Having biases is a natural part of our existence as humans. Whether conscious or unconscious, how we were raised, what we were taught, where we grew up, and the people we encounter all influence how we perceive others and make decisions based on preconceived notions.
As leaders, this becomes more evident, especially in a role such as that of a PreK-12 teacher, who often has to care for and nurture children of all backgrounds. “Teacher bias is a well-documented phenomenon with far-reaching implications for student learning and achievement,” writes Go Greenva contributor Mary, “Teacher bias can be defined as a teacher’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that favor some students over others. These preferences can be based on a number of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Teacher bias can manifest itself in a number of ways, from the language a teacher uses when addressing students, to the types of assignments and activities that are given, to the way in which discipline is meted out.”
In courses such as Cultural Influences & Educational Practices, students in the online Master of Science (MS) in Curriculum & Instruction – Effective Practitioner PreK-12 program from Emporia State University (ESU) learn to recognize and address personal biases in their careers as educators.
Examples of Personal Bias
Personal bias can manifest in many forms. For example, a teacher might assume that all students with an immigration background have had a tragic trajectory or that they can’t excel in English as much as U.S.-born students. Bias can also influence punishment, such as harsher disciplinary action against Black students. On the other hand, bias also occurs when teachers expect Asian and Asian-American students to be better at math or other STEM subjects, often meaning that these same students will be discouraged from exploring their skills in the arts and humanities.
In a country where discussions about race are always at the forefront, these outcomes aren’t surprising. Regardless of the type of bias, we must look at why we have them in the first place and attempt to deconstruct them. Therefore, the first step is acknowledging they exist.
Addressing Personal Bias
“To become aware of your unconscious biases, start by educating yourself,” begins Carmen Acton for the Harvard Business Review, “Paying attention to your thoughts and examining your beliefs can help you identify the assumptions you currently hold. For example, do you believe that people will always speak up when they disagree? […] How do you feel when someone misses a deadline? Do you automatically assume that they are unproductive or incapable, or are you able to extend empathy and listen to their reasons?”
When doing this self-reflective work, it’s also important to remain open to being challenged by others and, especially in the case of teachers, understand how big an impact these beliefs can have on students. In the previously mentioned case of Black students, for example, a study found that they are “almost four times as likely to be suspended from school as white students, almost three times as likely to be removed from the classroom but kept within school, and almost three times as likely to be expelled.” This, according to Nick Morrison from Forbes, means that Black students are set up from the get-go to a life of failure since those are the expectations bestowed upon them.
Converting Research Into Action
Knowing such statistics is imperative to any teacher morally committed to equality and equity. Through programs such as ESU’s online MS in Curriculum & Instruction – Effective Practitioner PreK-12, educators can tune in to trends in educational environments and learn the tools to overcome personal biases.
After this initial step, teachers should take an in-depth look into the aspects of their work where their biases are mostly present. Grading, assigning tasks, and calling on pupils to speak are some examples. Making minor changes, such as taking an interest in a shy student or tailoring certain activities to include students from diverse backgrounds, can go a long way. For example, an assignment about “researching your family roots” may resonate differently for white and Black students.
Having the sensibility to think about these topics and take feedback from students, parents, and peers is part of overcoming personal biases. Graduates of advanced degree programs can carry these concepts into the classroom and support real change.