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Unpacking Authority and Implicit Bias in Schools

By The Room 241 Team September 10, 2018

The concepts of compliance and authority are firmly rooted in many of our nation’s schools and classrooms. These precepts still ping around our learning institutions, driven by implicit bias and preserving a profound disconnect between students and learning. Teachers hold the key to unpacking authority and bias in classrooms to truly transform the learning experiences of our students. Here’s a look at how to begin this crucial work.

The assumptions of authority

When examining authority and bias in the classroom, we must first uncover the assumptions — often subconscious assumptions — that educators make about students. This is not to say that teachers walk around broadly proclaiming that students are incapable of self-regulation or devoid of integrity, but it’s important to be aware of the underlying assumptions our practices convey to students.

Alfie Kohn notes four such assumptions in his classic book Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.

They are:

  1. “If the teacher isn’t in control of the classroom, the most likely result is chaos.
  2. Children need to be told exactly what the adult expects of them, as well as what will happen if they don’t do what they’re told.
  3. You need to give positive reinforcement to a child who does something nice if you want him to keep acting that way.
  4. At the heart of moral education is the need to help people control their impulses.”

When we continuously operate under these beliefs, the need to police learning spaces and manage students becomes our dominant drive. Students in this type of space learn to follow authority because questioning or rebelling leads to punishment. They learn to work toward a reward that comes in the form of grades, praise, or merely the avoidance of a penalty.

“We don’t even explore who ‘We the People’ might be in schools,” says veteran educator and school reform leader Deborah Meier. “And we stay away from too much interest in questioning power, a habit central to democracy. These two statements — ‘I told you to’ and ‘I have no choice either’ — are, in schools, the strongest argument made by adults to children. Democracy doesn’t come to us naturally although it’s not unnatural either. Every mammal I can think of raises its young to obey, and no mammals raise their young to resist adult authority. What democracy rests on, though, is a natural impulse to be free.”

It can be argued then that a purely compliance-based system actually hinders the development of our young learners in becoming thinkers and citizens who question, stand up, and embody the activism of democracy.

Unpacking the race bias

Implicit bias in education has been proven in many studies to not only be present in K-12 schools, but extremely consequential. A study out of the Yale Child Study Center showed these biases even appear as early as pre-school. Implicit bias shapes teacher expectations, student performance, teacher-student relationships, and school discipline.

In fact, according to a report published in March 2018 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools. These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended. For example, black students accounted for 15.5% of all public school students, but represented about 39% of students suspended from school — an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points.”

Implicit bias extends into deeply embedded school practices that can have long-term effects for students of color. The school-to-prison pipeline is a phenomenon that occurs when students are pushed out of the classroom and into a cycle of punishment that leaves them distanced from their education and fed into the criminal justice system.

Looking at your state’s past and present

“Understanding bias needs to be a deep dive,” says 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham.

“I was bothered by the graduation rates in Oregon and the discrepancy between white graduates and graduates of color. This was hard for me to understand because I know so many teachers and administrators who are doing really good work fighting bias in their schools. I decided to look deeper into the school system and what I found was unsettling.

Oregon was the only state admitted to the union that barred blacks from owning property. The legislators who voted that law into being also voted in a law that said if a slave was freed in Oregon they would be beaten regularly if they did not leave the state. The white men who wrote those laws also created our schools. If they were so blatant in their racism in writing their laws, then who is to say the hidden, systemic racism we face is not inherent in the school system they created? These words were in the Oregon Constitution until removed in 2000: ‘No free Negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate…’  If you were an Oregon student in a civics class in the 20th century, that was in our Constitution. Our black students read those words. The same legislators who refused to remove those words until 135 years after the end of slavery are the same ones who upgraded our education system over the years. Can we trust a system created by people who did not see people of color as equal?”

There is clearly a great deal of work to be done, and it’s important to recognize, as Bigham has, those who are addressing race bias in their learning communities today.

