C.M. Corner: Unintentional Bias

Travis Chapman

Miscommunication is a common occurrence in everyday life.  However, working in our positions, sometimes that miscommunication can unintentionally cause larger issues.  This can cause students to feel judged, criticized or excluded and in turn, those students will often misbehave because they feel a lack of safety and care.  This week we’re going to delve a bit deeper into how those miscommunications may cross lines of prejudice and discrimination.  Understanding that this is a very sensitive topic, we are going to objectively discuss how this may occur through our language, behavior management, positive attention, and furthermore, what we can do to prevent these situations in the future.
One of the most identifiable culprits to unintentional bias is the language that we use daily.  Most often, we associate this with stereotyping and labeling students based upon their appearance, heritage, orientation, preference, etc.  But this would also extend to asking probing questions about those topics as well, as they are often very personal and cause students to feel uncomfortable and singled out, even if it may be related to the topic.  For example, if you are filling in for a civics teacher and the lesson plan covers the topic of citizenship, it is completely appropriate to discuss what citizenship means as laid out in the lesson plans or course materials.  However, asking the students about their citizenship status, regardless of your intent, would be inappropriate and would result in issues of racism or classism.  We want to ensure that our language itself is not singling out any one individual or group due to race, religious beliefs, heritage, economic status, disability, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Behavior management is another area where it is easy to unintentionally communicate discrimination.  As our schools and communities grow more diverse in every way, how students interact with the class changes as well.  In one of our trainings, we touch on this topic, using the example:
A teacher hears a group of students talking and laughing during work time, rather than working on their assignments.  Immediately, they correct the students in front of the whole class saying, “Excuse me, I’m not sure what you’re discussing, but you need to silently work on your assignments.”  This happens a few more times before the students are dismissed and the group of students becomes frustrated and more belligerent in their discussions.  What the teacher didn’t realize was that all those students have similar cultural backgrounds and there were other students who weren’t focused on their work either, but nothing was said to them. 
While attempting to correct inappropriate behavior, they had unintentionally communicated racism. This was because they were addressing a behavior but weren’t addressing it with all the students.  With behavior, regardless of the classroom you are in, take note of behavior across the classroom first before addressing it and ensure that you are addressing it with all students.  If it is a small group of students, have a private discussion with them rather than a public correction.  If you notice that it extends beyond the students, address the behavior with the class. 
Another consideration is how we utilize our positive attention.  Through numerous studies, positive reinforcement has been found the most effective way to address classroom behavior, which is evident by the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) programs across the country.  So how does that positive attention or redirection communicate bias?  Think about a substitute assignment that you worked where you praised students. Who were you praising?  Was it the same student or group of students all day long?  Were there students that never received an affirming comment from you that day?  Did those students look the same?  Did they speak in a similar manner?  If so, then you may have unintentionally communicated prejudice and bias.  Consider if you were one of the students who did not receive that positive attention.  How would you feel?  You would probably feel a bit upset.  Now imagine you were one of the few students who constantly received that attention, knowing others didn’t.   How would you feel then?  Maybe you would feel awkward and singled out.  Positive attention communicates growth, belief, and value. Through this action, we can give that to each of our students.  We encourage you to notice and find authentic, positive things about each of your students and communicate them. 
Again, this is a sensitive topic to approach, however, it is our responsibility to communicate care and concern for our students.  We can intentionally do this with each of our students by ensuring safe, respectful language, considerate behavior management, and effective positive attention. 
If you would like to take some additional free trainings to gain skills in this area, consider taking Sanford Inspire’s “Teachers as Agents of Change” or “Giving Effective Praise”.  If you would like to discuss these topics further, you can always call our office at 800-713-4439 and speak with our Substitute Services Team.