This opinion piece appeared in the July 2nd online edition of Education Week
In relation to the recent spate of police shootings, there are many parallels that can be made between the police force and the teaching force. Each profession is composed of mostly white middle class individuals who are finding themselves working in unexpected settings, often lacking the skills to address the needs of majority minority communities. In order to better prepare the new recruits for diverse settings, both schools of education and police departments are implementing anti-bias trainings.
We have enough research to support the finding that both teachers and police officers come into their work settings with implicit biases that can have a deleterious effect on students’ academic achievement, as well as a community’s well-being. Within a few seconds, teachers immediately begin to sort and classify students when they enter the classroom on the first day. The way a student speaks and the way she or he dresses are often two nodal points in which teachers implicitly judge students. Our ability to quickly sort and classify is a primordial mechanism, which dates back to our ancient brains that needed to determine immediately who was friend and who was foe. Yet, this binary mode of flight versus fight does not function well in a highly mobile and fluid landscape in which diversity is increasing at an exponential rate and our brains have not caught up yet with the rapid changes.
I work with teaching candidates who grow up in bubble worlds in which everyone is mostly white and mostly middle class. Their first encounter with a person of color is often with the students in their field-experience classroom. Their stellar suburban education never afforded them the social capital and emotional intelligence needed to work well with people who are not like them.Yet, when teachers walk into the classroom starting on the first day, their biases and assumptions about the students, their parents and their intelligence levels surface right away. These biases and assumptions can falsely drive instruction for the first weeks of teaching until student achievement data and other demographic information surfaces months later. It takes great effort on my part to undo these implicit biases.
However, the recent police shootings and subsequent anti-bias training, as noted by reports from National Public Radio as well as The New York Times, questions the effectiveness of such training. Can I train my teachers to become fair and impartial? Does addressing race, ethnicity, religion, and gender differences in my courses necessarily lead to less bias in my teaching candidates? Will my students empathize with the minority students in their future/current classrooms or will their stereotypes be reinforced through my diversity teachings?
There is a growing body of research that cites the need for better teaching as a solution to prevent implicit biases and assumptions from negatively affecting underrepresented minority students. Instead of more anti-bias training, police academies are also providing more specialized skill-based training, such as how to effectively identify what the assailant is holding, as a way to prevent police shootings. By learning to teach more effectively, the teacher can use specific strategies and techniques that allow all students to achieve, such as more student-centered methods in order to avoid the biases and assumptions from taking hold. It is important for the teacher to keep anti-bias training in the background of his or her mind, but it is imperative that they keep effective methods of teaching in the foreground of their mind. The methods should drive her or his teaching rather than their implicit biases and assumptions.
Samina Hadi-Tabassum is an associate professor of education at Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill., where she directs the English-as-a-second-language/bilingual program and works with cohorts of first-year teachers. She is writing a book addressing race relations in public schools. Follow her on Twitter @SaminaHadiTabas.
“Signed…An Educated Brother!”