By. Al Johnson
There’s an elephant in the room that we need to talk about. It’s called implicit bias and it’s alive and well in our nation’s schools. In a nutshell, implicit bias refers to attitudes and stereotypes we unconsciously hold about people, ideas, and objects that are developed over time. These attitudes and stereotypes run contrary to our stated beliefs and values. As a result, we often don’t recognize when we engage in implicit bias. In fact, if we pause and reflect, we can all think of a time when we responded with implicit bias to a student or a parent based on past experiences with other students and families. Without knowing it, we were working out of our unconscious biases.
Implicit Bias in Action
I’ve had my fair share of experiences with implicit bias, as an educator and a parent. I chose to enter the education profession because it deeply troubled me to see that the same system that failed me as a child was failing my son, who at the time was in second grade. The last conversation I had with my son’s second-grade teacher went something like this:
Me: So, how is Zachary’s reading?
Teacher: He’s at the top of his class, but I think there’s a problem. He can’t sit still.
Me: Okay, how are his math skills?
Teacher: Again, he’s at the top of the class, but he chews on his pencils and talks a lot.
Teacher: With all of this distracting behavior to his learning, maybe you should have him tested for a learning or behavioral disorder.
Me: Carrie, let’s go, this conference is over!
I have no doubt this teacher entered her teaching career wanting to make a positive difference in the lives of children. But this teacher also comes to school with her own world view and stated beliefs that can run contrary to her actions. In this case, the teacher was only doing what her schooling and classroom experience had taught her to believe – there’s only one way a student should show up in a classroom and that way must fit within the dominate cultural idea of what a student looks like. I’ve seen the same system at work in all the settings I’ve been in as an educator, promoting some students while oppressing others. Some groups of students succeeding and others failing. Research has proven that all children are born with the intellectual capacity to be successful in school. If research has proven this, why are children still failing? It’s my opinion that systems of implicit bias are in place and are self-perpetuating this vicious cycle. This is a system problem, not a student problem.
The Struggle with Implicit Bias is Real
I currently work in the St. Cloud, Minnesota area. Over the last 10 years, St. Cloud has seen a tremendous increase in the number of students of color who attend its schools. In some schools, over 50% of the students are students of color while 90% of the teachers are White. I have spoken to a number of teachers and learned that many of them grew up in St. Cloud, went to college in St Cloud, and now work in St. Cloud. Many of these teachers are struggling with the changes in social and cultural norms they are witnessing. Everything these teachers have learned about their community and how they fit into its social structure is changing. It’s been my experience that change can be very difficult for some teachers and it’s with these teachers that the harm of implicit bias is realized.
This is a Call to Action
Schools and school districts have a responsibility to dismantle systems that perpetuate implicit bias and negative social norms to ensure that ALL students have equitable opportunities to succeed and thrive. One approach is through professional development. I have attended a great number of professional learning sessions over the last 13 school years. Everything from Courageous Conversations About Race to Pedagogy of Confidence. One of the best trainings I’ve experienced was based on a book written by Sean Archer called The Happiness Advantage. This training addressed positive and negative social norms. What I appreciated the most was that our district leaders rolled out this training to every employee in the district. The Happiness Advantage training allowed teachers, administrators, lunchroom staff, and custodial staff to take the same training at the same time. There was no shame or blame in the training and it was OK for people to be where they were on their journey.
Trainings like those mentioned above require a financial commitment. Although budgets are strapped right now in response to COVID-19, this shouldn’t be used as a reason not to seek out professional learning. Low and no cost opportunities exist. One example is a training supported by the Minnesota Department of Education called Managing Unconscious Bias. This training is grounded in research and presented in an easy-to-understand and flexile format. Another professional development training option is the Implicit Bias Module Series produced by Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. This four-module series covers what implicit bias is, its origins, and what it looks like in action. Harvard’s Project Implicit is a great way to start a dialog about implicit bias and NPR has a very good podcast, The Mind of The Village: Understanding Our Implicit Biases. With all the free trainings that are available, I will say this: how a school or school district allocates its resources is an indicator of what is deemed important. As Director of Equity Services in St. Cloud, Minnesota, I was given a budget and had the ability to allocate those funds to address implicit bias and educational equity. Education leaders must make professional learning around implicit bias a priority. Without it, the education system will continue to harm children.
Every day that I walk into my school, I work very hard to see each student as if they were my own child. I ask myself, “How would I want a principal, teacher, bus driver, or whoever comes into contact with my child to treat them, especially if they knew my child was hurting?” Enough is enough!! We’ve let implicit bias fester in our education system for far too long. As educators, we need to get honest with ourselves about the role implicit bias plays in creating school conditions that contribute to unsafe emotional and physical experiences for students. It’s our responsibility to our students, their families, and our communities. We must stop creating systems and policies that oppress and hurt our children and replace them with systems and policies that meet our children’s academic, mental, physical, and social-emotional needs.
I leave you with a quote given to me by Paul Kinney, the first principal of Apollo High School in St. Cloud. Mr. Kinney told me, “We do not know if change will bring a better condition, but we will never have a better condition unless we are willing to change.” We must reflect, acknowledge, and then create the learning environments that our children deserve.
Al Johnson is principal at McKinley Area Learning Center in Minnesota’s St. Cloud School District. Prior to assuming his current role, Mr. Johnson served five years as an equity integration specialist in Hopkins, Minnesota, facilitating before and after-school programs. He also served two years as site administrator and a student advocate at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mr. Johnson holds a Bachelor of Science degree and a master’s degree from Northwestern University of St. Paul and is currently completing his doctorate in education at Bethel University.