Building Cultural Proficiency Into My Classroom and Yours

July 8, 2020

The landscape in the United States is heavy with turmoil and change. We live in a national education climate that has changed, whether it is acknowledged or not because COVID-19 is changing the way students learn.  

Adding to the complexity is the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has opened a discussion about how Black people, my people, are treated. The initial protests ignited as a reaction to police brutality, generated a sense of urgency to address inequity and racism. Many fellow educators announced their unmasked feelings using social media. People are waiting for educational leaders to address equity issues that plague schools in our nation in the wake of the reaction to the death of George Floyd. As a Black woman, I searched to see if my profession understood the needs of students of color. As the mother of a Black male, I longed for leaders in my profession to understand the experiences and social-emotional needs of Black children. I saw no pointed public response until The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards shared a post on Twitter.

“The National Board is an anti-racist and inclusive organization. We believe educators must help students consider their role in a diverse world, value individual differences, and- especially in times such as these – we believe in the power of the teaching profession to defend what is good and right for all people.”

I felt empowered and acknowledged when I read the words from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The National Board’s Standards and Five Core Propositions are embedded with anti-racist language to inspire educators and have an impact on students. Core Proposition 1 guides teachers to reflect on the personal bias that may impair professional judgment. The correct application of the National Board Core Proposition 1 compels teachers to confront bias that can impair their ability to deliver quality instruction to all students.  

During my journey to achieve National Board certification, I had to examine biases that I held that inhibited instruction. When I saw students that looked like me, I assumed they were Black Americans. I learned that accomplished teachers assess student needs by leveraging parental conversations, student surveys, and conferencing to uncover the hidden cultures. I had students interview their families about their culture for project-based learning activities. During the learning process, students shared that they found out information about their background that they did not know before the interview process. 

Parents were encouraged to send photographs and artifacts. A student discussed his ancestry as a member of the  Zulu tribe. Another student reported on how her family celebrated Ramadhan. I found out that I had Haitian, Jamaican, and Nigerian students in my class.  Parents were willing to come to school and teach the entire class about their culture and traditions. I found history, literature, and influences from each culture to infuse in my lessons and classroom environment. Rubrics allowed me to collect data from project-based student work instead of relying on tests and quizzes as forms of assessment.  

As an accomplished teacher, I shared lessons learned from the cultural assessments with my professional learning community. Eventually, other teachers embraced cultural infusion in my school. We administered cultural proficiency self-assessments in our professional learning community meetings. We decided to have an annual international day to celebrate culture in the community. We dubbed our school a cultural center of learning.    

Many teachers of color speak of fearing reprimand for teaching about student cultures. The National Board Standards are the hallmark of instructional practice and call for instruction that is inclusive. Teachers should meet the needs of the students facing them. IIn my case, there was no need to hide what I was doing because I was still teaching state standards at a developmentally appropriate level of rigor. I infused Black American history in all content areas, but through my cultural blindness, I did not address all of my student needs.  

Accomplished teachers recognize students’ differences and capitalize on diversity to improve the classroom environment. I made the change, and my class performed well on state assessments. Teachers should not fear reprimanded when their instructional practices lead to better student outcomes. Cultural infusion improves student outcomes. I encourage teachers to unabashedly infuse culture in the curriculum and use their professional judgment. I implore teachers to keep on pushing the invisible boundaries that suppress cultural competence.

Additionally, all students should learn about the contributions of diverse cultures to increase understanding between different communities. The contributions of white Americans dominate the curriculum. For cultural understanding to improve, education must illuminate the societal contributions of all races and ethnicities. The dominance of European culture in the curriculum and revisionist history exacerbates the issue. It is our duty as educators to level inequity for the students in our care.  

As I pursued National Board certification, I learned about cultural proficiency which is a framework to reflect on individual behaviors that enhance the ability to engage with people who are different. As a teacher leader, I used Cultural Proficiency to provide structure for conversations about student achievement data. When I became a Data Coach, I saw some educators blame students’ cultural backgrounds for their achievement in professional learning community meetings. Cultural Proficiency pushes educators to focus data inquiry away from bias toward pedagogy and social-emotional support.  

The Cultural Proficiency framework was introduced 15 years ago. It is my sincere hope that more educators will apply the National Board Core Propositions and Cultural Proficiency to enhance the student experience. I know that educator practice will not change all of the issues with educational policy, but the guiding principles shine a ray of light in the darkness.


Lindsey, Robins, & Terrell (2009). Cultural proficiency: A manual for school leaders.  Corwin Press.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2002). What teachers should know and be able to do. NBPTS

Heavenly Montgomery, NBCT

Heavenly Montgomery is a passionate educator who empowers teachers and school leaders with resources to meet the needs of all students. As an educational consultant, she has collaborated with teachers and school leaders throughout the United States and Canada. Her previous educational experiences include elementary school teaching, an instructional coach, a mentor teacher, and a K-12 district program specialist. She has served students in culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse communities in Georgia. Heavenly is dual certified to teach in the elementary grades (K-5) as well as secondary reading and English Language Arts (6-12). She is also a National Board Certified Teacher (Middle Childhood Generalist), a Georgia Master Teacher (Instructional Coaching), and a Learning Forward Academy Graduate. Mrs. Montgomery also participated in the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education to support district turnaround efforts. She holds a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education from Mercer University and an Education Specialists degree in Educational Leadership from Capella University. She advocates for Accomplished teaching as the founder of the Georgia Teacher Leader Consortium National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Network Affiliate. She enjoys living in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two children.