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5 Things Educators Can Do to Address Bias in Their School

Every day, educators, administrators and students carry with them attitudes and beliefs that may affect their understanding of a situation, their interactions with others, and their decision-making. If these beliefs are colored by negative stereotypes or biases, they can lead to misunderstandings and an unhealthy school climate, if not outright hostility or conflict.
Published: 10/11/2019

Acknowledging, understanding and addressing our own biases is at the core of the work done by Hilario Benzon, a manager in NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department. Check out this FAQ with Benzon that discusses how bias can affect educators and students, and how anti-bias work is critical in our schools and our communities.

1. Name It

Bias can manifest itself in many different ways. When an underlying attitude or belief affects your thinking or actions in a way that you may not be aware of, almost subconsciously, it is known as implicit bias. When it is more conscious, and you are aware that you hold this negative belief, and you act on it, it is known as explicit bias.

“A lot of our work on bias talks about unconscious or implicit bias,” says Benzon. “One of our most sought-after trainings is one on implicit bias.”

He explained that implicit bias could lead to behavior such as unintentional microaggressions or inflammatory statements, directed toward a certain race, gender, ethnicity or other category. For example, if an Asian American who is a native English speaker is regularly told by white colleagues how good his or her English is, that would reflect implicit bias.

“Oftentimes these microagressions are unintentional,” says Benzon. “In many cases, it isn’t exactly what we want to do, but sometimes the mouth is working faster than the brain.”

Explicit bias, on the other hand, would include someone willfully using the N-word or other derogatory terms.

2. Understand how bias can manifest itself in schools and affect students

Benzon says the “Name It. Claim It. Stop It.” anti-bias trainings he helps conduct focus on the effect of what people say or do, rather than over-analyzing why they may have said or done it.

“We can spend a lot of time on people trying to defend why they did it or explaining their intent,” says Benzon. “But if the impact is the same, and it had a negative impact, that impacts how safe or included students feel in our classrooms.”

“If a student doesn’t feel accepted or seen or heard in their classroom spaces,” he said, “and at a most basic level feel safe, if that’s not being met, then it’s harder for them to actually be ready and be in a place to learn.”

3. Think in terms of “windows and mirrors”

When doing anti-bias training, Benzon says it’s useful to think in terms of both “windows and mirrors.”

When you look in the mirror, it’s personal and interpersonal — you are examining how your own biases may affect your own thinking and how they could affect others.

When you look out the window, on the other hand, that is more about examining structural oppression or racism, including how organizational structures, practices or governing documents may affect implicit or explicit bias. This could include discipline policies, graduation requirements, dress codes, acceptable hairstyles, etc.

“In trainings, we spend a great deal of time talking about institutional and structural racism, including the bias of the media,” says Benzon. He cited examples of news coverage about student athletes charged with crimes. “When it’s white athletes, they often show students in their suit and tie on the news website. When they show black or brown individuals, they show mug shots.”

4. Start with yourself. And simply begin.

When it comes to addressing bias in schools, Benzon says the most common questions he hears from educators are “So what can be done about it?” and “What can I do?”

Going back to the windows and mirrors analogy, he tells them the best place to start is with themselves. Look in that mirror. Start trying to identify and confront your own biases. Google “implicit bias.” Read. Talk with colleagues. Go to a training, if possible. Begin addressing bias in yourself first. First steps will lead to next steps and…

“In our trainings,” says Benzon, “we are very upfront that it is not about how to change the behavior of students.”

When educators go through anti-bias trainings, he explains, one of the biggest changes they see is their ability to identify some of their own biases for the first time. “It’s hard to change your own behavior when you don’t see it.”

5. Get over your own fragility – and focus on students

No one enjoys admitting being wrong. It can be hard for educators to concede that their bias and resulting actions may have negatively affected students. “But it’s not about blame and shame,” says Benzon. In order to address bias at school and in the classroom, we all need to get past our own egos and fragility and, again, focus on how it affects students. “It’s really all about impact.”

When we say things like “I didn’t mean to say that” or “That’s not what I meant,” we can get caught up in our own defensiveness, explaining and rationalizing why we said something, rather than focusing on its effect on others. “Whether we meant to say it or do it or not,” says Benzon, “we can agree that these things are impacting other people.”

In the end, says Benzon, addressing bias in yourself or in a school community is something that requires practice. With effort and commitment, people get better at it. However, just like practicing for a sport, practice only goes so far. You can read books, you can watch videos, and you can go to trainings. At a certain point, though, you have to jump in. You need to look at and work on your own behavior, you have to call out bias when you see it, and you need to proactively address bias in your own community.

“Having to confront things about ourselves that may be detrimental to students’ well-being,” says Benzon, “is something that’s very hard for some educators to do.

Doing so, however, ultimately creates a better learning environment for all. “By identifying and addressing our own biases as educators, we have the ability to directly impact the engagement of our students. When students are engaged, they are better learners.”

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