Four Principles for Bias-Busting in the Classroom

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We are all guilty.

The human tendency to stereotype is a natural response when we encounter people from groups and cultures that are different from our own.

The tendency to overgeneralize is problematic, especially when working with children and families.

It becomes extremely important for teachers to challenge this human tendency within ourselves and in others. Period. But even more so when we teach students of social and cultural groups we know little about.

This tendency becomes very apparent when teaching children from low-income families.

In his new book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul C. Gorski, an associate professor at George Mason University, found that even when people believe that society is largely to blame for most poverty, they still hold to a “litany of stereotypes: Poor people are lazy. They don’t care about education. They’re alcoholics and drug abusers. They don’t want to work; instead, they are addicted to the welfare system.”

This is exactly what some of my teachers thought about my classmates and me.

By all standards, my parents were poor. We lived in a tenement on 16th and Lawndale, on the west side of Chicago, in the heart of a gang ­infested territory.

The tenement boasted an enclosed courtyard where fathers and mothers sat and “visited” while watching their children play. We did not play outside of the gate of the courtyard; we did not run along the alleyway to the back yard. We wanted to venture out often enough (and tried), but vigilant parents kept a watchful eye so that we did not go beyond the boundaries of safety.

The Gap Within

At the age of three, I attended the Marcy Center, which housed the first preschool in my community. It was part of a national initiative chaired by Lady Bird Johnson, to provide a free preschool opportunity to children from low income families. Two years later, my classmates and I actually appeared on the “Lee Phillips Show,” which was a local daytime television program, where Loreley interviewed us to learn more about our school and the center.

—Image courtesy of Cheryl A. Redfield

But in pigtails, a gingham yellow dress, sitting under the bright studio lights, you could not have convinced me that I was poor! I was happy, healthy, and adored.

You can imagine my surprise when a few days later I overheard one of my teachers say, “Does anything good come out of that community?” The essence of her words, shared with another teacher in the back coat room, questioned the legitimacy of an initiative that reached out to children like me.

My teacher’s words, spoken aloud then, are not much different from the secret thoughts we may still harbor in our hearts today about students whose culture and ethnicity we do not understand.

It is my belief that our “secret” is having a profound effect on the outcome of students from low-­income families, as well as African­-American and Hispanic students. Despite a decade of rhetoric, research, and policy, the achievement gap continues to widen.

Perhaps the answer to the achievement gap lies within us, and not in policy.

Gorski said it best: “It takes an awful lot of humility to say we harbor stereotypes. The fact that many of us have been trained as teachers and administrators with frameworks like the 'culture of poverty' that encourage stereotyping does not help.”

Countering Stereotypes

How do we then as educators counteract this human tendency to stereotype others, so we can effectively connect with our students and lessen the gap?

In my own journey as a teacher of students from social and cultural backgrounds different from my own, there are four principles I embrace so that I can continue to reach families and teach children of all backgrounds:

1. Honestly admit to the tendency to stereotype. There is no shame in admission, but it is key to being able to free yourself, and your classroom, from biases. Also, by admitting, you prepare your heart and mind for the next crucial step.

2. Challenge your stereotypes. We learned the most common and deeply ­rooted stereotypes from limited contexts. We tend to characterize a whole people group from a few encounters. We don’t challenge our conclusions. So rethink, reflect, and resolve not to succumb to the convenience of overgeneralization, especially when it comes to people. They can surprise you!

3. Be very curious about social or cultural groups you know little about. In his book "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey admonishes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This concept works well for bias­-busting, too. Determine to learn. Let your lack of knowledge compel you to want to know and understand.

4. Be committed to make a difference. Commitment will carry you through the rewarding, yet hard work of unloading learned stereotypes and overcoming obstacles. To work and teach children from another social or cultural group stretches you already, so to maintain that focus you must be confident of why you are there. You can do more than survive. You can thrive outside of your comfort zone!

As teachers we must do more than simply impart content knowledge to our students. It is imperative we prepare them to engage in a globalized society with honor and abiding appreciation for others. We can only do this if we are not weighted down by our own prejudices and stereotypes.

In our classrooms, we impact the future.

Let us use that influence to shape how our students lead in it.

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