Teacher Leadership

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education
Teacher Leadership

16. Self-Awareness and Cultural Competency

Critical Practices Teacher Leadership Call-out Bubble 1

Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively— and sensitively—across cultural contexts. It involves learning, communicating and connecting respectfully with others regardless of differences. Culture can refer to an individual’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status and age, among other things. All these factors strongly influence people’s lives and experiences.

Teachers—regardless of background or identity— must bring both cultural understanding and self-awareness to their work. The process of building this understanding and awareness includes several key commitments:

  • Asking oneself how issues of sameness, difference and power impact interactions with colleagues, students and families.
  • Developing skills and attitudes that bridge cultural differences such as empathy, flexibility, listening without judgment, appreciation for multiple cultural perspectives and cross-cultural communication.
  • Genuinely seeing diversity as a strength and an opportunity, rather than as an “issue” or problem.
  • Thinking about what each of us still needs to learn, and engaging in relevant professional development, dialogue, study or personal reflection.
  • Understanding how one’s own life experiences can help build relationships with students and enhance curriculum.

Many educators work in schools and communities with changing demographics; commitments to cultural competency, therefore, require ongoing effort, reflection and personal humility.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Prioritizing self-awareness and cultural competency supports three of the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity and Action. Because the work touches on issues of personal identity and experience, it is important that students receive “lived” messages that are consistent with the stated messages in the curriculum. Culturally aware teachers model how to live the core values in the Social Justice Standards. These values support a safe and inclusive approach to working with students, colleagues, families and communities.



A number of cultural competency self-assessments exist. Most include either self-reflection questions or checklists of indicators related to culturally competent practice against which teachers or organizations can measure their work. These tools can be used for personal learning, group discussion or both.

Professional Development on Working with Specific Groups

School communities benefit when teachers and other staff participate in professional development opportunities focused on working with LGBT youth, students with disabilities, English language learners, specific racial or ethnic groups and so on. Reading and sharing professional journals, books or blogs related to anti-bias education can augment professional development.


17. Speaking Up and Responding to Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes

Educators teach as much by example as by following a curriculum. Role-modeling proactive responses to bias, discrimination, exclusion and bullying is one of the most important ways teachers can exercise leadership. This means intervening every time students tease, bully or use slurs or stereotypes. It means speaking up against biased jokes and criticisms. And it means pointing out injustice during discussions of history and literature, in community and school interactions, or in the news.

Being a social justice leader means finding the courage to be an “upstander” in any context, including with colleagues (staff meeting dialogues, discussions about students and families, informal interactions and so on). Leadership also means speaking up if one group or individual is dominating discourse at the expense of other voices.

In the context of school-family relationships, addressing bias may involve (gently) challenging the negative assumptions or comments made by parents, guardians and other family members. It also requires finding respectful ways of standing strong if families resist curriculum topics such as race, immigration, economic disparities, LGBT experience and religion.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Responding to prejudice, bias and stereotypes supports one of the four anti-bias domains: Action. By challenging discrimination and exclusion, teachers model the curriculum’s commitment to action and support a safe and just space for diverse members of the school community.


Visual Symbols of Inclusion and Safety

Teachers can display posters, stickers and signs in their classrooms to signal their commitment to standing against bias, discrimination and bullying. These materials offer messages like “Hate-Free Zone,” “Safe Space (for LGBT Students),” “Bullying Stops Here,” “All Families Welcome” and “No One Is ‘Illegal.’”

Consistent Intervention on Bullying and Harassment

Research indicates that teachers intervene in only 14 percent of bullying episodes in the classroom and 4 percent of incidents outside the classroom. Intervention rates may be low in part because most harassment happens when teachers are not present; however, there is room for improvement. Educators may choose not to interrupt bullying because they are in a hurry, because they don’t know what to say or because they don’t want to take time away from instruction. Consistently intervening with harassment or bullying behavior, however, sends the message that student safety is a priority.

Using “I Statements” to Challenge Bias and Discrimination Among Adults

It can be hard to speak out against stereotypes, slurs or bias in a professional setting. Using “I statements” is helpful for starting conversations. For example, “It makes me uncomfortable to hear people saying that families from the housing projects don’t value education” or “I know you probably don’t mean anything by it, but I find it hard to listen to those kinds of anti-gay jokes.” These comments should not be the only type of intervention teachers use; deeper discussion will frequently be necessary to create meaningful change.


18. Building Alliances

As educators plan to implement anti-bias curricula, it is important they find diverse allies for their anti-bias and social justice teaching efforts.

Building alliances is about working together, giving and receiving support and creating a sounding board for anti-bias curriculum planning. Alliance-building also gives teachers space to discuss the critical practices outlined in this guide. Allies can be colleagues within the school or from outside networks. Connecting with individuals “beyond the choir” and outside personal friendships diversifies the network of allies and deepens this work.

