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Uncovering Your Implicit Biases: An Exercise for Teachers

April 3, 2022


Hedreich Nichols

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Terraced Garden (1920) by Paul Klee, public domain.

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Becoming a more inclusive educator means making shifts in our learning environments to engage all learners, especially those who may lack a strong sense of belonging in our school community. A big part of that shift is uncovering our biases, finding out who we think of as “us” and who we think of as “them.” 

In my book, Finding Your Blind Spots (Amazon | Bookshop.org), I give teachers a framework to systematically discover their own way of “othering,” so that they can course correct in order to give every student a sense of belonging. To help you with that reflection, I’m offering eight questions central to finding your implicit biases and areas you need to work on in order to become a more inclusive, culturally responsible educator. 

If you tend to be more a doer than a thinker, this process may make you impatient; just keep in mind that starting with action before doing the necessary reflection often means actions are doomed from the start. For the doers, I will follow the reflection with some practical next steps, a roadmap that will get you where you need to be in order to better serve students, families and communities.

Part 1: The Questions

These questions don’t need to be answered all at once, but when you do answer them, make sure you set aside time to consider the question, its meaning and how you might use the information to become a better practitioner. Further, make sure you have a no-judgment zone in which to complete this exercise. What you write down should not be judged by others and you should not harshly judge yourself. Your honest responses are the most important factor in this exercise and there are no right or wrong answers. We are all on a journey and the fact that you are here reading this means you are already being intentional about becoming a better educator to all your students. 

  1. How diverse is your personal circle and why does it look like it does? While not having a diverse circle doesn’t mean you are racist, elitist or any other -ist, it probably does mean that you don’t have much experience with people unlike you. 
  1. Who are the ‘others’ in your life? Make a list of 10 people you consider “us” and 10 people you consider “them.” These could be family members, work colleagues, neighbors, students, or anyone with whom you have fairly regular contact. In what ways are the people on your “us” list different from you? How are they similar? What about your ‘others’—how are they different? How are they the same? You can make lists, Venn diagrams, sketchnotes or any other representation to show differences and similarities.
  2. How often do you use generalizations? Take a week and intentionally keep track of the times you use “they” to describe people of a certain color, culture, identity, gender, etc. One common campus generalization is “the Special Ed kids,” as though students under this umbrella are homogenous. Another is the admin/central office “they.”  Teachers often see admin as others. Keep track of “harmless” generalizations as well–”the students,” “the neighbors,” “the football team,” etc.
  3. What is your initial perception when you talk to someone with an accent different from yours, for instance, a customer service rep, parent, or even a student? 
  4. Do you consider the integration of diverse historical perspectives best practice or divisive politics? One example of multiperspectivity is looking at different narratives between the European settlers and Indigenous people in the colonial U.S. For instance, the Thanksgiving story is usually told from the perspectives of the Pilgrims and mainly portrays their struggles for survival. Rarely do we hear of the hardships that the Wampanoag Indians endured or how they were holding feasts of thanks years before the Pilgrims even arrived. Another example of a lesser-known narrative is that of the Powhatan confederation, the Indigenous peoples who lost both land and life due to colonization in Virginia. 
  5. Who is on your “free pass” list? We tend to be more forgiving of those we like and are in agreement with. List five people–friends, students, public figures–whose failings you tend to excuse or write off. Explain also why you tend to “go easy” on them.
  6. When do you tend most toward non-acceptance and judgment? Are your triggers cultural differences? Ideological and religious dissimilarity? In-group/out-group challenges?      
  7. How much cross-cultural literature, TV, and movies do you consume in order to familiarize yourself with what for some is an uncomfortable shift to a more diverse community?       

Part 2: Reflecting on Your Results

As you wrote down your answers, you may have experienced a myriad of feelings, some positive, some more uncomfortable. Mostly, we all have more biases than we would like to think we do. We tend to put ourselves in categories: good people who treat everyone the same and bad people who don’t treat everyone the same. Actually, if that was the case, none of us would be good people. While we try to treat everyone equitably, there are a million conscious and unconscious decisions that hinder us from treating everyone equitably. If you drove in to work without your morning coffee, you can likely think of at least three ways you were less than fair to someone who crossed your path. 

Knowing that, I hope you won’t spend time on feelings of guilt and shame. While guilt can be a motivator, helping us to seek moral change and justice, more often it causes us to feel defensive or worse, it paralyzes us and keeps us from making needed changes. We all think things and feel things we “shouldn’t,” but if you begin by judging yourself, you’ll never get to a place where you don’t judge others. 

