Why Does Cultural Agility Matter To Me?

As an educator, cultural agility is one of the most important items in my professional toolbox. Each term I walk into classrooms filled with new students, each of whom comes to the class with their own personal history, culture, and understanding of the world.

Before I can even begin to build courses and pedagogical strategies that will, hopefully, reach the majority of these students, I must first be deeply familiar with and aware of my own cultural biases. I must reflect upon the ways in which a wide variety of personal factors such as being: a white woman; someone who grew up in poverty in a rural setting in New England; someone who holds a PhD; someone who was raised in a conservative Catholic family and is now a Buddhist; someone who has lived in various parts of the US, but never overseas; someone who tends toward being liberal; and someone is a lesbian and also happens to be a feminist impact the ways in which I see and understand the world around me. If I don’t pay active attention to these factors, it is likely I will design courses, assignments, and pedagogical practices as well as select texts that reflect only my own personal view of the world, as it is the view with which I am the most familiar and comfortable. Such class design would, rightfully so, alienate many of my students, some from the very first day of class. What I am toward is building culturally relevant pedagogy which has the capacity to respond to and meet the unique needs, backgrounds, and learning styles of my individual students.

“Introduction to Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” from Teaching Tolerance

I must be attuned both to the demographics of the general student body and surrounding community of my campus as well as to the specific demographics, which are ever-shifting, of each class I teach. No two classes–even two sections of the same course taught in the same term–are really “the same.” If I fail to be attuned to the nuances of each of my classes, I will be unable to effectively adapt my teaching to each of these situations.

Dr. Geneva Gay explains why “good teaching is never twice the same”

When I am attuned to the cultural nuances of each class I teach, I’m able to really adapt my teaching style, my materials, how I approach explaining and assessing various assignments, and how I use in-class time to be a more effective learning facilitator for my students. These adaptations often mean spending more time prepping for classes, but investing this time and being willing to adapt my classes and teaching styles to each class of students results in much better outcomes for my students and for my professional growth.

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Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”
This TED Talk is one of my many personal reminders that cultural agility is a life-long quest

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However, students only take me seriously as an instructor if they believe me to be authentic. So in the process of adapting my courses and teaching styles I must ensure that I remain true not only to the course outcomes, but also to myself. In terms of teaching, this means ensuring that I still find ways to ensure that students are exposed to what I see as the most significant ideas/concepts of the course/discipline, while finding culturally agile ways to frame and present these ideas and concepts and assess student’s fluency of them.

One of the things I tell my students a lot is that I learn more from them than they do from me. While I may be an “expert” in the disciplines in which I teach, there is only one of me–with one, limited way of seeing the world, while there are 25-35 of them, each of whom brings a unique perspective, set of knowledge/ideas, and way of seeing and understanding the world with them into the classroom. If I’m being truly open with them and in the space of the classroom, it would be pretty difficult for one person to teach 25-35 people more than 25-35 people could teach one person. Much of the knowledge I gain from my students each term is knowledge about different cultures, societies, and groups that help me expand and deepen my cultural agility.

At the end of each class I teach, I engage in a self-evaluation to help me reflect upon and revise the course. Part of this evaluation is an open, honest grappling with how well I feel I’ve communicated with students across various “differences” we may have. Every once in a while I’ll be able to say that I was wildly successful in communicating with one or two students from backgrounds and world views that vary significantly from my own. But most times, what I discover is that while I may have effectively connected and communicated with some students, there is still tremendous room for cultural agility growth on my part with my interactions with most of my students.

And so, put on a new pair of metaphorical hiking boots, repack my traveling bag, and continue my journey toward cultural agility with a whole new class of students.

“Learning to truly appreciate other cultures and faiths is an especially long process, but one that is worth the effort.”    —SIEW HOONG