Personal Lessons in Being Culturally Responsive

January 2019
Kids huddled around looking down at camera

An Interview with Sonya Whitaker, EdD

Sonya Whitaker, EdD, knows education inside and out. She’s held jobs as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, central office administrator for the largest elementary school district in the state of Illinois, and at the district level, director of academic improvement and director of literacy. Many of her responsibilities have been and remain focused on continuous improvement of student achievement. She has said, “It is not enough to hope that our students will become literate individuals capable of making significant contributions to their communities and to society as a whole. Educators and policymakers must make the paradigm shifts in thinking and the systematic changes needed to increase the likelihood that all students experience academic success to the best of their individual abilities.”

Whitaker, also a published author and accomplished national speaker, believes one of the ways we can best help students (and campers) who may be struggling is through providing them the opportunity to experience culturally responsive learning environments. She spoke with Camping Magazine about her journey, lessons she’s learned along the way, and how camps can foster culturally responsive leadership.

Tell us about your background. What sticks out in your mind as the defining moments that shaped you growing up and in your early career?

I am a teacher gone leader. I actually started out as a classroom teacher but had always aspired to administration — so much so that as a child in the summer when we played school in the garage, I wouldn’t play unless I got to be the principal. I’ve always been fascinated by teaching and leadership.

The defining moment I had, which I never realized would catapult me into a lifelong mission was this: Twenty-four years ago, I was a first-year teacher in Atlanta. I began to recognize in my students that there were some similarities among the group of children who weren’t making the academic, social, and behavioral gains I knew they were capable of. They were either children of color or children experiencing the effects of poverty. That second category describes children of all ethnic backgrounds.

As a direct result of that realization, I began to explore and research — and I was not a researcher before that — but I went into “action research,” meaning on-the-job analysis of what was happening.

A few years later, I married and moved to the state of Illinois. It’s hard for me to admit this, but I said to my husband, “I want to work in a more affluent school district.” Because, like anybody, I wanted to be on a winning team with a group of students who were successful, and my peers back in Atlanta had led me to believe that lack of resources was the reason students where I worked before weren’t doing as well.

I landed a job in one of the most affluent school districts in Illinois. And guess what I discovered. Even though we had access to a great deal of resources, both human resources and computer technology, the students who weren’t making the types of gains I expected still fell into those two categories. They were children of color and/or they were experiencing poverty.

I concluded that the experiences we were providing those students were not supporting their cultural experiences; they were not embracing the cultural experiences the students brought to the table, and we were counterproductive in our efforts to support students in reaching their fullest intellectual potential.

What inspired you to go into education?

I was inspired by being in classrooms with good teachers who did the best they could to explain difficult concepts. After my teachers finished explaining to the best of their abilities, I was always asked by my fellow classmates to explain it, articulate it in a manner in which they could understand it. So, I thought, I’m going to teach because that’s what I’m doing anyway. And that’s actually what I do today on the big stage. I take these difficult concepts and explain them in a way that is easy for everyone to understand.

Your focus has changed some over the years. You started out in the classroom and then moved into roles more focused on supervising and improving education. Why the shift?

I wanted to have a part in the decision-making relevant to increasing the likelihood that students will be successful, and each position I’ve held has given me interesting thoughts about the cultural diversity of our students. We need to do something different to establish culturally responsive learning environments so that all students can achieve.

You published a book you wrote that has a very powerful story behind the title. Can you share that story and how the experience changed your life?

I was a first-year principal at a school where I had also been the assistant principal, so I was familiar with the students and teachers. A teacher called down to the office, something she almost never did because she was skilled at handling any issues in her classroom. But on this day, she called and said, “Dr. Whitaker, there is a kid in my class who is kicking and screaming. He’s having a meltdown, and nothing I do is making any difference. Can I bring him to the office?”

The child was so irate that it took two adults to get him to the office. I called his mother to explain that he was having a really bad day and to see if she was available to pick him up. I asked him to remain seated in the office while I was in the hallway speaking with his teacher, and I noticed that he got out of his seat and was talking to the secretary, at which point I directed him to sit back down. Then he did it again.