On the other side of guilt, however, is an awakening, a fiery desire for change. While this may sound like a recipe for forward motion, it can also wreak havoc on a community. Well-meaning calls to action may seem helpful, but an I-know-better-than-you urgency may be off-putting and cause people to throw up walls before they can even understand how crucially change is needed. Just because change is needed doesn’t mean that people in your circle are ready to change when and how you want them to. Begin with things you can do on your own and if those go well, consider finding accountability partners, one or two people who can support you in any personal or classroom initiatives.

Part 3: Next Steps (and What Not to Do)

You have asked yourself some hard questions and dealt with your feelings about what you’ve found out about yourself. Now, here are six easily implementable strategies you can put into action, plus two important don’ts.

  1. Broaden your circle. If you teach in a different community from where you live, make it a priority to go to restaurants or a fitness class in your school community, visit the playground with your children, or take part in an event hosted by the library or place of worship. If you teach in the same community where you live, make it a point to seek out more of these experiences. If you have a family, make it a family affair. The shift will birth new conversations at your dinner table and you will have the opportunity to cement your thoughts on empathy vs. othering with those you care most about. If you’re White, you may at times feel like you’re getting some “what are you doing here” looks, but that’s a learning experience as well. Enriching your daily life with new experiences in different places with different people builds empathy and helps you better relate to people as a teacher and human being. 
  2. Practice empathy with the “others” already in your life, maybe even those who trigger you most. Remember the list of 10 “others” you made? Next time your brother comes over and stays all Sunday watching game after game and “keeping your husband from the family,” think about what the experience might be giving him. Maybe being with his brother in a home with food and family provides a welcome respite to his single-life existence. And although your neighbor may talk incessantly about the latest labels and fashion trends, can you imagine why that topic is so dear to her? Maybe she came from a family without much money and this is her way of trying to fit in.

    Similarly, be intentional about building relationships with students you have less of a connection with. Play This or That or Would You Rather to get to know them on a human level, then capitalize on the knowledge in order to strengthen your relationships: “Hey Johnny, I see you and I really have a lot in common when it comes to food and animals! How many pets would you have if you could?” Or  “I see you and I both feel strongly about the ice cream we like. Tell me why I should eat more chocolate ice cream and less vanilla? Let’s organize a tasting party for Fun Friday!” Again, especially if it’s mid-year in middle school, you might get some suspicious looks, and that’s ok. You won’t see every seed bear fruit, but just keep planting.
  3. Monitor your daily intake of media. Media companies and the 24-hour news cycle are money-making entities; opinions about actual news that keep you “in your feelings” are gold for them. If you are constantly angry at “others” you won’t be able to fully embrace the children of those ‘others’ in your classroom. Further, it will be unlikely that you will teach your students to embrace others if you are all firmly planted on one side. In order to maintain a safe classroom space for all students, decide how much media consumption you personally need to be informed. Then spend time consuming media that calms and centers you. Better yet, take an extra walk around the block. We are most likely to act on our baser impulses when we are stressed. Anger—especially from the person designated as the person to manage classroom culture—disrupts neutrality and upends the emotional balance of the classroom. Biased perspectives also shade classroom interactions, adversely affecting relationships with and between students who have divergent opinions. Staying balanced and calm will give you the mental space you need to be reflective in your interactions with all your students, especially your “others.”
  1. Know the difference between communication barriers and content barriers. Communication can be a barrier to learning and that can play out in many different ways. We may assume, in error, that people with accents don’t understand the concepts we are teaching, that students don’t read or decode well, or that children come from a disadvantaged background and may be low-performing. The reality may be that students don’t understand certain mathematical terminology, the colors and fonts on our slideshows may not be dyslexia-friendly, or that the “general knowledge” terms and situations used in word problems may only be general knowledge in upper middle class settings. So learn a second language, learn more about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and its structure, and learn more about designing presentations for accessibility. Know your content AND how to bridge content so it is accessible for all learners.
  2. Keep a log on whose behaviors you correct in class over two weeks. Look for patterns and allow no rationalizations. Let the pattern speak for itself. Then learn more about cognitive biases and be intentional about mitigating your own. Once you realize how many cognitive biases guide our thinking on a daily basis, you can be more intentional and less reactive. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
  3. Understand that bias in classrooms is not confined to the biases of people in the classroom. Every bit of curricular material has been written by a person with perspectives and biases, whether intentional or unintentional. To learn more about biases in textbooks, look for exceedingly positive or negative portrayals of events and people. To unearth slants in media and current event portrayals, use tools like the non-partisan AllSides Media bias chart and fact checkers. Use language like, “according to this source” and “the authors of this textbook state…”. Also, consider asking the question, “whose stories are missing, who else was there?” to teach students about the most important bias, silence.

And now for a couple of don’ts.

