By Lisa Wymore, Central Rivers Area Education Agency

Which skills are critical to prepare students to enter the workforce or college? Strong skills in academics and technology typically top the list. Undoubtedly, critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, and the ability to collaborate are equally important. What about cultural competence? While cultural competence may not come to mind first, it plays a key role in effective communication and collaboration. You may wonder, what is cultural competence, why is it important, and how do schools support its development?

Often, the word ‘culture’ triggers thoughts of different foods, celebrations, ways of dress, and
customs. However, culture goes beyond these surface-level features. Culture is the way a group of individuals think about, interpret, and interact with the world around them that is distinct from other groups. Culture reflects the unwritten ‘rules of engagement’ as well as a group’s values and perspectives. For example, a common norm in the United States is making eye contact to show respect. However, in other cultures, eye contact is considered disrespectful and a challenge to authority. Culture is not the same as ethnicity or race. All groups have their own culture.

Cultural competence means being aware of our own values and perspectives as well as understanding that these values and perspectives may differ from those held by others we encounter. Also, it includes interpersonal skills that help us engage with others in ways that respectfully acknowledge differences, yet still bring everyone together to complete the task at hand. It is being mindful of different perspectives and intentionally striving to maintain positive interaction. In addition, it is understanding that common experiences may be interpreted differently based on one’s perspective.

Cultural competence is being able to view experiences, issues, and conflicts from multiple viewpoints and effectively engage with others toward a common goal. Why is this important? Our communities are becoming more diverse and our economy more global. Regardless of the path our students choose after graduation, they must be equipped with cultural competency skills to be successful. Educators stimulate students’ exploration and consideration of multiple perspectives and provide ongoing opportunities to collaborate with a variety of individuals. Central Rivers AEA provides ongoing training for teachers and administrators in the area of cultural competence, especially for those school districts with greater diversity within the school community. Together, we can ensure all students develop the academic and interpersonal skills critical for their future success.

Lisa Wymore is a Consultant for English Language Learners at Central Rivers Area Education Agency based out of the Marshalltown Office. She can be reached at Central Rivers AEA serves over 65,000 students. In addition, over 5,000 educators rely on Central Rivers AEA for services in special education, school technology, media and instructional/curriculum support. The agency’s service area reaches 18 counties and nearly 9,000 square miles.