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Fight unconscious bias with teachers who reflect culture of their students

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Visitacion Valley Middle School Principal Joseph Truss, left, and Superintendent Vincent Matthews chat while visiting a sixth grade classroom on the first day of school. (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

In the past 60 days, police arrested two black men in Philadelphia for sitting in a Starbucks after a white manager called the police on them, a white woman in Oakland called police on a black family for having a barbeque, a white student at Yale called police on a black student for napping in the common space of their dorm, a group of white men called police on a group of black women in Pennsylvania for golfing “too slowly” at the club where they are all members and a white woman in Rialto, Calif., called police on a group of black women checking out of their Airbnb because they didn’t wave at her.

Racial bias is all around us, but perhaps nowhere is it more damaging than when it happens to children in school.

Last year, the San Francisco NAACP called a state of emergency for public schools in The City, citing a stubborn achievement gap between black students and all other students that has persisted for 25 years. The gap remains even when income is taken into account; The City’s poor white students consistently outperform their black peers, and in 2016-17, 74 percent of black students in the San Francisco Unified School District did not meet state standards in at least one subject area.

There are a multitude of factors feeding into the crisis in San Francisco, but much like what has happened in incidents across the country, black students in schools are treated more punitively than white children. That bias causes black students to experience higher rates of punishment, which takes away from instruction time.

One reason for both the gap in achievement and for the tendency for teachers and administrators to over-police black students is that too many of the teachers who educate black students do not understand them, and they hold the same damaging, unconscious biases that we’ve seen play out in the news.

People excuse the status quo by saying there isn’t enough available talent to create the cohort of teachers required to address the underrepresentation of minority teachers. In reality, there are many potential teachers of color out there. Finding the right fit for the right folks might take more time and individualized attention than we’ve given as a society, but based on my conversations with college students about their potential career paths, I know that many of them are ready to work, contribute and build — they just need support.

So how do we get more black teachers into classrooms with black students?

We must find ways to incentivize talented individuals to teach where they are most needed. I have written before about the need to recruit teachers the way we recruit military personnel. Both are vital to our nation, and yet, we seem to view teachers not as a necessity but as a choice. We cannot afford to take that tack when it comes to educating our kids. Incentives could include offering affordable housing, providing low-cost or free health insurance and tax advantages (all taken straight from the military recruiter playbook).

We must also reach potential teachers where they are. Historically Black Colleges and Universities educate thousands of young people who could become this country’s greatest teaching workforce. We must do better to build on the foundations they set and support the talent they develop. That means sending relatable faces to HBCUs and community colleges early on, capturing interest when students first enter college and showing them a career path as a teacher that is both financially viable and vitally necessary.

I have seen college students get excited about the prospect of teaching the next generation of black students. It is the job of school districts and elected officials to make sure their excitement is met with tangible resources to make them successful.

States, cities and districts should invest creatively to address the diversity gaps that exist in our schools. The United States will always be one of the most diverse countries in the world — California is the poster child. Recruiting a workforce of teachers that reflects what the country looks like matters now more than ever. We cannot afford to let our kids keep slipping through the cracks, and our best way to change that is to prioritize our teachers.

Randal Seriguchi Jr. is the executive director of Urban Ed Academy in San Francisco, which helps third through fifth grade students succeed academically and become productive citizens with the support of their parents, families, schools and communities.

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