  1. Don’t assume that content knowledge is static. Everything evolves. We used to think the world was flat, exercise in pregnancy was bad, and everyone needed eight hours of sleep. As more artifacts and documents are unearthed, we can now round out truths. With the realization that history is someone’s documentation of a set of events from a certain perspective, we are free to seek out diverse perspectives. Just as no one suggests bloodletting to cure cancer, let’s be open to taking in new knowledge and helping our students become critical thinkers.
  2. Don’t get defensive. When a student or staff member tells you a comment or action has offended them, don’t assume they are being too sensitive, too easily offended or “taking it wrong.” When someone trusts you enough to tell you how an interaction has made them feel, apologize, then ask for clarification and an explanation of how they feel you could handle the interaction better in the future. Don’t, under any circumstances, make excuses for why you did whatever it was.

    A list of excuses that are not reasons in the eyes of the offended:
    * I’m old, forgive me.
    * I didn’t grow up around (Mexicans, Asians, Black people, etc.).
    * Well, y’all change it all the time.
    * I don’t believe in all that.
    * You can’t say anything anymore
    * How am I supposed to know?
    * I can’t keep up.
    * I didn’t mean it like that/I didn’t mean anything by it.

Bonus: Get to know current and evolving terminology. Chapter 3 of Finding Your Blind Spots is full of resources and explanations; here are two examples: ‘Orientals’ and ‘Indians’ are not appropriate terms for Asians and Native Americans; and using an article before the name of a cultural group (the Blacks, the gays) is akin to saying those people.

Creating inclusive classrooms and campuses takes more than celebrating months and buying diverse materials and Colors of the World crayons. Being intentional about our cognitive processes as educators and as humans is central to understanding how we uphold and perpetuate biased structures and systems. Once we understand how often we value some and devalue others, we can do more than put a band-aid on the existing problem. We can begin to normalize diverse populations being a part of our school day, regardless of the population make-up of our school community.

It sounds like a heavy lift, something to add to an already overflowing plate. It sounds like there are a million ways that your intentions could be misread. They probably will be, but don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Fail up!


I advocate working on becoming a more inclusive educator on my podcast, #SmallBites. How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time.


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7 Comments

  1. Charlotte Moore says:

    I find it ironic that the title of this post includes the term “blind spots.”

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Charlotte, thank you for pointing this out. It was an oversight, and there will be some revisions made to the language in this post.

  2. Megan says:

    This is fantastic. Thank you so much! One thing that’s important to mention: “American Indian” or “Indian” are actually terms that are sometimes preferred by some nations.
    “American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native are acceptable and often used interchangeably in the United States; however, Native Peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. To find out which term is best, ask the person or group which term they prefer. When talking about Native groups or people, use the terminology the members of the community use to describe themselves collectively. There are also several terms used to refer to Native Peoples in other regions of the Western Hemisphere. The Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut Peoples in the Arctic see themselves as culturally separate from Indians. In Canada, people refer to themselves as First Nations, First Peoples, or Aboriginal. In Mexico, Central America, and South America,the direct translation for Indian can have negative connotations. As a result, they prefer the Spanish word indígena (Indigenous), comunidad (community), and pueblo (people).”

    https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/informational/impact-words-tips

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Megan, thanks for sharing this resource! I agree that the best rule of thumb, whenever possible, is to simply ask the individual or group what their preferred term is.

    • Spot on! As a matter of fact, much of the language in treaties and legal documents uses ‘American Indian’. It’s something I cover in the book: be as specific as possible and most importantly, it’s ok not to be sure, just ask.

  3. Regina says:

    Thanks for this timely and practical post! I like the simple questions and guidelines that we can all apply to our thinking inside and outside the classroom. I’ve attended so many workshops where I, as “the” African American teacher, felt under the spotlight. Some of my colleagues spoke in their child-like voices to me and expressed new epiphanies while others did nothing to hide their obvious annoyance at having to participate in the workshops at all. This is why I love the “List of excuses”, and the “Dos and Don’ts” these are easy to read, apply, and start a discussion or provide time for reflection.

  4. Ryan Miller says:

    This is an important post. For educators to be effective change agents, it is essential they begin with self-reflection regarding their biases. What is particularly important here is your discussion of feelings of guilt and shame. These negative feelings can stop reflection dead in its tracks. The truth is we are all products of the cultures we were socialized into, and this means we inevitably absorbed certain biases, stereotypes, and prejudices toward different groups of people. Much of this process plays out unconsciously; growing up, we don’t choose the messages that bombard us from parents, peers, and the media. This is why it’s so crucial you mention remaining nonjudgemental of yourself throughout this journey. Thank you for posting!

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