When I served as a mentor to new teachers, one of the greatest challenges I faced was trying to help other white teachers recognize and adapt to cultural differences in their new classrooms. This was especially difficult because for many white educators, race is an uncomfortable subject they’d rather not acknowledge.
I’ve heard several white educators say, “I treat all my kids the same.” While this may come from a sincere place of wanting to promote equality, a color-blind perspective can diminish and undermine a child’s culture and identity and the validity of painful experiences they may have had with racism and bias.
Likewise, refusing to discuss race frankly and openly can stymie a school’s growth and keep us from building a shared understanding of how our assumptions might advantage some students over others. These issues can be painful to tease apart, but the process of building a shared, open dialogue around race, expectations, and assumptions is critical if we seek to close achievement gaps.
Here are some steps leaders might take toward reducing bias in their schools and increasing equity to meet the needs of all students.
Ground Your School in a Simple, Student-Centered Mission
Having a mission that focuses teachers and administrators on meeting the needs of all students can go miles in promoting a positive school culture and helping adults prioritize the needs of their students over their own needs.
One of my colleagues always sings the praises of a former principal who did this well. She says that whenever a teacher would vent to the principal about a concern, he would let the teacher say their piece and then pose the question, “We just have to ask ourselves, what’s best for students in this situation?”
Difficult conversations may be easier if we keep them focused on students rather than the other educators in the room. Each adult may more readily set aside their own comfort for the greater good—the shared goal of supporting all students’ achievement at high levels.
Let the Data Be Your Guide
While data alone will not be enough to change our systems to be more equitable, looking at trends, both nationally and within your school or classroom, can serve as an objective starting point to having discussions about equity and bias.
Once achievement gaps are identified, schools can begin to analyze why there are gaps. There is research suggesting that teachers’ racial biases negatively affect student achievement, and sharing this information with faculty can make starting conversations about racial bias in classrooms less personal and more objective, and help lower individual teachers’ defenses.
Then, taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test can help educators see their personal data and privately reflect on how their own assumptions and biases might be affecting students’ performance.
Allow for Student Voice
If we allow students the freedom and a platform to address inequities or raise concerns without the threat of consequences for being disrespectful, we’ll be able to move forward toward more equitable discipline and instruction.
Schools or classrooms can provide systems for students to report concerns, and individual teachers and administrators can respect students’ dignity simply by listening and responding with genuine empathy to their concerns about equity and fairness.
Demonstrate Growth Mindset and Nurture Trust
When we’re vulnerable enough to share how we have grown in our own understanding and to listen patiently to one another, we can rise together to overcome internalized assumptions or implicit biases. Reading the National Board’s Equity Standards as a faculty and discussing frankly how accomplished teachers ensure student access in their classrooms can lead to deeper understanding and more intentional practice.
It’s understandable that many teachers unconsciously re-create the classrooms they knew as students, the classrooms where they were successful. If we were teaching rooms full of carbon copies of ourselves this might be OK, but the truth is, all classrooms are heterogeneous. If we aren’t intentional about creating systems in which all students can be successful, too many classrooms and schools will continue to show achievement gaps.
This is why raising awareness is so critical for closing such gaps. It starts with every individual educator thinking about their own expectations for and reactions to students and how these are communicated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways throughout the school day.
Throughout this process, it’s important for administrators and teacher leaders to remember to be patient with those faculty members who may be demonstrating less sensitive assumptions. Just as we want teachers to communicate expectations that all students can learn at high levels, leaders must also communicate expectations that all teachers can grow, learn, and open their hearts and eyes to see the real potential sitting in the desks before them, ready to learn whatever we teach them.