Education Equity

A Simple Way to Self-Monitor for Bias

Teachers concerned that they might be showing bias against students in marginalized groups can use a short checklist for self-assessment.

January 22, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Let’s say that you, like me, have a renewed commitment this year to ensuring equity in your classes. Let’s say that you’ve been to the seminar—“Antiracist Education” or “Racism in the Classroom”—and afterward you read books such as How to Be an Antiracist. Now you’re ready; you want to do what some people call “the work.” But then you get to your classroom and don’t have any idea where to begin.

One time I found myself in a similar situation. I was in a casual meeting with my principal, a well-respected Black leader at our school. We were discussing test scores, classroom management, and our new crop of teachers. The conversation turned to my own students and he said, “Wamsted, the only real problem with you is that you don’t know how to handle some of these Black boys.”

We had an excellent working relationship, so even though the comment stung, I knew better than to ignore him. I began to watch myself, to check the spaces in my pedagogy where bias and prejudice were leaking through. I focused on five key areas where I could track my behavior as I made notes about interactions with my students. I wanted to self-monitor for racial bias.

Once the data was staring me in the face, I knew my principal was right: I was treating some of my Black male students differently from other students. It was unconscious but true. Empowered by this knowledge, I was able to make a deliberate decision to change my behavior.

5 Areas to Examine for Bias

1. Discipline: Research finds that Black students are punished in schools at disproportional rates; it is worthwhile to investigate if this is true in our classes. As an important piece of the inquiry, however, don’t just track big acts of discipline—detentions and referrals and calls home. Rather, keep a clipboard close at hand, and every time you find yourself managing a student, mark it down. Out-of-turn phone usage, quasi-innocent time out of seat, medium-level volume issues—sometimes these small things require correction, but how we handle them is worth inspecting for bias.

2. Calling on raised hands: Who do we call on when they raise a hand to participate? There’s little ambiguity here, making this an obvious area for self-reflection. Don’t be too hard on yourself about the classroom Hermione, the one you call on far too often because they are the only one offering. Pay attention instead to moments when you are offered a choice. As a bonus for my fellow male teachers out there, tracking this behavior could also help uncover gender bias in our practice.

3. Cold calling: If you’re anything like me, sometimes you call on a student not because they are offering a comment or question but because you think they aren’t paying attention. You’re trying to trap them, Peppermint Patty style, in a moment of laziness or misbehavior. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this method of classroom management, but it’s important to know if we’re applying it equitably.

The point of the first three trackers is to see what names come out of our mouths at which times. This data can cut across the blur of memory and give better information about actual practice. The next two trackers are more subjective because they will try to tease out a different kind of bias through asking us to monitor our thoughts and feelings.

4. “This kid is in the wrong class”: Most teachers know that gut-level feeling of excitement or dismay upon being asked to write a letter of recommendation. I tried to capture that feeling midstream by tracking the times I wondered whether a particular student should be in a different level of my class—up to honors or down to regular or even something else entirely. I’m not referring just to official actions to get a student moved but also to the mere thoughts that flashed across my mind. Research supports the conclusion that Black and Brown students are disproportionately tracked into lower-level classes. Whether or not we’re in charge of student placement, do we sometimes feel that same bias? It’s a worthwhile question to explore.

5. Good times: Which students get you to joke around and bring out your “more than a teacher” personality? Which students do you swap stories with about activity in the outside world? Who pulls us into their orbit when we overhear an interesting conversation? Which students end up most often in the funny or charming classroom anecdotes that we share with our partners and friends? What kind of student gets marked down here?

If you keep track of these aspects of classroom management and conversation for a month, you may discover something surprising about the way you interact with students. I know I did. But it gave me something to work on, a plan to make, and an action item to fix. I know it’s only scratching the surface of the work, but it gave me a place to begin. I don’t doubt that it will do the same for you.

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