School & District Management Opinion

Maintaining Leaders’ Objectivity

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 26, 2016 4 min read
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According to yourdictionary.com, “Objective means someone or something that is without bias.” Without bias! Truly, is that possible? The country is reeling amidst questions of bias. On point, is whether police act differently when confronting a black person? Are the actions of some officers driven by bias? And, the campaign season is also bringing these questions to the foreground.

What does it mean to be objective? We want to think so. When a student misbehaves ending up in the assistant principal’s office repeatedly, he or she is sometimes referred to as a ‘frequent flyer’. Doesn’t that reflect our own biases? Do we believe that student will be treated the same way a student who has never acted out before is treated? Have observers in schools noted that some teachers treat particular children differently than others?

Being objective is really difficult. It requires the capacity to set aside biased personal thoughts and beliefs even when we are unaware of them. Is that even possible? Can we follow, with consistency, a rule of fairness? As human beings, it has been noted that classification begins as the earliest learning. We learn to name people and things. This person is ‘Mommy’, this person is ‘Daddy’, this is a ‘girl’, this is a ‘boy’. We form distinctions. From those, opinions grow. So to be objective may require the never ending process of confronting ourselves as bias arises over and over on old issues and new ones. To expect others to be objective, to expect that they have no bias is not a realistic expectation. To hope that others are willing to hear feedback suggesting something less than objective is happening is imperative practice.

Pushback When a Supreme Court Justice Has an Opinion
Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked about her opinion about Donald Trump. She responded with her opinion.

In an interview on July 8, 2016 with the NYTimes she said,

I can’t imagine what this place would be -- I can’t imagine what the country would be -- with Donald Trump as our president. For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be -- I don’t even want to contemplate that.

In an interview on July 11, 2016 with CNN, she called him a “faker who says whatever comes to his head at the moment.” She questioned why he has not turned over his tax returns and worried about the shape of the country and the court under his care.

Then, finally, after receiving feedback from the left and the right in a few news cycles, on reflection, she said in a statement reported by CNN

My recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them. Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.

Her final statement was clearly in response to the feedback she was receiving. She, artfully, did not change her sentiment about the content; rather that she regretted sharing it, revealing her integrity about her position and her regret for having shared it.

Interesting to us is the assumption that Supreme Court Justices are without bias. We heard overwhelming sentiment that we hold these few to the highest standards of objectivity. These are skilled minds who make decisions based upon the Constitution and the law. That is what the vetting process is for isn’t it - to discover bias or leaning of the jurist? It is one of the reasons the Senate approves these long term appointees?

What About Us?
What can we take away from this about our expectations and ourselves? Truly, it is an unusual person who acts with evenhandedness, equitably, automatically, and all the time. How we share our thoughts and beliefs as people in influential positions must be considered by us in so many ways. A social studies teacher whose political leaning influences her teaching, a principal with a bumper sticker offensive to some, or a superintendent who likes a Facebook page of a group some might find objectionable, these are obvious ones. On a more subtle level, who gets solos at a concert, how rooms are assigned, who gets constantly overlooked and who gets recognition, the manner in which the office staff greets a student or a parent, these can all be examples of the performance of bias. Actually, when we begin family talk or address talk, we enter the slippery slope. It sounds like this....Do you know who his mother is, her brother is, where they live? Whether good or bad by implication, we are creating images for a child that have nothing to do with his or her own merit.

It is less about what bias we hold, and more about how it is shared, revealed in our actions or kept in check. The expression of personal opinion by Justice Ginsburg leaves the impression that her legal decisions will be influenced should Mr. Trump be successful this November. Her oath should prevent that. But, justices are human beings so interpreting the law might anytime be done through a lens of bias. Thankfully, there are nine justices and we remain optimistic that the majority will reach decisions without bias about the issue or the people raising the cases.

We Are Held to a Higher Standard
Educators, like justices, are held to a higher standard. We should be because we have children in our care. Equity is in the bones of our institutional purpose and in our intentions. The lesson from Justice Ginsburg will benefit all in education if it causes us to question ourselves. Bias slips out easily if we are not vigilant. In order to be objective, as human beings, the best we can do is question ourselves always. This is a herculean effort that is both very personal and very important professionally.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.