School climate and implicit bias

January 8, 2018 ACSA Writer

No one is immune to the silent influence of their own subconscious. Almost everyone, even those who know or believe stereotypes to be false or superficial, still has unconscious biases that have been formed by exposure to society, the news, movies and television, family and friends. A note from an Edutopia article by Shane Safir: 

“According to Professor John A. Powell of UC Berkeley, only 2% of our emotional cognition is conscious; the remainder lives in our unconscious networks, where implicit racial and other biases reside. Biased messages can be framed to speak to the unconscious. As they stack up, the brain uses rapid cognition to assess the humanity, threat, and worth of other human beings. More concretely, the prefrontal cortex lights up when we see someone as ‘highly human,’ but it fails to activate when we dehumanize people” (Equal Justice Society).

What does this mean for educators?

The implicit bias of teachers and school administrators, if left unchecked, can contribute to stereotypes becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. In this article, teachers discuss their experiences realizing that their bias was affecting students. According to The Brookings Institution, bias “may be particularly salient in the hierarchical environments of schools,” perpetuating “socio-economic, gender, and racial gaps in educational outcomes such as academic performance, engagement with school, course and major choice, and persistence in higher education, particularly among historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups such as low-income and racial-minority students.”

“Implicit bias often enters our judgments related to other people based on skin color, ethnicity, language, and other traits. In schools, the effects of implicit bias on students of color have been linked directly to excessive discipline, lower teacher expectations, and over-critical grading procedures; and linked indirectly to higher dropout rates, future incarceration, and lower higher education outcomes” (WhyY.org).

  1. A great first step to getting a clear look at what biases you have is to take a free implicit bias test online. Here is one test, and here is another. Implicit association tests help you examine the way you quickly make decisions and judgments about people and are unique in that they expose associations that people are unwilling to admit, or do not necessarily realize they have. While you may have a clearly defined belief, your mind can still associate certain races or genders with objects, professions, or descriptive factors.
  2. Nurture a healthy school climate with an attitude and atmosphere that is open to honest discussion free from tone-policing, blaming, profanity, or accusations. Encouraging empathy and listening to the opinions and experiences of other people can break us out of our own assumptive patterns of thinking. A real-life exercise for students or administrators: Examine how many members of your friends and family is the same race as you. You can even go out of your way to interact with people who are different from you, but build a real relationship without objectifying or using that person for their “otherness.”
  3. Do not assume that working on lessening your own implicit bias means “not seeing race/color/gender.” It is a simplistic fallacy to pretend that all of America or your city is a fully homogenized culture and that people do not face intersecting challenges due to their age, race, gender, disability, immigrant status, etc. As The Atlantic puts it, “Humans see age and gender and skin color: That’s vision. Humans have associations about these categories: That’s culture. And humans use these associations to make judgments.” In fact, being “color-blind” has been shown to increase implicit bias (Greater Good Magazine).

  1. Attempt and encourage daily practices that are designed to fight implicit bias while reducing anxiety. This can mean “wise interventions,” which have been shown to improve students’ GPA and test scores. The include resiliency training through journaling and reflection, moving individuals “from fixed to growth mindsets, in which achievements are viewed as the result of specific processes and behaviors rather than of innate abilities or circumstances.” (The Brookings Institution). Another daily practice to try is mindfulness, which is scientifically tied to increased feelings of empathy and peace, nonjudgmental awareness, and more success in everyday endeavors. In addition, check out this article, “Four Ways Teachers Can Reduce Implicit Bias,“ for more excellent and comprehensive ways to confront bias in your life while also improving your daily interactions and overall mental health.
  2. Attend personal development training, which has proven to be effective in providing long-term benefits to individuals as well as whole departments and groups of staff. The Association for California School Administrators’ professional development programs, ongoing Equity Project, and other educational services, such as conferences and training sessions, are designed to allow education administrators to discover new perspectives and implement equitable solutions to some of today's most important educational issues. ACSA also offers a one-on-one mentorship program that is free to members.

Some links for further relevant reading include:

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