Over the past few years, studies are increasingly revealing that teachers have various personal implicit biases — attitudes or stereotypes that affect actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. These same studies suggest it is important for teachers to have a self-awareness of potential biases and an understanding of how to overcome them.
As teachers, we have a tremendous opportunity to break cycles of bias that perpetuate gaps in gender, race and social class, including those that occur inside of our classrooms.
Several cohorts of administrators, teachers and community members from IPS and schools around the state have elected to spend time once a month learning and being trained on the implementation of restorative practices (the act of improving and repairing relationships) in our buildings. In fact, our entire first day together began with a discussion of implicit bias.
Prior to coming to the training, we were all asked to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, which challenged us to explore our biases through a series of associations that our brains subconsciously make. The test attempts to measure bias in terms of race, gender, weight, sexuality and religious affiliations.
It was uncomfortable to explore my own personal biases. This was something I had never been specifically challenged to explore outside of my personal reflections on equality within my classroom community. Feelings of anxiety surface when people start uncovering biases that they didn’t realize they had. The natural human response is guilt and shame, which can make this something we want to avoid. However, as our facilitator in restorative practices training pointed out: “This is a crucial starting point, especially when you get to be an influencer in changing essentially a flawed and sometimes oppressive, although intentional, system.”
In researching more about implicit bias, both in society and in the education system, I came across several powerful articles and studies focused on the importance of uncovering our personal biases.
Implicit Bias: It’s All in Our Heads
PBS pieced together a series of clips produced through The New York Times that attempts to parallel implicit bias with the associations many Americans automatically make in their subconscious. Consistent with the research I have read, the series of clips emphasizes that “It (implicit bias) is a thought process that happens without you even knowing it.”
There are mental shortcuts we all make that can influence how we interact with our external environment that might suggest an implicit bias toward a particular race. That doesn’t mean someone is a racist, but it may mean that outwardly we may send unconscious signals to a particular group that can unintentionally perpetuate a cycle of bias.
Our culture surrounds us with news images and systematic experiences (like education), that create what The New York Times described as a “fog” we breathe in our whole life. We often never recognize what is in that “fog” we are breathing in. We are socialized to develop certain associations, like peanut butter and jelly or female and family. When one can see bias in others, but not in themselves, they are said to have what scientists note as “blind spot bias.”
The Effect on Girls
In 2015, author Soraya Chemaly wrote “All Teachers Should be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases”, an article throughout which she summarized new data from studies showing the effects of unexamined teacher bias on girls’ education.
Chemaly referenced the years of studies by researchers David Sadker and Karen Zittleman, which shows:
- Teachers spend two thirds of their time talking to male students.
- A disproportionate number of young black girls are penalized for being assertive in classroom settings.
- Teachers are more likely to interrupt girls, but allow boys to talk over them.
- When teachers ask open-ended questions, their gaze most often automatically goes to male students.
Chemaly suggests: “Biases like these are at the root of why the United States has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in math and science.”
Research: It’s Black and White
A study conducted by researchers from American University and John Hopkins University in 2015 investigated the effects of implicit biases possessed by high school teachers on various expectations for students and how that correlates with students’ educational attainment.
The study found that non-black teachers of black students had overall lower expectations for their students than black teachers had and that this translated into significant educational attainment gaps.
Researcher Thomas Dee also found “that when students are assigned to one demographically mismatched teacher and one same-race or same-sex teacher, the demographically mismatched teacher is significantly more likely to perceive the student as being frequently disruptive, frequently inattentive and less likely to complete homework than is the teacher of a similar demographic background.”
Eradicating Implicit Bias
We have to ask ourselves, how does implicit bias creep into classroom dynamics? In what ways does our perception of “bad” behavior influence our academic expectations of students? And do we have different behavioral expectations for white students and students of color?
Having a colleague observe and track your habits while teaching might help identify any subconscious bias you have not recognized. Research also shows that when one is “less fresh,” stressed or worn down, one’s subconscious is more likely to make decisions that manifest personal biases.
Exploring our own bias allows us to ensure we are working to break cycles of bias that are woven into the fabric of our society. It opens a door to cultivating inclusive and equitable communities, which can positively influence our students as they go on to leave our classrooms and become adults.
In closing her article, Chemaly said: “The issue of whose assertive qualities of self-expression and imagination are being cultivated and whose are being penalized speaks directly to the broader harms of not taking a nuanced intersectional approach to the problem of education.”
This is something we should all actively think about!
Uncovering our biases as teachers allows us to ensure all students feel empowered in our school culture and models the conversations and associations we hope students pass along to their peers, coworkers and family members — as well as the broader society.