Tracey A. Benson and Sarah E. Fiarman
Let’s help new teachers (and all teachers) take a growth approach to recognizing and working to curb any implicit racial bias.
A few years ago, Tracey was observing a first-year teacher’s math class. During the lesson, none of the black students raised a hand to participate, while multiple white students did. What could be the reason for this? Were the black students less prepared? Less confident or engaged in school? As the school’s principal, Tracey took careful notes—and what he saw turned those questions on their head by revealing a likely cause unrelated to student attitude or aptitude.
During the post-observation conference with this teacher, Tracey shared the data he had collected. He’d seen that all the black students in this algebra class sat in the two rows along the left wall, whereas the white students occupied the four other rows. During the lesson, the teacher had positioned her body toward the white students, leaving the two rows of black students relegated to her periphery. Not a single black student had raised his or her hand or been called on during the entire lesson. The white students had raised their hands and participated more than 30 times, some multiple times.
The new teacher, whom we’ll call Susan, was surprised. She didn’t realize that she was unconsciously favoring the white students and overlooking the black students. She thanked Tracey for the observations, asked for advice, and requested that he observe her again the next day. When he returned, Susan was positioned on the other side of the room facing the entire class. Unlike the previous day, black students raised their hands and Susan called on them. When she could make eye contact with the students and see their faces, their participation increased.
How many of us are unintentionally doing something similar? The fact is, considering the universality of unconscious racial bias, most of us at times probably send subtle but persistent messages that white students are more worthy of our attention and more favored in intellectual discourse. Through verbal and nonverbal communication, students receive messages about their value and worth on a minute-to-minute basis throughout the school day. And biased messages, delivered frequently over time, have a profound effect on students.
The good news is that, as Tracey’s interaction with Susan illustrates, we can do something about this disturbing reality, including guiding new teachers, who may be especially unattuned to the nuances of how their behavior affects students. Knowledge of our biases gives us the power to reduce their impact. New teachers (and veterans and administrators) must continually ask: What is our impact on students of color? How can we find out? How can we do better? Strategically collecting data can point us to concrete behaviors to change and monitor—so we can be the fair, encouraging educators we strive to be.
Notice several things about the interaction between Tracey and Susan. Susan didn’t get defensive. She didn’t hear Tracey’s feedback as an indictment of her character. Like most teachers, Susan earnestly wanted her students to do well and wanted to get rid of anything that was holding them back. For his part, Tracey didn’t dismiss this teacher as a bad person because she showed biased behavior. He saw that her actions didn’t align with her intentions and presumed that she would want to know. His faith in her conscious commitment to all students remained unchanged.
Such interactions are crucial in schools—but rare. Crucial because a growing body of research demonstrates that educators aren’t immune to the effects of unconscious racial bias (Eberhardt, 2019; Lewis & Diamond, 2017). These biases have harmful effects on children we care about. They can lead us to view black and brown children as less capable and more culpable, or to view white children as more worthy of second chances and of being challenged. This is true for educators who are novice and veteran, white and people of color.
These conversations are rare partly because educators, like most Americans, enter the workforce unaware of the influence of unconscious racial bias on their perceptions and actions. Many educators believe that racism is essentially a character trait and that people can be sorted into two distinct categories: you’re either racist or you’re not. With this mindset, if you show a preference toward white students or hold Latino students to lower expectations—even if these behaviors are unconscious—you find yourself in the same category as torch-bearing Klan members. Not surprisingly, people resist this label and insist on the only other option—not racist.
Beware the Binary Mindset
Some researchers describe such sorting of people into either racist or nonracist as a product of a binary mindset (DiAngelo, 2018). As colleagues working with school administrators, the two of us have talked about racism a lot. During one such conversation, Sarah discovered how she had absorbed this binary mindset about her identity as a good white person.
Sarah was describing a time when a black student new to her class had told others that she was racist, and she’d been confident he was wrong. The student had been resisting revising his work and writing in full sentences, and Sarah assumed his comment was about this issue, guessing that he was just having a hard time adjusting to the high standards of her class. She acknowledged to Tracey that there could be times when she might act unfairly and need students to point that out to her, but she felt sure she had assessed this particular situation accurately. She believed the student was simply wrong, which she told the student in class. Tracey invited Sarah to consider that, as a white person, she might not have fully understood this student’s experience. Wasn’t she curious to learn how a black male student was experiencing her classroom? His comment might have stemmed from frustration at having to revise his work—or it might have been about something entirely different that Sarah wasn’t aware of. When Tracey suggested that disregarding the student’s perception might have had a negative impact on him, and that it would’ve been better for Sarah to ask this student in private what led him to that conclusion, Sarah got defensive. Didn’t Tracey know that she cared about her students and treated them all fairly? That parents of all races praised her? She was a good white person, committed to equality.
