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5 ways educators can check their implicit bias

By Julie Phillips Randles
May 7, 2019
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Michael Bonner’s degree in psychology gave him insight into the power of the mind. What he didn’t know was how that knowledge would come into play in the classroom.

Bonner, a second grade teacher in a Title I school in North Carolina, says serving the students in your classroom each day has to start in the mind, with an honest understanding of your perceptions and biases.  

It’s a concept he began to personally investigate after hearing a quote attributed to Lao Tzu: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Bonner, a featured voice at ISTE19, began to apply this thinking to his teaching practice after recognizing the quote had implications for educators. 

“Teachers are the vessels instructional content flows through, but professional development tends to only tackle the actions of teachers. We need to recognize that thoughts, emotions and passions also drive the actions of educators,” Bonner says. “If your perception is off, your reality is off. It’s like leading a false life.”

As a black educator teaching black students, he counts himself among the guilty. “We live in society where we preach inclusion and equity, but education policies don’t always reflect those concepts,” Bonner says. If we truly want to address equity, he adds, we have to address implicit bias.

Also called implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner, as defined by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. These biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.

Bonner points to a Georgetown Law study that found black girls are viewed as less innocent than white girls as early as age 5.

“As a society, we have a problem with how we view others. It’s the same in education. Educators need to be sure we’re viewing human beings as human beings,” not through a mindset that’s affected by social media, what we’re reading and who we’re spending time with.

Here are Bonner’s tips to help educators check their biases:

Recognize that implicit bias is real.

We’ve all developed attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions and decisions. Rather than being sensitive to the idea of having biases – we all do – acknowledge that you might have them as the first step in changing your mindset.

Review credible sources of data.

The U.S. Department of Education and other reliable sources track a range of education-related issues like suspension and expulsion rates, and gifted-and-talented-education demographics for every school district. Check the data to see how your district is doing on areas where implicit bias can come into play.  

Look at your own data.

Ask yourself: Which students do you reprimand the most? Who do you spend the most time with? What can you discover when you look at your own actions? “Begin to figure out the cause of why a student is frustrating you so much. Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s what other teachers have said and you’re applying that to this child,” Bonner says.

Build relationships with people who don’t look like you.

Be intentional about connecting with people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. To understand his own potential bias, Bonner met with Muslim women who wear hijabs and people who are natives of Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. These interactions allowed him to ask questions and learn about their cultures. He describes it as “expanding your cultural palette.”

“It’s awkward and weird, but it’s fruitful,” Bonner promises.

Spend time with students outside of school.

The best intervention beyond adequate funding or thoughtful tech integration is spending time with your students away from the classroom. Visit their homes, go on field trips, attend their games. Discover their cultures and what makes them who they are. “Learn about their fears, their strengths and what they truly care about and they won’t disrespect you as quickly,” Bonner says.

Learn more about ISTE 2019

Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtech.