Many of the questions we receive for our magazine column “Ask Teaching Tolerance” are from educators seeking advice about how to respond when someone—a student, a colleague, even a parent—uses biased language or stereotypes in school.
This booklet is our response. It’s for educators who want to develop the skills to speak up themselves and who want to help their students find the courage to speak up too.
What exactly is biased language, you might ask? Slurs, put-downs and other negative labels, of course. We know these can start as early as kindergarten when, for instance, a boy is teased about being “girly” because he likes dolls. And we’re all too familiar with the queasy feeling that comes when a colleague makes a joke that relies on stereotypes for its humor.
No single word covers all this ground. In this guide, we refer to it as biased language, and to the larger problem as bias. We know that many, if not most, of these remarks are said in ignorance, but that some reflect real hostility.
This guide is for the adults in the school. It offers advice about how to respond to remarks made by students and by other adults and gives guidance for helping students learn to speak up as well. We believe that modeling the kind of behavior we want from students is one of the most effective ways of teaching it.
We also know that schools are hierarchies, for the adults and for the students. So we’ve addressed the ways responding to bias might be affected by the power relationship involved. It’s relatively easy for a teacher to correct a student who’s used an ethnic slur, but quite uncomfortable—even fearful—to do so when the slur comes from a colleague, administrator or family member.
Finally, you’ll notice that we talk a lot about “moments” in this guide. We’re talking about the very short time that passes when somebody says something and you struggle with how, or even whether, you’ll respond. These moments are opportunities that must be acted on swiftly. We hope this guide provides you with practical ideas about how to respond to biased language in the moment, from any source, in any situation.
Teaching Tolerance Director