Chapter 8: Qualities of Culturally Sensitive Teachers

 by Maria P. Cantu


"The increasing diversity in our schools, the ongoing demographic changes across the nation and the movement towards globalization dictate that we develop a more in-depth understanding of culture if we want to bring about true understanding among diverse populations."- Maria Wilson-Portuondo*


The purpose of this chapter is to describe the qualities of culturally sensitive teachers to empower other teachers to reflect on the benefits of being a culturally responsive teacher.


What Means to Be a Culturally Sensitive Teacher

A culturally-sensitive teacher is one that is aware of and addresses the students’ cultural and ethnic needs as well as their social, emotional, and cognitive needs in order to obtain the students’ cooperation. Urban classrooms can present many challenges for teachers due to many factors. Crosby (1999) reported “The new wave of immigrants of the past 25 years from Hispanic countries, from the Middle East, and from Asian countries has washed over the urban schools like a tidal wave bringing with it additional challenges, this time cultural and linguistic” (p.104). Gibbs & Huang (1998) state that , “In adolescents, school phobia or truancy may actually represent  fear of a violent or chaotic school environment or fear of social rejection due to some cultural, racial, or economic difference from the majority of the student body” (p.17). The problem lies in the fact that most urban teachers are white, middle class and not familiar with issues of diversity and multiculturalism. Crosby (1999) indicated that “The teacher turnover rate in the urban schools, especially those in the inner cities, is often staffed largely by newly hired or uncertified teachers. These teachers, who were trained to teach students from middle class families and who often come from middle class families themselves, now find themselves engulfed by minority students, immigrants, and other students from low income families-students whose values and experiences are very different from their own" (p.302).

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally sensitive teachers need to purposely respond to the needs of the many culturally and ethnically diverse students in their classrooms. Culturally responsive teaching includes implementing specifically student-oriented instructional processes as well as choosing and delivering ethnically and culturally relevant curricula. Culturally sensitive teachers use effective communication which may include translations to other languages in the case of English-Language Learners (ELL), and the use of audio-visual aids when working with ELL and Special Education Serviced Students (SESS). Culturally responsive teaching should include activities that reflect the students’ values, cultures, and beliefs.


Culturally Sensitive Classroom Management and Motivation


Culturally sensitive classroom management and motivation focuses on many teaching components, from the utilization of research-based pedagogical processes as well as the ability to respond appropriately to the cultural, ethnic, emotional, social, and cognitive needs of the students. To effectively manage the students the teacher most develop an inclusive classroom environment in which all the students agree to respect and collaborate with teachers and classmates for the benefit of the entire group in the pursuit of academic achievement. This is not an easy task, but rather a complex process that involves interpersonal, cultural and academic awareness of the student’s lives.

The Quality of Caring


When students feel valued by their teachers, they are more likely to work harder at assignments and comply with classroom rules (Pigford, 2001). In his synthesis of research Davis (2003) identified four common aspects of positive student-teacher relationships: competence, autonomy, relatedness and involvement. Rothstein-Fish and Trumbull(2008) describe very similar characteristics: competence, autonomy, relatedness and generosity in the Circle of Courage aligned with a constructivist perspective.

Caring seems to be the most important factor contributing to positive teacher-student relationships which as been identified consistently through most research and academic literature on education. Caring is one of those elusive notions that is difficult to configure in concrete measured studies (Goldstein & Lake, 2000). In spite of this fact, it surfaces numerous times in the literature on multiculturality (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2004; Zimmerman, 2000) as the most contributing factor in student’s success in schools. In addition most popular teachers indicate that they care deeply about their students and feel passionate about the subject that they teach (Goldstein & Lake, 2000). Noddings (2000) is one of the most quoted proponents for an ethic of caring in schools, calling for a “dedicated drive to produce caring, competent, loving and lovable people” that guides the curriculum and “everything we do in schools” (pp.35-36).

Most importantly from the culturally responsive teaching perspective is the capability and intent of teachers to touch their very diverse students’ lives. To do so the teachers can create family and community-type of classrooms.


Effective Communicators


Catt, Miller & Schallenkamp (2007), address how teachers should communicate with students to increase learning effectiveness. To be able to keep their multicultural students involved, culturally sensitive teachers most possess excellent communication skills. Action strategies to  attain good results include: the use of appropriate examples, communicating why the topic is important, being well prepared before instruction, inviting guest speakers, explaining the grading system to students and collaborating and brainstorming with colleagues. 

