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Exploring Cultural Competence & Cultural Inclusion in International Schools

By Kenya Washington
Exploring Cultural Competence & Cultural Inclusion in International Schools

"We do this work all the time. After all, we serve a huge international population boasting over 50 nationalities for which 30 different languages are spoken. It’s who we are!"
Sound familiar?
How often do we hear this in our international teaching and learning communities? Are we living our principles? To what degree do we take cultural perspectives into account in our communications within our school communities? And in what ways does our stated commitment to cultural inclusion show up authentically in our instruction?
In this article, I want to consider elements of cultural perspective and competence, examine what a culturally inclusive classroom might look like, and discuss the impact on students when we begin to get this right or, conversely, when we fall short of inclusion.
Cultural competence in education
The National Education Association suggests that educators possessing elements of cultural competence have “an awareness of their own cultural identity and how it has been shaped or formed… as they continuously work towards being effective with students from various cultural backgrounds” ( 2002–2019).
In our work with students attending international schools, we might also be reminded that students have the unique opportunity to learn about, deepen their understanding of, and develop their own cultural competence through their organic interactions with their peers (see Classroom Culture, 1991–2019).
Given this, a key goal in our work with students might be to support them “towards enhancing their perception of the world via curricula where [educators] integrate multiple dimensions, and perspectives… into everyday lessons” (Primary Sources Educating Global Citizens: 2018).
Achieving this goal and how well we guide our students is largely a function of our communication style, our subtle messaging, and our ability to be flexible in our thinking on how to best support students experiencing interpersonal conflicts both within and outside of the classroom.
Simply attending an international school is not in itself sufficient training in cultural competence. Nor is the curriculum itself a panacea. We need to build upon these.
But how?
During class lessons, are we using open questions to measure students’ understanding of the various points of view presented, or are we drilling down by way of closed questions? In reflection sessions, might we reconsider how we validate or check our students’ perspectives with the words and body language we adopt as educators? These are a few ways to model inclusion of ideas.
In our efforts to build a classroom culture where deeper connections can be made, the curriculum is another area in which we can integrate multiple dimensions and perspectives.
A culturally inclusive classroom is one that encompasses everything from teaching practices and philosophies to how we support students in their work with their peers, and even how classroom space is configured and used to promote inclusivity. Given this, what does it look like when students feel safe to authentically engage?
What it can look like
Whether it is in moderating in-class debates on sensitive topics or working with students who have been on the receiving end of or witnessed biased comments or incidents to find educational ways to address them, we should start by recognizing that such incidents are not specific to any one international school community.
To help both our students and fellow colleagues in crafting responses to biased comments and incidents, it is useful to discuss the roles of bystanders vs. disrupters. More proactively, our power is in promoting the following:
• Encouraging students to actively listen to others who might hold opposing views, and promoting neutral language.
• Creating safe spaces in which students feel comfortable telling their truths while constructively bridging gaps for better interpersonal dialogue and understanding.
In our practice as educators, do we encourage sameness to avoid conflicts or encourage differences in an effort to enrich discussions and perspectives? If we practice these, we are required to be cognizant and ever-reflective about our own personal biases as educators and human beings and their impact. Because, let’s face it—we all have biases!
In reflecting, we should consider how our biases may impact our tone, our language, and how we go about making decisions in working with students. For example, do we unintentionally engage in gender bias when engaging students in the classroom?
A study by Bailey (1992) suggests that we can sometimes, with the best of intentions, fall into “praising girls for being neat, quiet, and calm, whereas we encourage boys to think independently, be active, and speak up.” Raey’s 2001 study demonstrated that educators can indirectly affect how our students are socialized if we allow for different behaviors among boys and girls according to gender. This study further showed that assertive behavior from girls can be seen as problematic and viewed more negatively by adults.
What we model in our words, tone, and choices are the characteristics that others will perceive as essential attributes for working in an international school setting. In our respective environments, do we walk the talk? Are we comfortable talking about our own differences as assets, or do we view them, at times, as deficits? How might these perspectives impact the ways we teach our students and mentor our colleagues?
As we work toward building greater cultural competence in our school settings, we are likely not to get it right much of the time. But every authentic attempt can and does make a difference in our students’ lives. What we model can become someone else’s reality!
In honing this practice of cultural competence, it is essential that each of us understands our own perspective, as it has been shaped by our cultural and educational experiences. Our students’ educational experiences deserve to be guided by our most authentic selves.
National Education Association (, 2002-2019.
Primary Sources Educating Global Citizens, 2018.
Bailey, S. (1992) How Schools Shortchange Girls.
Reay, D. (2001) ‘Spice girls’, ‘Nice Girls’, ‘Girlies’, and ‘Tomboys.’ Girls’ cultures and femininities in the primary classroom. Gender and Education, 13 (2), 153–167.

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