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Practical Ways to Uncover Unconscious Bias and Eliminate It

By Dr. Joe Tilley, Amber Searles

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A colleague who taught special education in the inclusion setting recently shared an experience they had when they were coteaching and partnered with a first-year educator. They spent an in-service day together to plan for the upcoming semester, and our colleague found that his new coteacher brought limitless energy and excitement to their first teaching position and offered incredible ideas and strategies. The veteran educator left the planning session certain it was going to be a very good year.

At their next planning session, however, a comment by the first-year teacher stunned him. Our colleague had proposed an activity for their shared students, and the first-year educator had responded by asserting, “We cannot do this—it is far too rigorous for your students.” The veteran educator was shocked by the comment. He never distinguished between “their” students and the general education students. How could a new educator come to a conclusion so quickly about students they had never worked with?

This type of assumption is built off of an implicit bias formed by unconscious attitudes, stereotypes, or categorizing that impact the way we see others or what we believe about them (Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d.). In education, this type of bias can be incredibly harmful and hurtful, and educators need to make every effort to uncover their unconscious biases. Once you discover your biases, you can then begin to eliminate them. This starts by acknowledging that unconscious biases don’t have to be permanent.

Uncovering Unconscious Bias

  1. Identifying unconscious bias is the first step toward addressing it. Here are some practical ways to get started:
  2. Educate yourself about what unconscious bias is and how it manifests itself. There are a number of available resources that can provide a deeper understanding of unconscious bias and how it can creep into a classroom. Awareness of the manifestation and impact of unconscious bias can provide a needed strategy for uncovering it.
  3. Learn what your unconscious biases are. One way to do this is through an online assessment regarding your unconscious bias. For example, Project Implicit’s online assessment (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) will help you uncover any unconscious biases you may have (Moon, n.d.).
  4. Have a trusted colleague come into your classroom to observe while you are teaching and provide feedback.
  5. Ask your students to provide feedback on when they feel included and excluded. Their feedback could be the most important step to uncovering potential unconscious biases.

Once you discover your biases, you can then begin to eliminate them. This starts by acknowledging that unconscious biases don’t have to be permanent.

Eliminating Unconscious Bias

Once you recognize your own unconscious biases, you will have to put in the work to eliminate them. Here are some practical strategies to get you started:

  1. All of us have an unconscious bias in some form or another. The first step is to accept this and understand that it is a part of what makes us human. Monitor the ways you express your thoughts and feelings in conversations with students and colleagues when it comes to topics such as academics, age, race, nationality, and religion (Callister, 2021).
  2. Be open to experiencing people or colleagues from different cultural and academic backgrounds. Having a better understanding of different cultures and backgrounds will make you a better leader, both as an individual and as an educator.
  3. Resist making assumptions about students and colleagues, which would also include relying too heavily on first impressions.
  4. If you find yourself involved in a conversation about certain topics that may seem biased, speak up and speak out. As educators, we should be willing to educate in any circumstance.
  5. Most importantly, if you become aware of having an unconscious bias, accept that you are wrong and apologize.

After you have read through these strategies for uncovering and eliminating unconscious or implicit bias, you may feel that you need a mindset change. Don’t worry, though: It is natural to have an epiphany about certain viewpoints. As educators we should strive to change our mindset about biases just as we encourage students to look deeper at content we present them. Throughout life we are constantly learning and improving our thoughts, health, and physical ability, and it is never too late to recognize and change the way we view bias situations.

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Dr. Joe Tilley

Dr. Joe Tilley is a curriculum and instructional designer and educational consultant with Center for Responsive Schools. He received his BS from Middle Tennessee State University, MS from the University of Memphis, and EdD from Middle Tennessee State University. He has taught K–8 special education in Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville, and worked at the district level as a special education coach, coordinator, and supervisor.

Amber Searles

Amber Searles is a curriculum and instructional designer at Center for Responsive Schools. She began as a middle school business education teacher, receiving her district’s Teacher of the Year award. Amber believes in the power of teaching academic, social, and emotional skills to prepare students both in and outside of school, and in empowering teachers with content and products that will help them to foster hope in their students and build communities where they feel empowered by their work.

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