Who We Are…Culture and Education

In the article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Reflection” by Tyrone Howard (2003), the author argues that in order for teachers to be most effective in teaching culturally diverse populations, they must first go through their own critical, self-reflection, with regards to their own cultural identity, and how that identity is reflected in their teaching style.

In addition to experience, education, training and a specific skill set(s), teachers also bring into the classroom their own cultural values, and cultural identity. According to Howard, teachers must “reflect on their own racial and cultural identities and to recognize how these identities coexist with the cultural compositions of their students” (p. 196). Only when teachers have an understanding of their own cultural identity, can they create a learning environment best suited for their students. Howard goes on to say “Effective reflection of race within diverse culture requires teachers to engage in one of the more difficult processes for all individuals – honest self-reflection and critique of their own thoughts and behaviors” (p. 198).

This was a powerful statement as I began to reflect on my own culture, and the how my cultural identity impacts me as an action researcher.

Having been raised in a predominantly Caucasian, affluent community, I have often thought back on how my own upbringing shaped my attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts regarding race, ethnicity and my own cultural values. As I now consider my own cultural identity, I wonder how that identity influences my ability to effectively, or ineffectively, engage students in the work that I do.

While I am not a teacher in the classroom context, I am an educator. As such, I can see how this information might also apply in my own work with students in higher education. While the aim of the article is primarily from the context of ethnicity, language and race, I wonder, to what extent, more subtle cultural contexts also play into the development of cultural identity. For example, how they were parented, the community where they grew up and the values that their community espoused.

Recently, I had the opportunity of working with a student who had been caught smoking marijuana. As I met with the student, and learned more about the context for why they made the decisions that they did, I learned that their family dynamic and community culture, partially formed the basis for their decision making process. The student was from a state where marijuana was legal. The student’s parents smoked marijuana in their home, and allowed their children to smoke at a young age. In her small community, it was common place to smoke socially.

While this situation does not fall into the cultural categories indicated in the article, I believe it raises further questions as to what other values and cultural identities should be considered when engaging with students in the work that we do.

Understanding my own cultural identity, and how that identity was reflected in those conversations with this particular student, impacted my ability to connect with and understand the cultural context for which this student came from, and ultimately my ability to engage the student in a meaningful way. In looking ahead to my own area of research, I wish to explore how meaningful conversations, programs, resources, and targeted outreach efforts improve retention in already at-risk students. Namely, low income, first generation, and students with disabilities.

While Howard focused primarily on the educational process and self-reflection of teachers and teacher educators with regards cultural relevance, I would suggest that those who work with students outside of the classroom, might also benefit greatly from critical reflection with regards to their own cultural identity and values.


Howard, T.C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection. Theory Into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.