Sarah eventually came to understand that unconscious biases were just that—unconscious. Her intentions, her skills as a teacher, even the respect families of color granted her, didn’t eliminate the possibility that her actions or assumptions could be biased and harmful to students. Coming to accept this fact was painful, discouraging, and ultimately empowering. Painful and discouraging because Sarah had to face the fact that she harbored biases and the fact that she couldn’t simply turn them off. Empowering because understanding the way bias operates is the key to reducing its impact on students. Understanding that good intentions don’t protect us from acting in biased ways opens up space to examine biases without an emotional, defensive stance. It opens up space for growth.
Part of that growth, for all teachers, should be confronting the binary mindset and replacing it with a developmental mindset. A developmental mindset allows educators to talk to each other productively about possible racial biases, analyze the impact of these biases in a systematic way, and ultimately change their behaviors.
In the field of education, the concept of a growth mindset has considerable traction. Carol Dweck (2007) found that people tend to approach learning in two distinct ways: Some view intelligence as a fixed trait (you’re either smart or you’re not), while others view it as something you gain developmentally through ongoing effort. Those who view intelligence as fixed tend to respond defensively to criticism because they experience it as commentary on their intellectual identity, whereas those with a growth mindset embrace criticism as a way to gain more intelligence. Holding a fixed mindset can lead to shutting down when things feel hard. When people with a growth mindset face challenges, they’re willing to grapple with them in order to learn.
What if educators took this same approach regarding the desire to be free of racism? Like intelligence, being anti-racist isn’t a fixed trait. Rather, it’s built through deliberate, repeated effort over time. With this mindset, discovering we’re biased is not a character indictment. In fact, educators with a growth mindset seek out feedback about potential biases, knowing it will lead to improved practice—and ultimately more positive outcomes for learners.
Create the Conditions to Address Bias
To foster conversations like the one Susan and Tracey had, schools need to help teachers and administrators adopt a developmental mindset about becoming anti-racist. This won’t happen on its own. So how do leaders create conditions for new teachers to examine their practice for signs of even subtle, unconscious racism? Key leadership moves include confronting the myth of colorblindness, building trust, and not prioritizing white people’s comfort in conversations about race and racial bias.
Confronting the idea of colorblindness is especially important. Rather than embracing a “blind” approach to race, leaders should help teachers understand that race affects the life experiences of our students and ourselves. Most teachers in the United States are white, and many white people mistakenly believe that in order to achieve a future free of discrimination, they should act as though that future is already a reality. Ignoring racial discrimination doesn’t make racism go away, however. We may not have separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites anymore, but research shows white people still get preferential treatment in a wide variety of ways (Staats et al., 2017). In tests of positive association, a majority of white Americans and a substantial percentage of people of color show a preference for white people (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013).
Teachers of color don’t need to learn that racial discrimination exists; they experience it. In contrast, many white teachers don’t think that they have a racialized experience at all. For many white educators, learning to talk about race is a new skill that requires practice. In addition, many people of color have experienced unproductive, superficial conversations about racial equity in mixed-race settings. Leaders committed to confronting racial bias in their schools must reserve time for new educators, along with veterans, to build the skills of talking about race and racism with colleagues.
At one middle school we know, during weekly team meetings, trained teacher leaders facilitate discussions of readings and TED Talks describing the experiences of people of different racial backgrounds. Protocols ensure that everyone gets “air time” and that people speak for themselves rather than making generalizations. Another school breaks into racial-affinity groups to discuss books about racial identity development such as Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations About Race (Corwin, 2015). Efforts like these signal to new teachers that racial identity development is professional development.