At the end of the day, the secretary said, “Dr. Whitaker, do you want to know what the little boy was asking me when you were standing in the hallway talking with the teacher?” I replied yes, and she said, “He came over to my desk, stood on his tiptoes, and asked, ‘Is there anybody in this school that can teach me how to read?’”

That moment changed me. I had to come to terms with the fact that there was a child on my watch who was dying to matter. As far as I was concerned, he had made up his mind to be good at being good or to be good at being bad, but he was going to be really good at something. And that’s why I wrote the book, Is There Anybody That Can Teach Me to Read? It was my form of therapy because the experience weakened me inside. I thought we were doing a good job of providing quality educational experiences, but he was saying, “I need you to be effective in dealing with me.” I had to write about it. I had to talk about it.

Tell us a little bit about Achieving the Dream, Inc., the organization you founded, and its mission.

The theme of Achieving the Dream, Inc. is restoring hope in our schools and communities — which I think is also a theme in the camp community. The mission is to do just that. I believe that because too many children have not made the academic and social gains they are capable of, people are giving up, and that’s trickling down into our community.

To be successful in the community, we must be willing to work together, to stay positive, and focus on recommending solutions to the problems our children are facing.

The main idea of Achieving the Dream came from my experience with that little boy who couldn’t read. I have a dream we will live in a society where all are valued for our diverse cultural experiences.

I’ll spend the rest of my life working to achieve that dream on behalf of mankind.

Define a culturally responsive learning environment, and tell us, why are these environments so critical to child development today?

A culturally responsive learning environment is an environment that takes into consideration the cultural background, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and values of others in the planning and implementation of goals established for a particular organization.

For example, in establishing your organization’s short- and long-term goals, the American Camp Association must reflect the values of the culturally diverse experiences of the children they wish to serve.

You have said, “Cultural competence is a journey not an endpoint.” What do you mean by that?

To be culturally competent does not mean you get to a point where you arrive. We are constantly going through a process of interacting with people who have had different experiences and are from culturally diverse backgrounds. The more we do this, the more we learn how to accomplish the goals we establish for ourselves and for the organizations we work for.

What role do you think summer camp (and/or year-round camp programs) play in providing culturally responsive learning environments?

I think the role that ACA and camps play is in providing experiences that help to develop social and emotional competence. This is key to the campers’ success not only during their camp program experience, but also ultimately in life. Campers need continued support in developing the soft skills that will build their self-confidence.

There’s a direct connection between the academic experiences students have during the school day and what they experience during their time in the camp setting. Those experiences can work together to develop the whole child. Children often experience a great deal of pressure in the school setting. The camp experience works a different part of the brain. It can translate into them having better camp experiences.

I’m proud of ACA for its vision — it is even more important that students of color and those in poverty have the benefit of a camp experience.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

At this point in my professional career, I’m very blessed to have accomplished every goal that I set out to accomplish. So, I’m actually in the process of creating new goals for myself, which will be an extension of everything I’ve learned. I’m writing a second book. I’m establishing a podcast station. That’s important because I’m constantly speaking and learning, and I need a place to house that information. I expect to launch my podcast, which will be easily accessible at sonyawhitaker.com, by the end of March.

Any advice to camps on the best way to foster culturally responsive leadership among counselors? How about among campers who will become leaders in the future?

Practice the policy of intentionality as it relates to deliberately engaging in the process of becoming more culturally competent. And then broaden your definition of the term “culture.” My definition of culture: It is the air you breathe, who you are, the impact of your experiences, both positive and negative, and the manner in which they cause you to interact with others.

Continue the conversation regarding what it means to be culturally competent and to engage in professional development as opposed to one shot and we’re done, so you can get better and better at introducing culturally responsive environments into the camp setting.

Anything else you would like camp professionals/educators to know?

Being culturally competent does not mean you have to have the knowledge of every culture. It means you are committed to learning more about others so you can be more effective in your work.

For More Information

To learn more about the steps to becoming more culturally competent at camp, refer to Whitaker’s article, “Camp and Culture: The Core Competencies Deeply Engrained in Culturally Responsive Camp Leaders and Counselors,” in the September/October 2018 issue of Camping Magazine.


Sonya Whitaker, EdD, will also be the keynote speaker on Wednesday, February 20, at the 2019 ACA National Conference.