Diversity and social justice topics such as race, immigration and LGBT issues may be difficult or uncomfortable to talk about. Having a critical mass of support can help forward the agenda and provide support in the face of resistance. If the ally group includes a diverse range of members, the work won’t become identified with the perceived interests or agendas of a specific group.

Finally, a community teaching an anti-bias curriculum together at a single site increases the curriculum’s impact. Including activities across grade levels and subjects can build much deeper understanding over time than any single teacher can accomplish.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Building alliances supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. This type of collaboration reinforces the idea that unity, solidarity and cooperation are necessary for creating social change.


Collaborative Planning and Cross-Class Projects

Alliances can evolve through joint curriculum or action projects. These projects can be done across grade levels or classes or with groups from other schools. Collaborative projects offer both students and teachers opportunities to deepen their shared understanding of anti-bias issues.

Professional Learning Communities

Learning communities, such as reading or discussion groups, provide regular opportunities for building relationships and supporting professional development. Some groups have an assigned organizer and facilitator, while others rotate planning and leadership responsibilities.


Attending and presenting at conferences is one way teachers can learn new strategies and build allies outside their immediate school communities. National conferences and conference organizers of particular relevance to diversity and anti-bias education issues include the National Association for Multicultural Education, Teachers 4 Social Justice, White Privilege Conference, Creating Change, Facing Race, the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and the National Association for Bilingual Education. Teachers can also tap into local groups and online communities to network regarding social justice issues.


19. Leading Beyond the Classroom

As advocates for social justice, teachers shape curriculum and demonstrate anti-bias leadership outside the classroom. This means discussing anti-bias education with colleagues, school leaders and powerful community partners. These discussions can benefit not only students, but also families, community members and the larger professional field.

The following questions provide a starting point for teachers seeking to build or expand their leadership efforts:

  • What is the role of anti-bias education in our classrooms and schools? How can the focus on identity, diversity, justice and action be woven through all aspects of teaching, learning, school climate and policy?
  • In what ways does our own behavior (and sharing of personal knowledge) at school model values from our anti-bias curriculum? How can we do more?
  • What relevant community issues would we like our classes or schools to actively address?
  • What successes, ideas or lessons from our own work might interest colleagues or the larger professional community?

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Demonstrating leadership beyond the classroom supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. This work is unfamiliar—even uncomfortable— to many schools and communities. It may take advocacy and support to break through resistance related to time restraints, teacher overload, parent negativity and so on. Teachers also have the power to “lead by example” by showcasing their ongoing learning about diversity and justice and their commitment to creating a better world.


Initiating Courageous School-wide Conversation About Social Justice Education

Raising awareness and inspiring interest in anti-bias issues is perhaps the most important leadership activity teachers can undertake. These conversations can enhance the curriculum, create a more-inclusive climate, address disparities in performance or disciplinary practices, deepen connections among faculty and staff, deepen connections with families and build a culture of ongoing dialogue and professional development. Discussions can be initiated in both formal and informal venues, including planning meetings, trainings and curriculum development sessions.

Sharing Strategies

Teachers can showcase anti-bias strategies and approaches with colleagues during planning processes, within professional learning communities or with larger audiences (Internet communities, conference presentations and so on).


20. Ongoing Reflection and Learning

The work of social justice education is never finished. There is always more for both teachers and students to learn—about themselves and others, about identity and diversity, about discrimination and empowerment, and about how they all relate. Being a teacher- leader in the anti-bias field means embracing the opportunity for ongoing reflection and growth.

Teachers can employ both formal and informal, individual and collective strategies to stay current on social justice issues. Examples include reading and writing research articles, journaling, blogging, participating in online discussion groups, attending professional development workshops and conferences, taking courses and joining a study group.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Ongoing learning and reflection support one of the four anti-bias domains: Action. Without ongoing efforts, anti-bias education becomes unsustainable and irrelevant. Personal exploration helps prepare teachers to address a broader range of anti-bias topics more deeply. Ongoing learning also motivates teachers to use and promote the curriculum from year to year.



Journals help capture evolving thoughts on anti-bias content and curriculum, classroom or school dynamics related to identity and diversity, personal experiences related to these issues and relevant insights from discussion groups and training sessions.

Professional Development

Professional development workshops and conferences can prompt reflection, invigorate teachers and build content knowledge, skills and leadership.

Critical Friend Relationships

Collegial friendships can provide safe, constructive opportunities to work through curricular material, implementation issues or difficult interactions. Critical friends can observe one another’s classes, review assignment ideas, discuss the joys and complexities of anti-bias education and point out biases or oversights. To be successful, all of this must be done within a context of mutual care, regard and trust.