Communities tackling unconscious bias also work to become braver together—by fostering trust. Establishing and adhering to norms and protocols can go a long way here. Like mountaineers relying on colleagues to catch them when they fall, educators need to know that when they talk together about race or examine evidence of potential racial biases, their colleagues won’t abandon them through disengagement, defensiveness, or disdain. Teachers of color need to know that if they share a personal experience of racism, it won’t be met with skepticism. They need to see evidence that white colleagues are willing to have their sense of identity as non-racists challenged. Antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo describes the defensiveness that can come up for white people in these conversations. Reading her work can help leaders of all races anticipate patterns of response that frequently come up in conversations about race.
There’s another crucial condition to this work: realizing that conversations about race don’t take place on a level playing field. White people can choose to engage or not; people of color don’t have that choice. When leaders worry that a conversation about racism will cause discomfort among staff members, it’s helpful to ask, “Whose comfort am I prioritizing?”
Investigate, Analyze, Address
Once we release ourselves from the binary mindset of having to prove we’re bias-free, we can focus our energy on making school a fairer place for all students. Since unconscious racial bias is, by definition, unintentional, we can’t just decide one day to stop. However, we can commit to monitoring where and how bias affects our students—by systematically collecting and analyzing data and acting on what we learn regarding what we might need to change. The goal is to create a community determined to answer questions like, What is our impact on students of color? How will we know? What can we change in our practice to get better results?
When new teachers join colleagues guided by questions like these, they are less likely to adopt a deficit approach, placing blame on students for low performance. They’ll be inducted into a school culture of inquiry, not defensiveness. They’ll learn to start from the assumption that all students genuinely are capable of meeting or exceeding standards. From this vantage point, racial disparities or low performance from certain groups of students will prompt new teachers to grow more curious, not more complacent. They’ll seek to understand students’ experiences more specifically to realize what adults can change to improve student outcomes.
To monitor the impact of unconscious bias, it’s crucial to disaggregate data by race to surface disparities that may not be apparent. For example, if 85 percent of students respond to a school climate survey saying they feel their teachers respect them, that may seem like a fairly encouraging number. However, if the school is racially diverse and the remaining 15 percent who don’t feel respected are all Latino students, then the picture is quite different—and concerning.
There are countless areas to investigate. Teachers might conduct an audit of who participates in class discussions, analyze feedback on student writing, or record who receives extra credit or even who receives instruction from substitute teachers more often. Throughout the inquiry, framing makes a difference. The point isn’t to determine who is to blame; this process of collecting and analyzing data should feel empowering to teachers committed to increasing their effectiveness with all students.
Once leaders and faculty identify racial discrepancies in school and classroom practices, their follow-up action plan will likely involve the following three steps: (1) design and implement clear systems or structures that increase fairness; (2) determine objective criteria for impactful decisions like who qualifies for a character award or whether to send a child to the office; and (3) increase overall teacher collaboration to identify signs of bias that individuals might not notice on their own. These three steps may be attractive because they can be checked off a list. However, it would be too easy to think that once we’ve checked each step off, we’ve ensured fair treatment of all students. It’s not that simple.
Creating a system—or setting up criteria or increasing collaboration—will help but won’t be sufficient to ensure that students of color receive treatment equal to that of white students. We need to accept that unconscious bias will continually seep into the school day. We address bias best not just by creating systems, but also by shedding defensiveness and adopting a developmental mindset and a willingness to inquire. In this way, we’ll build a culture of continual investigation and growth to address the unconscious racial bias that lives in our schools and ourselves.
Reflect & Discuss
➛ Consider the authors’ question: What impact are your practices having on students of color? Does anything in your mentoring or induction for new teachers help new teachers reflect on this question? Might you include something to help new hires think about this?
➛ Do you ever talk with fellow teachers about racism or racial identity? Do you think there is enough trust among some of your colleagues to let this happen? If not, why not?
➛ Does your school foster a growth mindset with respect to racial bias?
Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Eberhardt, J. (2019). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. New York: Viking.
Lewis, A., & Diamond, J. (2017). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York: Oxford University Press.
Staats, C., Capatosto, K., Tenny, L., & Mamo, S. (2017, November 6). State of the science: Implicit bias review. Kirwan Institute.
Tracey A. Benson is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Sarah E. Fiarman is director of leadership development for EL Education. They are both former principals and are coauthors of Unconscious Racial Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism (Harvard Education Press, 2019).
September 2019 | Volume 77 | Number 1
What New Teachers Need Pages 60-65