The Power of Believing in Cultural Capital

“If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge – and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject….In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.  When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are.  I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my own unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.”  (Palmer, 1998 as cited in Howard, 2003)

Where has this article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” by Tyrone Howard (2003), been all of my professional career? This is critical information that I have tried to explain to my fellow colleagues over the years.  To the ones who simply do not understand the need for culturally relevant pedagogy and to those who do not understand that their own cultures often overrule the cultures of those they teach, both consciously and subconsciously.  If they aren’t going to listen to me, maybe they’ll listen to a peer-reviewed journal article…you know, since us teachers are more inclined to place more value in research data than one person’s opinion.

Research recognizes the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Research understands the importance of setting aside one’s own beliefs in an effort to understand the needs of another culture’s beliefs.  Research supports that the best way to teach a student is to know the student.

Howard (2003) stated “teacher educators must be able to help preservice teachers critically analyze important issues such as race, ethnicity, and culture, and recognize how these important concepts shape the learning experience for many students.”  It is important to note that this understanding cannot be superficial, as in being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct. It’s about having the desire to open your mind to new cultures, beliefs and lifestyles and a willingness to accept them as equally important as your own.  It’s about truly valuing the “cultural capital” that walks into your classroom each and every day (Howard, 2003). I love that phrase, “cultural capital.”  Absolutely looooove it!  Capital is an asset.  Cultural capital means that culture is seen as an asset.  What better way to think about the diversity of our classrooms?  A room filled with cultural capital…including our own!

It is also about getting to the core of who you are by engaging in the “critical reflection” that Howard (2003) talks extensively about.  As stated in the opening quote, if you cannot understand yourself, you cannot understand your students, which, in turn, means that you cannot achieve the success that you wish to achieve with your students.  Critical reflection requires us to dig deep within ourselves to shed light on our belief systems and to be honest about what we believe and why we believe in them.

This task can be very difficult, especially if you hold beliefs that you don’t want to admit.  And, really, that’s ok.  But, to get to the core of your being, you must acknowledge they exist.  Critical reflection isn’t used as a mean to criticize your beliefs, but is used to foster a deeper understanding of those beliefs.  We have all learned what we know and believe in from sources that are important to us and through our own life experiences. Whether or not you are comfortable speaking about them openly, self-reflection is not about letting the world know or attempting to change your beliefs, it’s about engaging in honest and in-depth reflection about how your “positionality” can influence your students, both positively and negatively, and how it “can shape students’ conceptions of self” (Howard, 2003).

I often joke with my students that I am just as much a part of their families as their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins!  After all, I do see them all day, every day five days out of the week.  If we take a minute to think about that, this should speak volumes.  What kind of influence has our own families had on us?  What did they teach us and how has that molded us into the adults that we are today?  Have the people closest to us seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, yet, have continued to love us, believe in us and encourage us to achieve great things?

We have this type of influence on our students.  We can build up or break down any one of our students.  That’s how much power we have.  But, we also have to be careful that we preserve and appreciate each students’ individual cultural capital.

Once we have a full appreciation of who our students are and have reflected on how our own personal beliefs can impact our teaching, then we can truly begin to effectively teach them.  Howard (20030 stated that we must “construct pedagogical practices in ways that are culturally relevant, racially affirming, and socially meaningful.”  How motivated would our students be if they felt like their beliefs/culture/life experiences, etc. matter, are important and are worth learning about?  Just think about why you are in this program and what you hope to accomplish…


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.


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Tanya Suydam

1 comment — post a comment


I love your points! Especially about you being part of their family. I imagine that you have wonderful cultural capital in your classroom!

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