In the first effort of its kind sponsored by the state’s largest teachers union, a group of 40 teachers spent last week focusing on the racial inequities in education and how to reduce them.
Teacher Pam Wilson is often assigned the “hard children” at Frank Wagner Elementary School in Monroe. By that, administrators mean students who are learning English, or qualify for special-education services, or whose families have little money. When she asks why they are placed in her class, she’s told she’s “good with them.”
“But everyone should be good with them,” she said during a weeklong training of more than 40 educators, the first of its kind sponsored by the state’s largest teachers union.
The program, run in collaboration with the University of Washington and funded with a three-year grant from the National Education Association, is the outgrowth of meetings with parents and a survey of 11,000 Washington teachers and other public-school employees.
In that survey, the teachers and others said their top priority, by an overwhelming margin, was addressing the differences in achievement by students of different races, socio-economic levels and other demographics.
If the effort is successful, Wilson and the other union members will train their peers to build stronger relationships with students, so all students feel welcome in the classroom, regardless of background.
The people who want the training “are the ones who know what it is like in the classroom,” Ben Ibale, the union’s human and civil rights coordinator, said about teachers across the state. “That’s unique.”
A Gallup poll last year found that half the students in grades 5 through 12 nationwide feel stuck or discouraged about their futures. Slightly more than half agreed that adults at their school cared about them, and a fourth said they don’t have a single teacher who makes them feel excited about the future.
Wilson said schools need to focus first on building better relationships with students. That means teachers need to know more about their students — and look deeply at themselves, participants said.
This week’s sessions ended Friday, but will continue throughout the year. In the future, participants want to continue talking about issues such as student discipline. Black students, for example, are suspended at far greater rates, on average, than white or Asian or Latino students, according to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data.
One question the training addresses: What role do teachers play in those numbers? Do biases or stereotypes affect who they discipline and how they discipline them?
“When they are disciplining a student, are their implicit biases showing?” said Adam Aguilera, a teacher at Heritage High School in Vancouver. “Are they disciplining just the students of color?”
During one session this past week, the educators gathered in small groups to discuss what came out of several community meetings held across the state over the past few months. At those meetings, which were organized by the union and local leaders, parents, students and community members talked about what teachers and schools can do to better serve all students equitably.
Though those meetings were held in different parts of the state, the themes were similar: Communities wanted better school-home connections, and classrooms where all students feel welcome.
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At last week’s training, the teachers discussed strategies to achieve those goals, such as home visits, finding ways to use students’ home languages in class, and holding weekly student-teacher meetings.
Joshua Cushman, a teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, said some families might not feel comfortable inviting a teacher they don’t know well into their home. He found that writing a letter to families with information about his background, a photo and an invitation to visit his classroom also worked well. Another participant said using Language Line, a phone-translation service, had helped in providing updates to families in multiple languages.
All the educators spoke with a sense of urgency and talked about the need for teachers to work together to address the issues themselves, rather than rely on those who aren’t in the classroom.
“We’re tired of waiting,” Wilson said.