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Confronting Implicit Bias: How Are We Showing Up For ALL Students?

What do you see when you look at your students?


It should come as no surprise that perception dictates the way we see and interact with others. In fact, the perception of others too frequently becomes an inequitable reality for students of color. The implicit bias of educators can impact a student’s academic, social, and behavioral achievement. Implicit bias refers to the unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes that influence our perception as well as the expectations we have for students. Just the mere mention of the word “bias” can offend some people, which causes them to discount any further mention of the topic.


Let’s be clear, we all have unconscious biases. The problem comes when we fail to acknowledge, examine, and confront our biases so that they don’t negatively impact students. In order to effectively work with diverse student populations, we must be intentional about developing intercultural competence.


Most people operate in social networks that are similar to their ethnic makeup and socioeconomic class. This is problematic in that it isolates us from interacting with people who are different from us. The differences between people include culture and race, lived experiences, ways of operating in the world, and how we think about our realities. By not interacting with people who are different from us, we develop no true context for who diverse people are except for what we have heard from others, seen misrepresented in the media, or experienced through our own unconscious biased lens.


Have you ever thought about why you like certain music, foods, or entertainment and have other personal preferences? Many of these preferences were passed down through your family and community and you have never challenged them or asked why. Each of us carries with us our beliefs and assumptions, which is only natural. But when educators’ assumptions are manifested as implicit biases, it can lead to imposed identities that inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes and create negative school climates (Hanselman, Bruch, Gamoran, & Borman, 2014). In fact, teachers’ hidden biases can often lead to reduced expectations for students of color (McKown & Weinstein, 2008).


Let’s take a closer look to see how implicit bias can present itself in the educational setting. It’s the beginning of the school year, your classroom is ready, and you’ve just received your class roster. As you read through the student names, you come across one that is especially familiar. You remember that last year this student, who was frequently sent to the office, was considered “challenging.” You’re already feeling the angst of what this student will bring to your classroom this year. Or, maybe you’re the teacher who gets uncomfortable because you don’t feel it’s your responsibility to teach an English Language Learner (ELL) student; it will require additional work and you didn’t sign up to be trained as an ELL teacher. In both of these examples, unchecked implicit bias can overshadow actions, decisions, and interactions with students. Biased thinking in these cases, and so many others, limits an educator’s ability to provide a successful interaction with students.


Countless studies have demonstrated that Black boys are more likely than other students to receive discipline referrals and be expelled from school. Anyon et al. (2014) examined racial discipline inequity in their study The Persistent Effect of Race and the Promise of Alternatives to Suspension in School Discipline Outcomes. Findings indicated that two ways to keep students in the academic environment were in-school suspension and the implementation of restorative discipline approaches. In 2016, the Yale Child Study Center published a research study brief on educator implicit bias. The brief reiterated earlier findings that preschool Black children, particularly Black boys, are more likely than other students to be suspended and expelled for behaviors identified as “challenging.” The study used “eye-tracking” to determine that teachers tended to look longer at Black children, particularly boys, for challenging behaviors. This research supports the fact that implicit bias affects educational access and achievement in the classroom for certain groups. Sadly, not much has changed in today’s educational climate – the achievement gap remains constant and there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis placed on initiating change.


So what can school administrators and teachers do to address implicit bias?


1. Initiate the Dialogue

School administrators should be intentional about providing staff with the space to examine their own bias. It’s important to begin this conversation by looking at the ongoing discrepancies in outcomes between student groups. Is implicit bias a factor that affects student behaviors and achievement? Schools can be proactive by allocating time for staff to explore this issue through professional development (PD). Just like any other effective PD offering, the topic of implicit bias should be an ongoing conversation throughout the year.


Project Implicit is a nonprofit organization that comprises an international collaborative of researchers whose mission is to educate the public about bias. To begin the conversation in schools, staff can use a tool such as Project Implicit’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). There are different IATs for participants to choose from and gain information regarding their attitudes and beliefs (e.g., religion, race, disability). Tools such as the IAT allow us to self-reflect, learn more about how we see others, and ultimately show up better for all of our students. Even if your school isn’t ready to have this conversation, you can begin this important work yourself.

