Emotional & Cultural Humility - Reflective Practices to Strengthen Social-Emotional Wellness

We are all familiar with the practice of cultural competence - one's ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. This includes being aware of one’s own world view, developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences, and gaining knowledge of different cultural practices. In this new normal however, knowledge and positive attitudes are not enough. To foster social-emotional support for students and staff we’d like you to consider the practices of cultural humility and emotional humility.


Defining Cultural and Emotional Humility


Cultural humility is about accepting our limitations and working to increase our self-awareness of our own biases and perceptions - engaging in a life-long self reflection process about how to put these aside and learn from our colleagues and young people. Humility in this sense is awareness that our own knowledge is limited as to what truly is another’s culture. We can’t know everything about every culture as each of us are complex humans who intersect in a variety of cultures. Through the practice of cultural humility we are not the expert, but rather the learner. Our colleagues and young people are our collaborators - they can teach us about their unique places at the intersections of their different cultures.


Self-awareness and self-reflection are emotional intelligence skills. Emotional Intelligence is our ability to recognize and understand emotions in ourselves and others, and our ability to use this awareness to manage our behavior and relationships. Similar to cultural competence, emotional intelligence puts knowledge at the helm. However, in this “new normal” we need to be mindful of how we use this intelligence. Similar to cultural humility, we need to accept our limitations and know that our knowledge and understanding of another’s emotions is limited. We must first seek to better know and understand our own emotions and also practice humility, which here is expressed through a willingness to recognize that our emotional response to experiences is not the same as others. Therefore, we must put on the role of learner and look to our colleagues and young people to teach us about what is true for them.


When we practice cultural and emotional humility we become more “other” oriented. With an openness and willingness to learn, we create opportunities for connection and connection promotes healthy relationships. We can also work to create safe, supportive, and equitable learning environments. These environments will call on adults to engage in practices that affirm diverse social and cultural identities; cultivate a sense of belonging and community; provide structures for physical and emotional safety; use engaging, relevant, and culturally responsive instruction built on an understanding of how children and adolescents grow and develop socially, emotionally, and academically; create space for student voice and agency; offer frequent opportunities for students to discuss and practice anti-racism and develop collaborative solutions to address inequities; and provide tiered supports that meet the needs of all students. All of these actions will help us foster cultural and emotional humility with our young people.


Humility and Our Practice as Educators


Now that we have some shared understanding of the concepts of cultural and emotional humility, we want to tie them together for our practice as educators. Many of you have probably heard the term Culturally Responsive Teaching. You may have even heard of a leading author in this work, Zarretta Hammond. She wrote the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and describes CRT as “helping culturally and linguistically diverse students who have been marginalized in schools build their skill and capacity to do rigorous work. The focus isn't on motivation but on improving their brainpower and information processing skills.In order to be a culturally responsive educator, we must take the time and diligence to learn from our students' cultural identities (cultural humility) and how they relate to them (emotional humility). We can then use that understanding of the experience, their identities, and their already existing skills and knowledge to further build their learning context.


Beyond this understanding of our students, is our own self-reflection on our cultural identities and how we relate to them. When the reality of our public school classrooms is the majority of teachers are white and the majority of students are students of color, it is critical to examine the ways in which our cultural identities might differ or how they might be similar while leaving out assumptions of common understanding. By building our stamina around self-reflection, we increase our own emotional and cultural understanding which leads to greater capacity to foster an environment where students feel safe to do the same for themselves. This practice builds empathy and trust which then create the opportunities for educators to hold students to high expectations. When a student can say “I feel like my teacher cares about me”, “I feel like my teacher understands me” or “I feel like my teacher supports me”, this gives us permission to continue challenging our students toward their greatest learning potential. If we don’t have that trust, we can often find ourselves in power struggles, or complacency.


It’s important too, that we come from a place of curiosity as opposed to a place of suspicion. We know there is so much on the plate of teachers and educators in general, it can feel like a heavy lift to engage in complex conversations about race. But given everything that is happening in our country right now, it is more important than ever that we take time to dig deep into our own implicit biases, because we all have them. A critical distinction in CRT is not that every conversation needs to focus on race, although it is a pivotal identity for many of our students. It is more about being able to understand the racialized society that we and our students exist in. For example, a hoodie is an item of clothing that we might just throw on when we’re relaxing at home. But to a young Black boy, a hoodie might mean they become a target. Understanding the unique dualities of how you and your students might be experiencing things allows us to practice that cultural humility of accepting that there might be differences in our experience of the world and create opportunities for us to seek to understand instead of judge or assume.


Be Humble


There is true value in building our cultural and emotional humility. There are several different activities and exercises you can engage in to encourage self-reflection, dialogue, self-awareness and mindfulness. Impact Education Collaborative provides support for individuals and organizations to help them build up these skills. Stay curious and open to learning about yourself. Practicing cultural and emotional humility is essential to fostering dynamic relationships with young people in order to create rigorous and thriving learning environments that allow them to be their true authentic selves.


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