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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

Checking Your Biases

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Teachers need self-reflection tools to break the cycle of assumptions that undermine student success.

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Professional LearningSocial-emotional learning
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What does a supportive learning environment look like? Many of us who spend our days in and out of classrooms can quickly conjure examples of classrooms where children seem to feel safe and seen and are eager to learn. But even in dynamic and nurturing learning environments, there are often disparate outcomes for students that correlate to race and class. Even seemingly supportive structures, including some approaches to classroom discipline and differentiated learning, can be implemented in ways that better support some children’s learning and leave other students behind.
How can teachers ensure the practices they use are the best ones to support all their students? Decades of research show the importance of teacher expectations on student outcomes. However, there is far less information available about how to support teachers to challenge assumptions and internal biases that may impact those expectations. Teachers do not want to serve some students less well than others. What supports, then, are needed to change practices and assumptions that are so deeply ingrained that they are difficult to even notice, much less challenge?
As researchers and professors in San Francisco State University’s Department of Education, we set out to develop a method to support teachers in identifying, reflecting on, and responding to aspects of their classroom practice that might be impacted by implicit bias. We hope this will help identify and increase educatars' level of emotional intelligence.

The first step in anti-bias work is to acknowledge that one holds biases in the first place.

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Based on existing research, we have identified at least three things that teachers can do to begin to uncover the biases in their practice:
  • Use critical self-reflection as a tool for teacher growth (Çimer, Odabaşi, & Vekli, 2013).
  • Gain access to conditions or structures such as facilitated reflection that support their self-improvement (Gullo, Capatosto, & Staats, 2019).
  • Be open to accessing counter-­stereotypical exemplars—roles contrary to images or ideas that exist within one’s mind (Gullo et al., 2019).
With these in mind, we worked with a small group of teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area to develop and pilot the Implicit Bias Reflection Tool (IBRT), a reflective tool that allows teachers, in collaboration with an instructional coach, to closely examine specific teaching episodes to uncover the role of bias in teacher-student ­interactions and develop alternative approaches that better support high expectations and student success.
The tool consists of a series of reflective questions that teachers can answer after viewing recordings of their teaching (see fig. 1 below). Teachers can self-record these videos or ask a ­colleague or coach to do so. After observing their own teaching, educators can use the IBRT to support self-reflection tied to action, allowing them to notice and name areas of potential bias and ­consider and enact changes to their practice.
McRay Figure 1
We originally used Equip, an online observation tool used to track student participation to build a more equitable classroom. Through Equip, teachers were led through a series of discussions and prompts that helped them look introspectively at how their teaching might influence student outcomes. Based on analysis of the data from this first experience of facilitated reflection on practice, we then developed the prompts that became the IBRT. 
Our primary focus in developing and piloting this tool was to better understand: What are the impacts of the IBRT in supporting teachers to notice and address implicit bias in their teaching practice? Any individual teacher action might be influenced by multiple factors, but taken as a whole, bias is impacting how teachers interact with and support, or fail to support, students of color. The IBRT was designed to help “rewire” the associations that teachers may have formed that lead to inequitable supports for the achievement of students of color. 
The teachers in our pilot engaged in critical self-reflection of their teaching practice through the lens of identifying potential bias. They were all enrolled in the final stage of a master’s degree program in elementary education and moving on to complete their field study course. They were interested in looking at how implicit bias might have been evident in their teaching practice.
Over a period of three months, and for a minimum of four times, these three teachers tested the IBRT. Their experiences and input helped us refine it to best support both teachers’ awareness of implicit bias and their enactment of plans of action toward more effective practice. 
Let’s look at each teacher’s experience in using the IBRT.

Amber: Beginning to Notice and Respond to Bias

Amber was a second-year kindergarten teacher during the IBRT project. She is Filipina American, and she taught in a school in which her students were predominantly African American. At the start of the project, Amber’s ideas about her own bias focused on her emotional response to students’ actions and a fear that when she responded to what she perceived as negative behaviors in the same child repeatedly, she might develop what she called “bias build up”—being predisposed to think that a child will engage in negative behaviors and thus interacting with or teaching them in ways that assumed the child was “problematic.”
Using the IBRT prompts to reflect on and examine self-recorded videos of her teaching, Amber noticed that she tended to focus on the negative behavior of a small number of students even though many other students were engaged in similar actions that she had not noticed or ­corrected. 
Several clear themes emerged from her ­completed reflections that indicated ways in which she both took up and potentially ­downplayed bias in her teaching practice:
1. An over-inference of students’ motivations
2. Providing supports to encourage students’ positive engagement of her preferred behaviors
3. Showing care to some students
Overall, Amber’s reflections tended to focus on describing students who engaged in individual behaviors she deemed inappropriate, and the largest parts of her reflections described providing support to encourage her preferred behaviors. Inappropriate behaviors specifically named included: physical aggression, physical contact, calling out, making noises, retaliation, being emotional, being unmotivated, being easily triggered, non-participation, unresponsiveness, and disinterest. For instance, when describing students she felt did not want to do work or behaved in what she perceived as a ­distracting manner, she inferred the underlying reasons for that behavior, characterizing most students’ behavior in comparison to the behavior she would have preferred.

Amber noticed that she tended to focus on the negative behavior of a small number of students even though many other students were engaged in similar actions that she had not corrected.

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Infractions described as disruptive or disrespectful are often ambiguous and can be ­interpreted widely. Therefore, as previously noted, when something is subjective, it can lead to interpretations that are formed based on unconscious associations shaped by teachers’ prior experiences (Staats, 2015-2016). The IBRT allowed Amber to look introspectively and question her biased assessments of students’ behavior. As a result of this deeper reflection, she became more aware of her own internal triggers, allowing her to pivot from a reactive response to a more supportive one.

