Hard science may support that proposition, too. Some researchers believe material in certain brain cells makes it easier for human beings to empathize with one another. For more than 20 years, Italian neuroscientists have studied these so-called "mirror neurons" to see if people with less of this material are more likely to have social communication and processing disorders, while those with an abundance are better able to identify and embrace the emotions they detect in others -- from echoing a passing smile to wincing when a person stubs a toe.
To be sure, some researchers believe human empathy has little or nothing to do with "mirror neurons." Yet this line of brain research may lead us to more deeply understand social engagements in our diverse global community.
In the classroom, these social explorations may tell us a great deal about how students learn and why, and what builds effectiveness in a teacher. As Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin at Madison poignantly writes:
" I do know the experience of walking into schools (especially elementary and middle schools) where Black students ask me with eagerness, 'Are you a teacher here?' And, I recognize the disappointment that falls over those same faces when I shake my head, 'no.' Their longing for a teacher that 'looks like them' is palpable. The current statistics indicate that class after class of children -- Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian -- go through entire school careers without ever having a teacher of their same race or ethnicity.
"But, I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is White students having Black teachers! It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them. Black students ALREADY know that Black people have a wide range of capabilities. They see them in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their churches. They are the Sunday school teachers, their Scout Leaders, their coaches, and family members. But what opportunities do White students have to see and experience Black competence?
"In my many years as a university professor I have had many White students who revealed that I was the first African-American teacher they had ever had at any level. My hope is that their experience with me makes them walk into classrooms filled with Black children and say, 'there could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, inventors, and teachers in here,' rather than assume that their black skins limited their intellectual possibilities."
Yet the challenge we face is that, in a majority of urban schools, the student population is more segregated than it was 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Brown v Board of Education desegregation case (1954.) At the same time, the teaching force has become more "white," with a margin of as many as four White teachers for every one teacher of color. Black teachers make up less than 7 percent of America's approximately 3.2 million teaching force.
Clearly, there is a need to train and retain effective teachers of color, as well as White teachers, for urban school systems, though this is not a priority for every urban district. However, when committed partners come together - as my organization, the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, did from 2005 to 2009, when it joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham to support Birmingham (AL) City Schools - positive change does happen.
Together, we implemented the federally funded Training, Retaining Urban Student Teachers (TRUST) project -- and retained an impressive 87 percent of TRUST graduates for Birmingham and other urban school systems.
The late Michael J. Froning, dean of UAB's School of Education, compared the TRUST process to "nurturing a garden," one that begins by "preparing the soil" with an enhanced educational environment and targeted strategies, and then "assembles the seeds" by recruiting teacher candidates at the University, as well as paraprofessionals already in the school system.
Courses specifically designed for urban settings were co-taught by University faculty and teacher leaders in the school system. This collaborative, continuous professional development environment enabled the "crop" to "grow." A commitment to support recruits during their crucial first years of teaching allowed them to "thrive," yielding a bounty of teachers for the school system ("Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Urban Teachers: One Person's View From Many Angles in Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Teachers for Urban Schools, AACTE Publication, 2006.)
Dr. Froning and his colleagues dreamed the TRUST project one day would be replicated across the country. Given the deaths of African-American youth in urban cities across our great nation, I would argue that the need never has been greater.
If we are to show children that Black, White, Asian, Latino and Native American lives do matter, then we must bring people leading those very lives into our classrooms every day. If we want a lush garden of educators to flourish in America on behalf of schoolchildren and youth, then we must recruit, cultivate and retain teachers of color.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.
Teachers More Likely to Label Black Students as Troublemakers
Teachers are likely to interpret students’ misbehavior differently depending on the student’s race, according to new research findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Racial differences in school discipline are widely known, and black students across the United States are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to Stanford researchers.
Yet the psychological processes that contribute to those differences have not been clear — until now.
“The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute,” said Stanford psychology Professor Jennifer Eberhardt in an interview. “What is less clear is why.”
Eberhardt and Stanford psychology graduate student Jason Okonofua examined the psychological processes involved when teachers discipline black students more harshly than white students.
A second study followed the same protocol and asked teachers whether they thought the misbehavior was part of a pattern and whether they could imagine themselves suspending the student in the future.
The researchers randomly assigned names to the files, suggesting in some cases that the student was black (with a name such as DeShawn or Darnell) and in other cases that the student was white (with a name such as Greg or Jake).
Across both studies, the researchers found that racial stereotypes shaped teachers’ responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student.
In fact, the stereotype of black students as “troublemakers” led teachers to want to discipline black students more harshly than white students after two infractions, Eberhardt and Okonofua said. They were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future.
“We see that stereotypes not only can be used to allow people to interpret a specific behavior in isolation, but also stereotypes can heighten our sensitivity to behavioral patterns across time. This pattern sensitivity is especially relevant in the schooling context,” Eberhardt said.
These results have implications beyond the school setting as well.
As Okonofua said, “Most social relationships entail repeated encounters. Interactions between police officers and civilians, between employers and employees, between prison guards and prisoners all may be subject to the sort of stereotype escalation effect we have identified in our research.”
Both Okonofua and Eberhardt suggested that useful interventions with teachers would help them to view student behavior as malleable rather than as a reflection of a fixed disposition, such as that of troublemaker.
While racial disparities can be lessened by psychological interventions that help improve black students’ behaviors in class, it is also important to understand how that behavior is interpreted by teachers and school authorities, Okonofua said.