Teaching Opinion

The Impact of Implicit Bias and How We Must Work Together to Overcome It

By Starr Sackstein — September 25, 2018 3 min read
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In the earliest part of my teaching career, I worked in the inner city in New York. Only four miles from where I grew up in an affluent suburban town on Long Island, I was the only white person in the room. During those early careers, I learned more about myself as a person than I ever thought I could. Foolishly, I thought, no I believed I wasn’t racist and/or biased in any way. My parents were liberals and I was raised to treat all people the same way.

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to really get to know my kids to see how I made assumptions about people as did my colleagues that negatively impacted the students. What I learned was that I needed to have conversations. I needed to stay curious. I needed to challenge students and always treat them like they were capable learners and elevate them, regardless of where they came from to the heights of their own possibilities.

Watching the provided videos from my graduate class really reminded me of my students from Far Rockaway. Really intelligent young men and ladies who were often overlooked or treated differently and when I moved to other schools in the city, similar things happened just because of the way they looked. It never felt right to me and I always worked hard to try to shift the usual.

After taking the two surveys, I learned that I have a slight automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans, but I would have never expected that. I also learned that I have a moderate preference for light-skinned people over dark-skinned people and that surprised me too. When I started my career and even now in the district I work in which is very diverse, I try to see people, loving their cultures, asking questions and staying curious. My white privilege has always been a sore spot and sometimes even an embarrassment. Although I know I can’t help where I was born or how I was raised, I have felt guilty in a number of situations that so many people didn’t have it as good as I did.

As a leader, I need to be acutely aware of my what my unconscious bias is doing so that I can bring this awareness to ensure I don’t discriminate in any kind of way based on it. Leaders must show the folks that they want to be equitable in my decisions. Of course, fair isn’t always equal. We must give each child, each person exactly what he or she needs based on their experiences and personal learning styles. We must adapt for them and not the other way around.

Now that I’m aware that this is something that I do, I want to learn more about the impacts of it. It is deeply important to me that I provide every learner an equal opportunity and that I treat everyone respectfully and offer the right situations to the right candidates for them.

Honestly, I had taken a third test too, thinking it would easily show my natural leans. It was about men and women in the workplace. Since I am a woman who has largely put my career ahead of everything and my mom was like that too, I assumed incorrectly that I’d be a person who would go against the stereotype. Ultimately what the experience showed me is that all the training in the world, every adult life experience can’t undo the unconscious learning we do as children.

Coming to this understanding has once again raised my awareness and more action can be taken. I would like to seek out “diversity training” and continue to talk to people about their experiences. I’ve always been open to having frank dialogue with the people I work with and or the students I have taught. If I don’t understand something, I ask rather than guess. I try not to make assumptions about anyone is thinking or feeling and rather than think that someone is trying to do something that is directly out of line with expectations, I want to dig deeper.

What is the root cause? Are they having a bad day? Is their process different than mine? Am I having a bad day and therefore reacting more harshly or sensitively than I normally would?

Leadership is all about knowing the mission, the people and the outcomes you want to achieve with the folks you are working with. Building relationships that allow us to work together to do what is best for all students are essential and we must look after each other when we do that. We must have hard conversations and we must push through the challenges together so that success for all can be achieved.

Implicit bias will always exist but when we shed light on it and take actions to lessen the impact of it, then we can be more honest about the learning and growing we do together. No one is perfect and therefore we have to mind our own and each other’s gaps.

What are your implicit biases and how have you worked to overcome them? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress 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.