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Teaching and Relationship-Building Must Be Culturally Responsive

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The following has been adapted from No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships
By Jaleel R. Howard, Tanya Milner-McCall, Tyrone C. Howard. 


What do students see, hear, feel, and do in their daily environments? The answers reveal who our students are, what and who are important in their lives, and should be the basis of our curriculum. Our relationships with students should describe more than our classroom community; it must also describe our curriculum. Students’ sociocultural identity—their customs, cultural practices, communication norms, and values—is not a static label, but rather, can be a tool to gather strength and to move beyond limiting realities. Gloria Ladson-Billings describes this as culturally responsive work “that not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate” (1995).

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Teachers cannot take a socially, economically, and politically unconscious approach to where they work and the conditions that students encounter daily outside of school.

Culturally responsive curriculum can take many shapes and forms. Try incorporating content and examples from social media, music, movie references, and video gaming—the form is specific to the context of the students in your classroom. For example, some students may have a strong orientation toward injustice, and may be more vocal in the classroom when they see or experience injustice, because in their respective home or community, unfairness and injustice are not accepted. So, it is important to have curriculum that addresses these students’ expectation or core cultural value of speaking up about injustice even if you are not the person involved. It is up to teachers to take an anthropological approach to recognize core aspects of students’ lives, such as:

  • home, life, community context;
  • learning preferences;
  • communication modalities;
  • content consumed (current events, interests, and media);
  • core values.

By understanding the larger culture, our identities within existing systems of oppression, and the cultures of our students, we can recreate a better world in our classrooms. As Geneva Gay explains, our pedagogy can be built around these ideas “to and through the strengths of these students” (2018, 36). When teachers take on the work of culturally responsive teaching, they commit to ensuring that marginalized students not only can, but will improve their school achievement (Gay 2018, 69). One important aspect of a culturally responsive approach to teaching is that school curriculum, instruction, and learning are tied to students’ experiences, realities, identities, histories, and in many ways their expertise. High performance is an expectation and consequently the norm. 


An extension of culturally responsive teaching is culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris and Alim 2017), which challenges teachers to go beyond mere acknowledgment, acceptance, or tolerance of students’ cultural identities and to move instead toward explicitly supporting aspects of their languages, literacies, and cultural traditions. Culturally sustaining pedagogy encourages teachers to understand and employ the term culture in a broader sense, incorporating popular, youth, and local culture alongside ethnicity. Examples of culturally sustaining practices include encouraging students’ use of culturally familiar languages in the classroom; these practices could also include ethnic studies content that takes a more critical approach to history, bringing issues of oppression, domination, and colonialism front and center. Culturally sustaining pedagogy could also prioritize student agency by encouraging students to make their lives, experiences, language, and literacies a frequent starting point for understanding new concepts, issues, and content in the curriculum.


The above has been adapted from No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships.

Learn more about this book on Heinemann.com.

Download a Sample Chapter of No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships



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jaleelhowardJaleel R. Howard is currently a sixth-grade English language arts teacher in Houston, Texas. Jaleel’s research interests center around urban contexts and social forces that affect educational experiences and outcomes for chronically underserved students. Find him on Twitter at @JaleelRHoward


Tanya Milner-McCall is a twenty-nine-year veteran classroom teacher in Carrollton, Georgia. She is certified in Early Childhood Education and Middle Grades Education, and she holds a Gifted Endorsement. Tanya has taught several grades, including fourth (12 years), fifth (15 years), and sixth (2 years). She and several of her team members were Instructional Excellence recipients in 2012. Tanya also received a Golden Apple Award as an honor teacher in 2017, given by an honor graduate whose life she impacted more than any of his other teachers.

tyronehowardTyrone C. Howard is a Professor of Education in the School of Education at UCLA. He is also the Director of the UCLA Black Male Institute and the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families. A former classroom teacher in Compton, California, his current research interests center on race, equity, access, and improved school outcomes for marginalized youth. Find Tyrone on Twitter at @TyroneCHoward

Works Cited:

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational Research Journal 32 (3): 465–491.
Gay, Geneva. 2018. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Teaching, Research and Practice 3rd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Paris, Django, and H. Samy Alim, eds. 2017. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Language and Literacy Series. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Topics: Not This But That, Social-Emotional Learning, Tyrone C. Howard, No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships, Jaleel R. Howard, Tanya Milner-McCall, Anti-Racist Education, SEL, Social-Emotional Learning Page

Date Published: 06/19/20

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