Diverse students have differences in the way they process communications.  Gay(2000) explains that African American students have a social interaction style referred to as "call response" in which students frequently speak while the teacher is speaking as a response to their feelings about a teacher's comments. They do not mean to be rude rather they are acknowledging or agreeing with what the teacher is saying. Asian students on the other hand may smile and laugh as a reaction to their confusion, and or misunderstanding the language or principle they are learning. According to Gay this is common among Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Cambodians who use ritualized laughter to maintain harmony and avoid challenging authority. Many Asian and Asian American students may reject praise, confrontational situations like correcting fellow students or responding competitively to save face, maintain harmony and modesty. English language learners who are recent immigrants for the most part remain quiet during class refusing to read out loud and choose not to respond to questions as they learn the English language.

Effective communication is accomplished by means of active listening (Bloom, 2008). Arcavi and Isoda (2007) define active listening as "giving careful attention to hearing what students say (and to see what they do), trying to understand it and its possible sources and entailments" (p.112). Gordon (2003) defines active listening as empathetic listening that allows the speaker to know that his or her message has been heard and understood. Furthermore Gordon identifies undesirable messages that can be communicated to students and refers to them as roadblocks to communication such as: unacceptance, inadequacies and faults, problem denial, and solving the problem for the student.

Hold High Expectations for All Students

According to Bloom, (2007) culturally sensitive teachers are aware of their expectations and how they influence their students. They use various authentic assessments to know where the students are academically, value each student’s unique strengths, and involve all students in class projects and activities based on the students’ interests. They encourage critical thinking in all their learners. There is constant use of sincere praise for their accomplishments and they let all their students know that their work and ideas are respected and appreciated.



Develop Positive Relationships with Students, Parents and Families

Culturally sensitive teachers know their students well. They gather information about their students lives both inside and outside the school. They learn about their students’ cultures, past experiences and family. They strive to develop positive relationships with their students, their parents and families. Culturally sensitive teachers understand that cultural, linguistic and religious differences may prevent some parents from actively participating in school functions and activities yet they make an effort to help parents become effective partners in the education of their children. Maintaining a respectful communication with students their parents and family will contribute significantly to the students, academic and behavioral success.

Awareness of Socio-Cultural Differences of Their Students and Themselves

It is important to understand that one’s thinking, behaving and being is determined by race, ethnicity, culture, language and social class. Culturally sensitive teachers have gained a lot of consciousness about their own socio-cultural identities and issues of inequalities that affect their students. Villegas and Lucas (2002) encourage teachers to critically examine themselves. Teachers need to reflect on and confront their own biases and discriminatory attitudes towards specific cultural groups. Respecting and celebrating the cultural differences of their students from diverse backgrounds will enable culturally sensitive teachers to work successfully in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms.


For Further Information
You may find further information on the following wesites:
The Knowledge Loom: The Practices. (  
The Education Alliance: teaching Diverserse Learners.
The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning.



Arcavi, A., Isoda, M. (2007). Learning to listen: From from historical  sources to classroom practice

    Educational Student Math, 66(2), 11-129.

Bloom, L.A. (2008). Classroom management: Creating positive outcomes for all students.

            Pearson Education Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Catt, S., Miller, D. & Schallenkamp, K.  (2007). You are the key: Communicate for learning effectiveness

     Education, 127(3), 369-377.

Crosby, E.A. (1999). Urban schools forced to fail. Phi Delta Kappan, 81 (4), 298-303.

Gibbs, J.T., Huang, L.N. & Associates. (1988). Children of Color: Psychological interventions

            With culturally diverse youth (updated ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York:

            Teachers College Press.

Goldstein, L.S. & Lake, V.E. (2000). Love, love, and more love for children:

Exploring pre-service teacher’s understanding of caring. Teacher and Teacher Education,

 16, 861-872.

Gordon, T. (2003). Teacher effectiveness training: The program proven to help teachers bring

            out the best in students of all ages. Three Rivers, CA: Three Rivers Press.

Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education.

            New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people, a caring alternative to character education:

            New York: Teachers College Press.

Pigford, T. (2001). Improving teacher-student relationships: What’s up with that? Clearing House, 7(6), 337-339.

Rothstein- Fish, C., Trumbull, E. (2008) Managing diverse classrooms: How to build on students’ cultural `        strengths. Alexandria, VA. Association  for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zimmerman, L. W. (2000). Bilingual education as a manifestation of an etic

        of caring.  Educational Horizons, 78 (2) 72-76.

  * This author's biography may be viewed on The Knowledge Loom ( by clicking on her photo. Her quote was excerpted from the panel discussion on Cultural Relevance in Teaching and maybe be accessed by clicking on "Participate".