Susan: From Reflection to Action

Susan, who identifies as Asian American, is a 6th grade teacher who at the time had taught one year in general education and one year in special education. During an interview prior to using the IBRT, Susan was asked how she defines bias. She responded, “I think of it as [something] we have, but we don’t know that we have.” 
We wanted to further explore how Susan thought bias might show up in her classroom. She knew that she wanted to be conscious of her biases during the planning and execution of her lessons. Going into the study, Susan also knew that she wanted to understand the “why” behind her actions.
Susan’s proactive disposition toward reflection created a strong foundation for appraising the biases in her teaching practice, even before engaging with the IBRT. Reflection is a key component to emotional intelligence that compels teachers to critically appraise themselves, their beliefs and attitudes, and the relationship they have with their students (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985). In initial reflections of videos of her practice, Susan was very aware of negative assumptions she might be making about students, such as behavior she termed “­problematic.” But in fact, the videos showed many instances of her providing positive support, such as offering fidget toys for students who struggled with focus. 

Reflection is a key component to emotional intelligence that compels teachers to critically appraise themselves, their beliefs and attitudes, and the relationship they have with their students.

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Alongside this self-awareness, though, Susan showed examples of deficit thinking when reflecting on the videos, such as describing students as lacking in motivation. Using the IBRT, Susan was able to consider some assumptions that might be leading to bias. For instance, she noticed that the students whose actions she chose to highlight tended to be a small set of students who she saw as problematic.
Based on this observation, Susan planned to be more cognizant and systematic in carefully observing a wider range of students, not just defaulting to scanning the class for perceived problematic behaviors. She also uncovered interesting patterns in her teaching that she wanted to investigate more. For instance, she found that she was calling on boys more than girls during math class, something she did not anticipate and which did not match her stated belief about ­children’s abilities and potential. The IBRT allowed Susan, an already deeply reflective educator, to identify specific aspects of her own practice that might be due to implicit bias, and to develop concrete plans toward more equity-informed practices, such as using random call methods like popsicle sticks.

Anna: Examining and Refining Curriculum

Anna was a white teacher in her 7th year of teaching and was completing a master’s degree in literacy education during this project. As such, she was particularly attuned to her own and her students’ literacy practices. 
Unlike Amber and Susan, Anna’s initial reflections on videos of her teaching, as well as her use of the IBRT, focused on instructional design and curricular elements, particularly on how students interacted with children’s books that she selected to be inclusive of her students’ cultures. She tended to highlight ways in which children showed engagement with and connection to stories that featured characters of a culture or race similar to theirs. For example, she recounted how a very quiet child in her class, who was Chinese American, talked about eating Dim Sum with her grandfather during a read aloud in which the main character did the same.
While Anna’s stories tended to highlight positive cultural connections her students made, using the IBRT helped her challenge her assumption that students would connect with characters or story themes just because they included aspects of a shared culture. For instance, she realized that she had assumed a certain child would be eager to share their knowledge of Spanish while reading a book that had Spanish words in it, but, in fact, this student did not take an interest in the book at all. Throughout her piloting of the IBRT, she repeatedly noticed and named times when she made assumptions about what students would engage with based on their cultural backgrounds and ways in which children’s reactions both ­confirmed those assumptions and surprised her.
Anna’s desire for children to see themselves in the books they read seemed to be strengthened by her IBRT reflections, as she deepened her ideas about what it meant for children to “connect” with a story. The tool pushed her to examine her assumptions and to notice points of mismatch between what she assumed and how her students actually connected with the ­literature—and, as a result, reprogram her teaching methods.

Supporting Reflective Practice to Reduce Bias

Using the IBRT as a support for self-reflection sharpened these teachers’ ability to identify potential areas of bias based on their own stage of development as a teacher. The first step in anti-bias work is to acknowledge that one holds biases in the first place. Without acknowledging bias, it is difficult to spearhead interventions that lead to more equitable classroom practices. 
However, using a self-reflection tool like IBRT is just the first step. To lead to more substantive change, teachers can ask colleagues or a coach to give them feedback on their teaching and have a conversation on how the results from the IBRT compare and contrast with that feedback. For example, it would be helpful for leaders to pinpoint elements within their feedback tools that allow them to capture and articulate how bias might be showing up in a teacher’s practice. On a classroom level, we see this type of reflection tool as a way for teachers to engage in bias reflection with more focus. Teachers can work alongside a coach or with colleagues. The process should not be rated or used in any formal observations or evaluations; otherwise it could be seen as punitive and off-putting. 
A collegial support model will allow ideas about the impacts of and responses to bias to complement each other, creating conditions for more substantial change. This process of ­supported self-reflection positively correlates to emotional intelligence and can create more ­welcoming and supportive classrooms for a wider range of learners.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How would a reflective tool like the IBRT help you in your teaching practice?

➛ Have you ever been surprised to learn about an unconscious bias you exhibit while teaching? How did it make you feel, and what steps did you take to correct it?

References

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Routledge.

Çimer, A., Odabaşi, S., & Vekli, G. S. (2013). How does reflection help teachers to become effective teachers? International Journal of Educational Research, 1, 133–149.

Gullo, G. L., Capatosto, K., & Staats, C. (2019). Implicit bias in schools. Routledge.

Staats, C. (2015-2016, Winter). Understanding implicit bias: What educators should know. The American Educator.

Silindra McRay is an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University, an education consultant, and former education leader. Previously, she was the director/special assistant to the superintendent for the African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative in San Francisco Unified School ­District.

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