Confronting our biases takes awareness and effort

My colleague was on the train from Midway Airport going to downtown Chicago when she met a young lady—also visiting the city from out of town—and they got to talking about the 5th grade teacher who changed the young lady’s life.

The young woman moved to Southern California from Mexico as a 10-year-old. At the time, she knew very little English, and her fifth-grade teacher did not speak Spanish. But the teacher worked hard to connect with his new student and see beyond their cultural and language differences.

She had support as an English Language Learner—crucial to fully integrating her into her school and community. At the same time, her fifth-grade teacher kept encouraging her and giving her the one-on-one attention she needed. By the end of the school year, he believed she was academically strong enough for an advanced middle-school program. She had her doubts, but she did it.

The student, now 25 or so, went on to graduate from a public university in California and then do a stint with the Peace Corps. She attends Washington University in St. Louis, where she’s pursuing graduate studies in public health.

All thanks to the fifth-grade teacher who saw her as an individual learner, full of potential and promise, and urged her not to give up.

That is what happens when we can step outside of ourselves and our own experiences. It is what the best educators are able to do, and it creates the learning conditions all students deserve.

To provide this experience, we must be willing to lift the curtain on our implicit biases—the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Social scientists believe we learn these biases as early as age 3.

Once we identify them, we must learn how to counter and refute them. We can’t simply promise to do better; we have to do the work.

This process is crucial to helping teachers connect with every single student, and that is why it must be part of teacher education programs. Schools, districts, and states, as well as community members and policy makers, must also be part of this process. In other words, all of us.

The NEA has several recommendations for dealing with implicit bias; you can read them in our report, “Confronting Implicit Bias Through Exemplary Educator Preparation.”

Consider that the number of non-white students passed the 50-percent mark in public schools in 2014. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of public-school teachers are white. Think about these few research findings:

  • Non-black teachers have significantly lower expectations of black students.
  • Black male students are four times as likely to be suspended as their white male counterparts for the same behavioral offenses.
  • Teachers often believe the “model minority” myth about Asian students, failing to recognize the challenges that many subgroups of Asian American students face.

There’s a lot more research that tells us we have a tremendous challenge. But, there is also an opportunity for us to open our eyes to implicit biases, realize we are all susceptible, and actually evolve.

Teacher education programs can help preservice teachers learn to identify, counter and refute their implicit biases. However, teacher candidates are not the only ones who need support in this area. Educators at every level of expertise and experience must constantly challenge themselves to recognize their implicit biases and refute them. This should be part of the support and mentoring for educators across the continuum.

As a union of educators that wants all students to have a great education, regardless of race, ethnicity, what language they speak at home, or any of the factors that create artificial boundaries, we have several recommendations for dealing with implicit bias. They include the following:

  • Teacher preparation programs, schools/districts and NEA affiliates should collaborate to develop and implement professional growth in modeling and mentoring culturally responsive practices.
  • Preparation programs should conduct curriculum audits to identify opportunities for teacher candidates to safely examine and interrogate their own implicit biases.
  • States should create networks of preparation programs, districts and schools to develop and disseminate resources about implicit bias that can be adapted for local use with educators.

Take a look at our full report to learn about promising practices.

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