Cultural Responsiveness Starts in the Principal’s Office

January 31, 2018 by

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.” – John Maxwell

Dr. Joseph Ellison

Personalized instruction has become an increasing focus of educational conversation over the last few years. However, the conversation often fails to touch on what it means to personalize instruction in light of the great diversity found in schools across our country. Can personalized instruction be effective without some degree of cultural competence?

Educators cannot truly personalize instruction without carefully considering the “whole child” – meaning current skill level, previous instruction, socioeconomic status, and race. Yes… race! Some argue that race has no place in the conversation around personalization. I disagree. Race is a necessary component of personalization because “teachers [who] ignore the racial component of students’ identity are in effect treating their students as incomplete beings, and student performance can suffer as a result” (Milner, 2010, p. 16). I hasten to emphasize that race is NOT everything when it comes to cultural responsiveness. Effective and accurate cultural responsiveness must respond to all of the inputs in students’ lives; it must take into account the “whole child.” And, cultural responsiveness is not an “add-on” or just another classroom thing. Cultural responsiveness is part of an ever-evolving orientation and pedagogy… and a necessary component of personalized learning.

I bounce back to the John Maxwell quote mentioned above: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Cultural responsiveness is not just a classroom thing. It is not merely a six-hour professional development topic. It is a critical tool in a highly-effective teacher’s instructional arsenal. But… this orientation begins in the principal’s office. Cultural responsiveness is about more than just race, as I mentioned before. Cultural responsiveness is about understanding how varying experiences impact students, about learning how to embrace diversity, and about fostering connections between school staff and the diverse populations they serve (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Culturally responsive practices are more likely to occur in schools where principals engage in culturally responsive leadership and work to overcome the barriers that arise against it (Bustamante et al, 2009). Indeed, culturally responsive leadership occurs when school leaders merge curriculum innovation with social activism. It is anchored in the belief that school leaders must clearly understand their own assumptions, beliefs, and values about people and cultures different from themselves in order to lead effectively in settings with diverse student populations (Johnson, 2006; Terrell & Lindsey, 2009).

While I have been privileged to serve as a head principal for only two years, coupled with my ten years as an assistant principal and my seventeen total years in education, I have learned a few things about what cultural responsiveness looks like in a principal’s practice. I freely admit that I am a work in progress and that I do not have it all figured out. Still, I’d like to share some of my learning with you about what culturally responsive leadership looks like in several areas of principal practice.

  • Hiring – getting the right people in the right seats in schools is critical for student success. While it is important to hire quality individuals, it is equally important to hire individuals who reflect your school’s student demographic. A sense of inherent relatability is enhanced when teaching staffs and student bodies share similar demographics. In the event that this is not possible, principals should hire individuals who espouse a culturally responsive orientation. What we must remember is that curriculum and instruction are influenced by who a teacher is: his/her racial/ethnic identity, personal life experience, societal interactions, and personal perception. Colorblindness has no place in classroom instruction because it neglects important and unique aspects of student identity. A quality teacher can teach a student from any race or ethnicity regardless of their own, but a culturally responsive orientation is necessary. There is no substitute for a good hire.
  • Professional development – A culturally responsive teacher must be willing to engage in deep introspection of personal biases and their impact on classroom instruction. Part of the job of the principal is to provide professional learning which will forward this work and elicit strategies to address the results of this introspection. Because so few teacher preparation programs support pre-service teachers through this type of personal analysis, principals are left to guide their staffs through it. But, a principal cannot lead where he or she is not willing to go. School leaders must also engage in effective professional development to guide introspection of their personal biases and develop ways to work around them. This means attending conferences, participating in trainings, and constantly reading professional literature to remain abreast of the best ways to guide staff to a deeper level of cultural responsiveness. Additionally, principals must intentionally connect staff to outside professional development that will forward culturally responsive practice. Because this orientation cannot be cultivated in a vacuum, principals must ensure teachers receive the training necessary to better connect students and curriculum, to strengthen instructional practice, to heighten student engagement, and (ultimately) increase student academic success. A principal’s intentional focus on providing and promoting professional development with a culturally responsive lens is critical.
  • Resource allocation – Treasure often follows the longings of the heart. In schools, purse strings follow the focus of the principal. Enhancing curriculum takes money. Providing meaningful and effective professional development takes money. Ensuring staff attend conferences and trainings with a culturally responsive lens takes money. If you follow a school’s money trail… it will reveal what is most important in that school. A principal must be willing to allocate resources as needed to foster cultural responsiveness. In my school, this means investing in Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) training for our staff. It means providing training in Trauma-Informed Instruction. It means supporting and coaching teachers to help them build positive relationships with all students. It means developing a peer mediation program to help students resolve conflict peaceably. It means working with district leadership to provide systemic training on cultural responsiveness. It means challenging the status quo and working to destroy opportunity gaps. It means providing time during the school day for intervention and remediation based upon course standards. It means adding additional time after school for more intervention and remediation as well as one-on-one mentoring. It means challenging teachers to think differently about their students and their work. Ultimately, it means putting money where my mouth is. Every student is important to me; so, I allocate resources to help each student achieve our mission of graduating every student college and/or career ready. This works takes having the right people in the right positions… but it also takes money to make it all happen. Resources must be allocated in such a way that they support cultural responsiveness in multiple facets of the school.

Cultural responsiveness in schools starts at the top; it starts in the principal’s office. If school leaders are not attuned to the students walking the halls and sitting the classroom, students will never experience a truly personalized education. If school leaders are not attuned to the needs of students, teachers will not receive the supports needed to effectively personalize student learning. Principals must be about the same things we ask of teachers. Principals must lead from an informed, culturally responsive orientation to ensure success for all. Principals must align both word and deed to clearly see each student in the school and support the work necessary to achieve increased levels of student success. Culturally responsive leadership is paramount in schools working with marginalized groups because it ensures that the inherent barriers to these students’ academic progress are addressed (Benson & Ellison, 2017). Cultural responsiveness rides the coattails of principal leadership in our schools. We must be about this work – this culturally responsive work – for the sake and success of our students.


Benson, J. & Ellison, J. (2017). TLC: CREATING A CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE SCHOOL THROUGH EFFECTIVE TEACHING, LEADERSHIP, AND CLIMATE (Doctoral dissertation, University of Louisville).

Bustamante, R. M., Nelson, J. A., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2009). Assessing schoolwide cultural competence: Implications for school leadership preparation. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(5), 793-827.

Johnson, L. (2006). Making her community a better place to live: Culturally responsive urban school leadership in historical context. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 5, 19-36.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Maxwell, J. C. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Milner, H. R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Terrell, R. D., & Lindsey, R. B. (2009). Culturally proficient leadership: The personal journey begins within. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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About the Author

Dr. Joseph Ellison, III is a former youth pastor, a former classroom English teacher, and a practicing school administrator. He currently holds the position of principal at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

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