Understanding Teacher Bias

Acknowledging the Impact of Unconscious Bias

By Tiara Smith, Copywriter & Content Strategist ; Jennifer Pham, National Curriculum Consultant

Upon clicking on this blog, you may be thinking “I am definitely not biased, so teacher bias does not affect my classroom or my instructional methods,” but there’s more than meets the eye. Many educators tend to follow the same school of thought, and hence, their students absorb the impact. But how? Within this article we will discuss different types of teacher bias, the impact of said bias, and some anti-bias teaching strategies to guide you to academic success.

What is Bias in Teaching?

In general, teacher bias, also known as educational bias, refers to prejudice against certain groups on the basis of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or economic standing that causes educators to treat their students unfairly. Teacher bias falls in one of two categories, implicit bias (unconscious bias) or explicit bias. Explicit bias is educational bias that involves educators that are cognizant of the prejudices and attitudes they may possess toward certain groups of students on the basis of things such as race or gender. Implicit bias, though, refers to prejudices that a teacher may have that they are completely unaware of, which can cause damaging consequences in a classroom setting. Both of these types of teacher biases involve using these preconceived notions, opinions, or attitudes toward certain groups to make judgements that aren't quite rooted in facts, resulting in varying treatment of students.

Teacher Bias Examples

Examples of teacher bias, whether explicit or implicit, vary widely, but they are all rooted in the same thing- prejudice. “A common example often refers to academic ability,” expressed Jennifer Pham, our National Curriculum Consultant. “Teachers are responsible for student achievement and growth. If they know that students walk in with an identification of ELL or Special Education or Gifted Education, they may make assumptions before getting to know that student, which can affect how they approach their instruction. For example, students identified as ELL may be mistaken for a student with a learning disability. Students with special education or gifted education needs may unnecessarily be given higher or lower level work expectations. Teachers may expect students who speak with certain accents to be poor writers. Students with substandard writing abilities may be stereotyped as lacking intellectual ability. Teachers might treat students with physical disabilities as if they may also have mental disabilities, and thus require more attention.” Assumptions such as this can cause a serious amount of damage in the classroom, as every student has the ability to benefit from teachers when given equitable expectations, no matter where they start on their educational journey.

How does Teacher Bias Affect Students?

Teacher bias has the power to deeply affect students in the classroom in multiple ways that affect students’ ability to succeed, grow, learn, and feel safe in the classroom. When students see their counterparts being treated differently, they also begin to pick up this learned behavior. “This is another high priority risk,” says Jennifer. “When trying to create a culture of inclusion and creating a community of learners, imagine how it would feel to be a student who is experiencing this first-hand and other students are seeing it and inheriting this bias, oftentimes.”

The mere act of witnessing the bias that teachers may have has the power to change the way students treat and see one another, and thus, promotes a culture that is anything but inclusive, culturally responsive, or productive when it comes to the development of Social-Emotional Learning skills. In turn, students will not feel as welcome in their classroom, making this environment less than conducive to producing academic success.

Outside of bias related to perceived mental or physical ability, common teacher biases can refer to:

  • Cultural misconceptions
  • Perceived capability due to gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Economic standing

Anti Bias Teaching Strategies

Implicit teacher bias, also known as unconscious bias, can be a result of the experiences we have had over the course of our lifetime, but with a little effort, teachers can overcome it! Implementing a few anti-bias teaching strategies may be a little overwhelming, but Jennifer recommends you take the following steps:

  1. Overcoming both implicit and explicit teacher bias requires educators to recognize that we are all human and that we all have biases. The problem often lies in the fact that there is a large pool of educators that think “I am not biased,” and refuse to acknowledge otherwise. Becoming aware of the fact that we all are biased, even without intending to be, is what can truly set your classroom apart from others when paired with proper training.
  2. Allow teachers to get to know their students and co-workers on a deeper level. Set aside time for intentional activities and facilitated questioning that allow for active listening, understanding, and empathy among one another. Though this may sound basic, it doesn’t always happen. Oftentimes, teachers walk into the classroom with the thought “it's go time,” but if you only look at the student on a surface level, you will accidentally look through the lens of your unconscious bias.
  3. Refrain from ignoring a potential issue by saying “I do not see color or race.” Though rooted in positive intentions, this mindset is one in which a teacher is essentially saying “this is the way things are and there is nothing that needs to change.” Adoption of a more flexible mindset allows teachers to see where bias could be present and to proactively think about what to do when they see it. In doing so, teachers will be able to teach students about how to embrace differences among students and bring out the strength of others that are sometimes built on a cultural or racial background. A way to enhance this effort is to take time to celebrate holidays from the varying cultures present in your classroom outside of those celebrated in your district. This exposure will truly help students feel welcome and extend those welcoming feelings to other students of other cultures.
  4. Providing equitable learning opportunities for students is imperative to academic growth. Set high expectations for all students rather than catering to those that teachers may feel are going to benefit the most from a particular challenging activity. Due to unconscious or implicit teacher bias, teachers may initially split up students by perceived ability level, but exposing the entire class to grade level resources and activities can help each student grow. Should a student or a group of students struggle, teachers can still provide extended time and help to those that need it.
  5. Uncover biases you may have by taking an assessment such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). During this assessment, participants will understand more about the attitudes and beliefs they may possess, making it easier to understand where anti bias teaching strategies may be necessary to incorporate.
  6. Ensure that all teaching materials are culturally responsive and relevant to make it easier for students to see themselves in the material, making them more receptive to the material and more comfortable. If resources are culturally responsive, they will inherently be a perfect fit in an anti-bias teaching strategy.

Overcoming Teacher Bias

Becoming aware of any potential biases and investing in resources to combat them is essential to creating an environment in which all students feel welcome. Though becoming aware is more than half of the battle, there are tools that can allow educators to do so. From mandatory training for all teachers to digital assessments, there are many tools to keep teachers on the path of enlightenment. As you begin to consider the presence of teacher bias in your classroom, start by taking account of where bias may exist and determine how everything from teaching materials to classroom decor can be updated to align with anti-bias teaching strategies and culturally responsive teaching strategies. If you are currently trying to combat teacher bias in your school/district, we’d like to introduce you to Meaningful Conversations, an add-on to Raz-Plus that facilitates age-appropriate, respectful conversation within classrooms that covers ableism, racism, sexism, and more!

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