2. Relationships before Rigor

Teachers should be intentional about getting to know their students. For me, building relationships with students happens at the very beginning of the school year. I’m a firm believer that “before you can teach them, you have to reach them,” which comes through establishing authentic relationships. This includes learning who your students are, what they like, how they learn best, and what is important to them. You can also learn as much from students as they can learn from you. Dr. Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, refers to this as being a student of your students. The information you learn about your students is the most effective way to build a solid foundation from which to grow.


Teachers can integrate what they’ve learned about their students to modify content to better engage students, curate inclusive resources that represent the diversity of students, and build meaningful personalized learning experiences. Understood.org is a social impact, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping those who learn and think differently thrive. A research-based article on their website, Building Positive Relationships with Students: What Brain Science Says, unpacks four reasons why student-teacher relationships are important: (1) to build motivation, (2) to create safe spaces for learning, (3) to build new pathways for learning, and (4) to improve student behavior. It must be noted that relationships and effective management will be your two greatest investments with students; however, they will not alleviate all discipline problems.

3. Cultivate an Inclusive Learning Space

Unlock and appreciate the power of student voice by encouraging student input when creating your class culture. When you think about the amount of time students spend in their classrooms, it becomes paramount to include student voice in informing the design of the classroom, creating the rules/agreements, and developing consequences that students believe are appropriate as they align with schoolwide discipline expectations. As an article titled Student Voice: A Growing Movement within Education that Benefits Students and Teachers from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center of Transition Innovations explains:

Instead of a top down, teacher-directed approach to learning, [student voice ensures that] students play an active and equal role in planning, learning, and leading their classroom instruction as well as contributing to the development of school practices and policies. This significant philosophical shift requires all stakeholders to embrace the belief that there is something to learn from every individual regardless of age, culture, socioeconomic status, or other qualifying factors.

All students should be part of the collective conversation to build the framework that undergirds the operation of the classroom. The culture created in the classroom should be inclusive. It can either be one that motivates and inspires endless possibilities for all students or it can be an isolating and stifling reality that some must endure – the choice is yours.

4. Parents as Partners

Engaging families is key. Parents really are an educator’s best ally and building these relationships are essential in two major ways: (1) you learn more about families as well as their culture, values, and their needs, and (2) together you create a network of support to further understand the value of partnership. When students understand that their teachers and parents are partnered and communicate frequently, they are more likely to put forth their best effort. Implicit bias would have us believe that certain parents are unavailable, unconcerned, and inadequate when it comes to their child’s education. While this may be true in a few cases, we have to dispel preconceived notions about parental engagement. For example, a parent who doesn’t attend school events may have work hours that don’t align with school programs. ​​


Studies have shown that parental engagement has a significant, positive relationship with children’s academic achievement (e.g., Jeynes, 2016; Jeynes, 2012, Sheldon & Epstein, 2004; Wilder, 2014). When students know that their teacher cares enough to connect with the people who love them, an environment that mutually benefits both teacher and student has been created. Simply put, family engagement is a game changer!


How to Engage Families

To begin this process, teachers can connect with parents prior to the start of the school year. Introduce yourself to the families and let them know up front that you want to be a team. Let them know that you expect to have a great year and that your goal is the same as the one that they have for their child: a happy classroom environment where students feel safe, learn, and accomplish great things. To ensure that you can reach parents directly, it’s best to understand the form of communication that works best for each family. Offering various modes as a one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective in today’s media rich culture. While newsletters and communication through educational platforms (like Seesaw) are sufficient, I’ve found that parents appreciate a more personal touch. Tried-and-true methods of communication such as phone calls and handwritten notes are, from time to time, appreciated by parents.


Similarly, initiating parent meetings, whether in person or virtual, also allows parents the chance to interact with and learn more about the person they’ve entrusted their child to for the year. Building these partnerships with families will help you learn much about your students’ lives, cultures, and who they are as individuals.


If the aim of public school education is to provide equitable access to programs and services, improve academic outcomes for all students, and prepare them to be future ready, then we must examine our attitudes and beliefs so they don’t have detrimental effects on our students. Will your perception of your students help or hinder them?


To minimize implicit bias in our roles as educators and humans, it’s important to confront our own biases. Remember as educators we possess the power to impact the future by how we handle the present (our students). What do you see when you look at your students? Do you see doctors, lawyers, educators, or problems?

If you are an educator and want to understand more about uncovering Implicit Bias and how to show up better for all students, look out for my upcoming Learning Community on this topic!

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