continually fail to represent all students’ cultural backgrounds and histories. Students of color are routinely overidentified for special education services and underidentified as gifted and talented. If schools function as a microcosm of their community, we clearly have a lot of work to do.

As teachers, that begins with a culturally relevant disposition. We must hold high academic expectations for all students, affirm and reflect our students’ cultural backgrounds within our instruction, and facilitate opportunities for students to think critically about social structures and develop a better sense of sociopolitical awareness. That’s not indoctrination. According to Kentucky’s evaluation system for educators, that’s just good teaching

  • Teacher actively seeks knowledge of students’ levels of development and their backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs from a variety of sources. This information is acquired for individual students.

  • Teacher’s communication with families is frequent and sensitive to cultural traditions,with students contributing to the communication.

  • Teacher makes a concerted effort to challenge negative attitude or practices to ensure that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, are honored in the school.

Under Kentucky’s framework for teaching, these are all indicators of exemplary instruction. And while I would argue that this framework doesn’t go far enough to really embolden teachers to pursue culturally relevant teaching as their primary approach, it’s still clear that culturally competency matters. It’s not about indoctrination, it’s literally just about doing the right thing.

Show me where the partisanship is in introducing students to characters who look like them. Convince me that there’s anything ideological about encouraging students to advocate for each other’s differences. You can’t. In fact, I would argue that such steps are necessary for producing a system that’s more equitable for our most vulnerable students.

Amid these very troubling times, I’m hopeful that more teachers from across Kentucky will embrace culturally relevant pedagogy for the benefit of their students. To that end, I’m committing this summer to my own personal education and edification, and I’m starting with the resources listed below. I hope you’ll join me. 

Photo by Taylor Wilcox.

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