The Sunday following the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five officers in Dallas, the pastor at my church gave a sermon on the recent events. He decided to end the service by inviting the congregation's black members to go up and share their story. That morning, a friend of mine decided to respond and share his story of dealing with racism. He has been, he told us, intentionally living to portray an image in direct opposition to how black men are historically and socially portrayed--violent and dangerous. As well as I thought I knew him, this was the side of him that I didn't know. It was at that moment that I, an educator, truly understood the importance of having a diverse teaching force as a way to ensure social justice.
Raised in predominantly white and Asian American, upper-middle class suburbia, my opportunities to hear black narratives were few. My friend's story prompted me to look inward and wonder about my own subtle racial biases. I wondered how different my teaching practice would have been had I been taught by a more diverse group of teachers. I wondered how different my friend's life would have been had he had black teachers to relate to and process his experiences with.
The more students can see positive role models that reflect themselves, the more they feel confident to succeed in the classroom. At the same time, the more students are exposed to different racial backgrounds, the greater their cross-cultural knowledge and empathy. Had I been taught by a diverse group of teachers growing up, I am sure it would have helped me develop empathy and unlearn racial biases earlier. Racial diversity has also shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement as well, strengthening students' critical thinking and problem solving skills.
The recruitment strategies start with teacher preparation programs through intentional outreach to minority populations. In the recruitment process, there should be a deliberate plan to visit schools predominantly populated by minority students to inform and empower them to become teachers. At these schools, accelerated programs could be developed at the secondary level where students would have the option to enter an academic track of study with a teaching focus. Upon graduation, they would be transferred into a teacher preparation program.
Teacher preparation programs should also start attracting minority students through offering scholarship opportunities specifically for students of color. But our work must not stop at recruitment efforts. In fact, our greatest struggle in increasing the number of minority teachers lies largely in attrition, not just recruitment. Therefore, we must also strengthen our retention efforts. Consistent and informative mentoring programs should be offered to these novice teachers as they enter the teaching work force.
In the interim, all educators, no matter the race, should be trained in culturally-relevant pedagogy and teaching practices. Classroom literature, discussions, and activities must reflect, embrace, and incorporate a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires states to reevaluate how they rate and improve schools, offers a great opportunity to take a closer look at this area of instruction. What's more, a portion of ESSA's Title II funding, which focuses on teacher leadership and professional development, could be allocated toward training teachers in culturally relevant practices.
Our nation's student population is becoming more and more diverse. Thus, the chasm between what our teacher population and what our student population looks like is only growing wider the slower we respond. Intentional recruitment of teachers of color will help empower minority populations to take up the empty spaces in the teaching work force. U.S. Secretary John King recently said, "Like math and reading, like science, social studies, and the arts, diversity is no longer a luxury. It's essential for helping our students get ready for the world they will encounter after high school and, increasingly, throughout their lives." In the light of recent events, the argument for diverse classrooms stretches far beyond preparation for the workforce--it is preparation for our livelihood. Everyone would benefit from more diverse classrooms.
Christine Chiu is a 3rd grade English teacher at Broadway Elementary's Mandarin Dual Immersion program in Los Angeles. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow and a California Ambassador of the Teach Strong campaign.