Affirming student differences: Facing personal bias

When it comes to student achievement, one educational resource has a heavier impact than any other. It’s not new technology, assessment data, or even anchor charts–although, of course, all of those things help. Instead, it’s educators. They have the greatest influence on learner success. 

And that doesn’t just apply to learning outcomes. In working to affirm student differences and build a learning environment in which all students feel safe, it’s still the educator that has the greatest impact. But what happens when unconscious biases get in the way?

From disproportionate suspension rates in public schools to discriminatory hiring practices after graduation, unconscious biases unquestionably threaten the success of America’s most at-risk learners. And teachers’ implicit beliefs about their students have been shown time and time again to directly influence outcomes. This is what makes facing our own bias so important–it’s essential to making school a safe place for all students.

Facing biases can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s an essential step in affirming student differences. An educator who reflects and evaluates their craft regularly is an educator who will grow and increase their impact on students. The practice of reflecting on personal bias is no less important. 

So where do we start? Here are a few ideas:

  • Take an implicit bias assessment. Project Implicit has several options. Unconscious bias is often tough to get rid of because it’s just that–unconscious. An implicit bias assessment can help educators find places to start on the journey to facing personal bias. 
  • Become aware of both positive and negative stereotypes and generalizations–they’re both harmful to students and families. 
  • Take steps to grow empathy. Talk to your students about their lives. Learn from them about their families and cultures. If possible, schedule a home or community visit to learn more. 
  • Be intentional with words. Reflect on word choices, and strive to use inclusive language that will help students feel affirmed and safe. 
  • Explore bias with students. There are plenty of great resources available to help, including this one from Wonderopolis. Model for students how to discuss bias with others in a way that communicates respect and compassion. Make sure students feel comfortable talking about personal bias.
  • Consider discussing personal bias with our professional learning community. Use resources like this plan from Teaching Tolerance to encourage colleagues in their journey toward eradicating personal bias. 

It’s important to remember that all people form biases. The human brain is very good at recognizing patterns–and it uses that ability to categorize new ideas and people according to past experiences and understandings. That’s one of many ways the brain learns. But it’s necessary to face and actively work against unconscious biases, especially those that harm learners.

Have you ever been affected by another person’s unconscious biases? Or have you ever realized that your own unconscious bias was affecting others? We’d love to hear your story. Please share your experience in the comments section.