A Lesson in Cultural Proficiency

Posted on: Thu, 11/09/2017 - 09:00

Guest blog by Catherine Alspaugh, 2009 Teacher of the Year.

Cultural proficiency seems to be a focus in education these days, but some of the ideas behind it – respect for others, empathy, and a sincere desire to understand people who come from different circumstances and backgrounds than we do – have been around for a long time. Some of those ideas were around when I started teaching in this county in 1987; they were part of “multiculturalism.” Later, every head nodded at the phrase “cultural diversity.”

The thinking behind the names is similar, but the work behind cultural proficiency is not. Cultural proficiency requires self-reflection about one’s actions, not just knowledge about specific cultures. The difference between cultural proficiency and “multiculturalism” is the self-reflection on one’s values, beliefs, and practices that enable each of us to effectively interact in culturally diverse settings – it starts from the inside. I had a good lesson in cultural proficiency last winter.

My husband and I were returning from a vacation last March, and we were in the airport at midnight. Although we were exhausted from the travelling, we were patiently waiting at the luggage carousel along with many other tired folks. When I spotted a young mother holding a sleeping baby girl, I told my husband to go over and invite her to sit with me on the only bench available.

He was reluctant, saying that we don’t even know her, but I was adamant, remembering how those early days of parenting can be so taxing. She was standing with her husband and four-year-old son, and she looked surprised when my husband approached them.

She was wearing an abaya and a hijab on her head.

This beautiful young mother with two adorable kids sank down on the bench beside me and laughed when I told her that I made my husband offer her a seat. We got chatting about motherhood, grand motherhood, and the challenges facing parents today. Her appearance prompted me to tell her that we have a Korean daughter-in-law and a Trinidadian son-in-law. As a mature white woman, I wanted to reach out and make a connection with this woman. So, naturally, I asked her where they were from.

She smiled and said Chattanooga. Yep, Tennessee. She was a pharmacist; her husband was a radiologist, and they were visiting college friends in Ellicott City. I laughed and said, “You are the face of America.”

So I caught myself making assumptions about what “American” looks like. I could have been embarrassed by my mistake and she could have been angry or indignant, but she was gracious enough to ignore my surprised expression. I did not intend to show disrespect, but my assumption that she was “other” was insulting, even though I was genuinely trying to be friendly.

It is time to start, in a meaningful way, promoting respect regardless of how someone is dressed, made up, shorn, or what they possess. One place this starts is our schools.