What does diversity have to do with our surroundings?

Think back over your years spent in school. How many teachers from historically underrepresented ethnic groups had taught your classes by the time you graduated from high school? If your answer is two or three, one, or even zero, you are not alone.

The student body in Washington state and across the U.S. becomes more culturally and ethnically diverse every year, but our teaching force does not mirror that growing diversity. While approximately 50 percent of children under the age of 5 are from historically underrepresented ethnic groups, approximately 89 percent of teachers in the state are white, according to data The Seattle Times published in December 2018.

Students suffer when the diversity of teachers does not match that of the surrounding communities. When historically underrepresented students have at least one same-race teacher, the number of suspensions decreases and standardized test scores and attendance increase. However, recruitment and retention of a more racially diverse teaching force is challenging because of a legacy of structural and institutional issues in teacher education and within the profession.

Students suffer when the diversity of teachers does not match that of the surrounding communities.

Diversity in education is closely tied to the context of learning in the city where we teach. Many consider Seattle to be inclusive and progressive, but racial division and segregation by ZIP code are evident today. The Lake Washington Ship Canal separates schools in the more diverse south end from the less diverse north. Practices such as redlining, which restricted people of color from accessing home equity loans, and racially restrictive housing covenants in place in Seattle through 1948 made a lasting mark on our city, distributing wealth unequally across neighborhoods. 

What this means is that, in education and in other aspects of community and civic life, residents of a city — even neighbors — do not start with a level playing field. As we at Seattle Pacific prepare students to teach in and around Seattle, it is our responsibility to have them reflect on the legacies that created the context and conditions of schools in which they will teach.

Given this complexity, we must ask a number of questions to better serve our community. What is our role here at SPU in recruiting and training historically underrepresented teachers in the School of Education when the majority of teachers and teachers in training — at Seattle Pacific and around the country — are white? How can we equip those teachers to be culturally responsive and to teach in diverse schools in our city? How do we support student teachers and K–12 teachers seeking to understand the sociocultural factors that affect historically underrepresented students in our schools? And how can we equip historically underrepresented students to flourish on our campus here at SPU?

Abstract illustration by Jon Han

These questions are critical, and the answers are not simple. I often reflect on my experience as a white woman who has been in education now for more than 20 years. My goal is to better understand how I have benefited from — and how I might instead challenge and disrupt — systems of racial inequity, and to help my white students develop a deepened awareness of their own race and how it has shaped their lives.

The School of Education encourages teacher candidates to actively create relationships with families, build partnerships with communities, and offer opportunities for cultural awareness and celebration in their classrooms. We want teachers to be aware of the systemic changes that need to occur across entire schools, knowing that school culture influences positive and negative social identities among historically underrepresented students. We want to give our teachers the tools they need to empower students to develop their own sense of belonging and identity.

We also partner with scholars and teacher prep programs around the state to recruit and support historically underrepresented teachers. Assistant Dean Pete Renn is developing an advisory board where community members can share their hopes for the future of education and their children’s teachers. We also learn from feedback shared by diverse teacher candidates here at SPU, and use it to implement changes for future students. Teachers are practitioners, but equity work requires being listeners first.   

This work is complex. To change our curriculum and our recruiting efforts, we must join conversations that push beyond our comfort zones to create new strategies for more effective teaching and learning for all of our students. In so doing, we will benefit not only our schools, but the neighborhoods around them.

 

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