Checking Yourself for Bias in the Classroom

Unconscious bias can shape the responses of even the most well-intentioned educators. But you can check yourself—one teacher shares how.
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If you had asked me in my first few years of teaching what a classroom should look like, I probably would have described something that included students sitting silently and working on assignments. Sure, I also would have mentioned something about discussion and group work, but a lot of what I envisioned in my mind was compliance. Why? Because that’s what my own educational experience looked like.

I wouldn’t have realized at the time that this was also a glaring example of the unconscious bias I carried with me into the classroom. I was in a classroom where I was the only person who was not of the culture my students shared. I took this as an opportunity to listen, learn, ask questions and accept responsibility when I got it wrong. In my eagerness and earnestness to learn and soak up as much as I could, students and their families trusted me with their stories. It has shaped my purpose as an educator and evolved my practice over the last decade.

This work is ongoing and ever-evolving.

While “doing the work” on yourself is intense and reflective, it is also a process. It will take time to unpack and time still to revisit, revise and reevaluate your practice. As you begin or continue this journey, it can be helpful to have a way to check yourself in class. We all know that impact matters more than intention—this is of utmost importance with young people who are shaping their views of themselves and their place and space in the world—so having a reliable strategy to check your response to a student’s behavior can be helpful in determining the most appropriate response in that moment.

I have relied on what I call Me/They/We. Using Me/They/We helps me to quickly determine whether my initial evaluation of a situation is a reflection of my own expectations rooted in bias, a judgment of the student’s behavior or a response that is appropriate to the situation at hand.

In this sense, I’m able to more accurately understand my own intention in redirecting a student. I ask:

  • Me  Am I the only person bothered or distracted by this behavior?
  • They Is the student’s behavior distracting them from the task at hand?
  • We – Is this student’s behavior distracting to a larger group/the class as a whole?

Here’s a more specific example: A student is constantly drumming his fingers on his desk and bobbing his head to his beats. This gets my attention and seems like a distraction. Consider:

  • Me – Am I the only one bothered by his drumming and moving?
  • They – Is his behavior distracting him from working? Is it a habit he does without realizing? Does this actually help him focus?
  • We Does the class notice? Are the people around him distracted?

If I’m the only one bothered/distracted, the student in question is working and others around him are unbothered, I move on. 

This technique helps you weigh your purpose in calling attention to something otherwise innocuous against the potential effect of your calling a student out. While your intention may be to redirect the student to an ideal classroom behavior that appears more focused—or rather, meets your vision of what focus looks like—the impact varies. You may be passing a judgment that erodes trust or creating a larger distraction to students who were otherwise working diligently. Or, at the very least, you may be interrupting the learning process for your student.

This is one example, of course. There are times in class when I’ve run through this in my mind and determined that the behavior is, in fact, disruptive to the student in question or to others and that I needed to redirect. There are many ways to validate and redirect with low intervention.

Does this seem like a lot to consider before telling a student to stop drumming or stop drawing or lettering all over their notebook? Maybe.

But we already do this every day.

As educators, we make judgments and evaluations constantly throughout the day. It’s worth being more deliberate and slowing down the process to further peel back any layers of unconscious bias we have and, most importantly, to always keep the care and connection with our students at the forefront of our decision-making. 

If we aren’t diving into this work as deeply as we dive into curriculum, then what exactly is the purpose?

Fracassini teaches seventh- and eighth-grade ELA.