Analyzing compliance and obedience in schools

“A school culture of compliance and obedience can be counterintuitive to creating a safe and supportive environment for students who need it the most,” says Washington D.C.-based school psychologist and creator of the Big Five app for educators, Dr. Byron McClure. “Schools with a culture of compliance often have inherently biased policies, which force students to comply to rules or otherwise face harsh consequences such as suspension or expulsion. These unfair practices often negatively and disproportionately impact youths of color, especially students from high-poverty communities. These children often receive more disciplinary referrals and are suspended or expelled from school as a result of zero-tolerance policies. This is harmful because students who are removed from school are at a higher risk for grade retention, dropping out of school, and incarceration.”

Most educators would not consider themselves racist or biased, but through genuine examination of our assumptions, practices, and values in the classroom, it becomes evident that teacher authority and compliance are ingrained in classroom practice and that implicit bias can dictate how we apply those principles and methods.

“Obedience and authority are elements of a prison society,” says Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, a Racial Equity Instructional Coach in Minnesota. “We spend so much time trying to form students into compliant beings and hold that as the standard of a civil society, but compliant, docile beings don’t make great leaders. We say that we, as educators, want to prepare students for society, but our actions are antithetical to that preparation. We are preparing white students for their role in society and we are preparing black students for their role in prison, whether we admit it or not. If we were really preparing them, we would encourage debate, risk-taking, and independent thinking for all students, not just for white students.”

Shifting our practice

The first step toward disrupting implicit bias in your classroom is to truly audit your own biases. Routinely and honestly ask yourself, “What biases do I have toward this student?” It is important to do this, especially when feeling frustrated or upset with a student, as these emotions can influence how you handle stressful situations and encounters. Get into the habit of mindfully interrupting your assumptions and redirecting them. Be honest about any discomforts and confusion you might feel. This is challenging work, and you might find yourself alarmed when you get honest about your biases. But that raw discovery can lead to real growth, and that growth can impact every student you teach.

“Until teachers, administrators, and all involved in the education system feel the urgency for change for the sake of the lives of their students, this cycle of complacency will continue within the education system,” says educator Martha Almendarez Langland. “Educators and administrators have the power to create change and address implicit bias rooted in compliance and power, by the way in which they create relationships with all involved during the educational experience…introspection and reflection need to occur” and, Langland says, educators need “partnerships that provide insights, support, and questioning of the implicit bias that we all come with on a daily basis.”

Building relationships and practicing culturally responsive teaching

Another important step is to prioritize empathy. By getting to know your students, and developing strong relationships, we cultivate a deep well of empathy that connects us and transitions the teacher-student relationship from authoritarian and follower to teacher and learner.

“Teachers can combat these habits and biases through intentional empathy and culturally responsive practices,” says Director of High School Education for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, Dr. Thomas E. Ferrell, Jr. “It’s critical for all teachers to know…to truly know their students. Teachers have to understand what their students love, fear, get excited about, their values, their hopes, and dreams. Without knowing their students deeply, teachers are only sharing content, not creating meaningful learning experiences for students. In order for students (those considered to not be compliant) to be deeply engaged in school, they have to see themselves, the people, and the things that they value in the content.”

At Concordia University-Portland’s recent half-day summit on responsive and responsible teaching with TeachingPartners, Dr. Jill Bryant of Portland Public Schools noted that “Caring adult relationships are the number one protective factor for kids, and relationships lie at the heart of trauma-sensitive practices…We can help students build new neural pathways, by showing them how their minds and bodies respond to stress, regulatory activities they can do, and by teaching them healthy coping mechanisms so that they can move through adversity and become more resilient.”

Schools and educators must relinquish the inclination to merely regulate students in compliance-based classrooms and instead emphasize social-emotional learning with restorative and relationship-based practices that leave students more open and authentically engaged. “Schools must create environments that are safe, warm, compassionate, welcoming, and restorative,” says Dr. Byron McClure. “Proactive approaches should be implemented across tiered levels of support to meet the social-emotional needs of all children. Lastly, schools should consider shifting to more trauma-informed and restorative-centered practices in order to repair harm and build relationships with students, staff, and the entire school community.”

None of this is to say that students won’t ever act out or require guidance, but an educator who has done the work to unpack their biases and develop a compassionate practice can better serve their students long-term. “Teachers who assume that children are capable of acting virtuously can likewise set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can create an ‘auspicious’ circle rather than the more familiar vicious one,” says author Alfie Kohn. Our kids, surely, deserve our trust.

Keep learning by following the experts mentioned in this post:

Jennifer Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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