Educators & Diversity: How Teachers Can Tackle Implicit Bias & Create More Equitable Learning Environments

Some studies suggest white teachers have lower expectations of students of color, and it has been well documented in Kentucky and across the nation that students of color receive disciplinary remediation from school administration at higher rates, sometimes 3 to 4 times more on average, than their white counterparts.

As a white former assistant principal, this statistic really hits me hard. If you were to look at my record of suspensions and detentions, it would probably align roughly with those statistics, which leads me to reflect:

  • Were my implicit biases driving my decisions around discipline? (Perception Institute defines implicit bias as having “attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.”)
  • Was I inherently more likely to suspend students of color than white students?
  • Was I ever the unknowing deliverer of “microaggressions” that hurt my students? (Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.)

It is difficult to analyze those past interactions today. I do know, however, that I was serving in that administrative role with little intentional training around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and Cultural Competency. It wasn’t until I started working in a much more diverse school that I had to confront my own biases. So the above terminology — and the rude awakening that educators are often perpetrators of inequity without meaning to be — are fairly new to me.

In contrast, plug “Dr. Roger Cleveland equity” into your internet search engine, and you’ll find an educator that has focused his career on DEI and Cultural Competency training. He has taught at multiple universities, was an integral part of founding a school in Lexington, Kentucky, known as Carter G. Woodson Academy, and serves as the Director of the Center for Research in the Eradication of Educational Disparities at Kentucky State University. Luckily for me, and for the Kentucky Teacher Fellows (TFs) I lead in my home state, Dr. Cleveland spared time on his weekend to deliver some of his expertise in-person at our fall convening, through a training session he titled Implicit Bias in the Classroom. Dr. Cleveland’s offering of expertise was timely as the TFs’ peer-led data collection on these same topics was to launch the following week.

Mandatory DEI and cultural competency training must be priority, even above instructional pedagogy, if “expectation gaps” and achievement gaps are to be addressed effectively. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color, in addition to the lopsided disciplinary measures, are driven by a lack of educator training. Teachers and administrators that lack proper DEI and cultural competency training cannot effectively address the needs of students from diverse backgrounds, and may inadvertently hinder their success due to a combination of implicit bias and uninformed practices.

During the training, Dr. Cleveland had the Teacher Fellows reflect on the consequences of not honoring all aspects of students’ identities. “What do the students have to give up of their identity to be successful in your schools? Anytime you tell students you cannot do this or this because…of gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation…this message students receive is, ‘school is not for me’. That is the conversation I want you all to have with your colleagues.”

This is true of the vast majority of people. When you feel like you don’t belong, you don’t want to engage. You don’t want to be there, and you leave. But the backlash of dropping out of a social gathering or conference pale in comparison to the consequences of a student dropping out of school, or worse. During our discussion, TF Tricia Weiderman mentioned, “Our Student Voice data suggests that a low percentage of our students feel disconnected with the school. It is easy for some teachers to brush this off as a non-issue. But one disconnected student is too many.” Dr. Cleveland affirmed her sentiment with a powerful statement, “That one student suicide affects school community. That one school shooter affects school community.” The stakes are high, indeed.

The aforementioned fall 2018 data collection, facilitated now through the end of October by the Kentucky TFs through in-person focus groups and an online survey, is focused on gathering educator perception data around equity training and preparation. What needs exist around cultural competency and equity training? What educator prep programs have intentional focus of DEI and cultural competency embedded within their curricula? What districts include DEI and cultural competency in mandatory professional development for their employees? Previous data collections have been built specifically for classroom teachers, but this data collection is targeting all elementary and secondary educators, including building and district administrators, counselors, para-professionals, and classified staff. Every person that works daily with students must receive intentional coaching on how to best serve those students, and our goal is to determine where that is happening, and where it is not.

This is relevant for all educators, wherever they are, even if it seems as though everyone in their community looks the same. Equity is broader than race or ethnicity — it touches special education, the LGBTQ+ community, religious practices, socioeconomics, and access to technology.
Nearly all of the training I have received around DEI and cultural competency — until my recent work with Hope Street Group and Kentucky State University, through an innovative partnership I’ll discuss in detail in a future post called the Opportunity Access Network — has been informal dialogue and shared resources from knowledgeable colleagues. I believe that no educator chooses this career path with the intention to be unfair to students. But I do fear that unchecked implicit bias, coupled with student frustration from experiencing microaggressions from teacher after teacher who is untrained in how to best understand and serve them, plays a part in driving those grim statistics. So how can we do better, from where we are, to meet the needs of all students?

Strategies for Educators:

1. Determine what DEI training exists (and evaluate its effectiveness) for educators, and where such training is lacking in your state. (If you’re an educator in Kentucky, please share you perspectives by 10/31 on this short survey.)

2. Be vulnerable and engage in dialogue with all of your students and their parents. It is important to understand that everyone carries biases, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you.

3. Educate yourself by partnering with groups with equity focus and find tools to support peer educators in your community. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy modules by Sanford Inspire is a great place to start. Tools like Harvard University’s Project Implicit, which is driving Hope Street Group’s staff and Teacher Fellow professional learning around these topics, is also a great way to open up dialogue and start discussions.

4. Be patient, but not too patient. Many of your peer educators will never have studied their implicit biases or analyzed their treatment of students through this lens. Discomfort is inevitable and growing pains are necessary. But remember that the stakes are high, as one disconnected student is too many.

5. Be persistent. An anonymous quote states “In the confrontation between the water and the rock, the water always wins. Not because of its strength, but because of its persistence.” The rock is inequitable treatment of students and the human tendency to be resistant to change. The water is the open-minded educator that longs to support every child and lead their peer educators to do the same.

I look forward to sharing more stories of educators working to close the gaps that prevent our best learning, teaching and growing, for more equitable and ever more diverse education systems.


Stan Torzewski served as an educator for 13 years before moving into his current role as Director of the Opportunity Access Network, the partnership between Kentucky State University and the Hope Street Group Kentucky Teacher Fellows Program, of which Stan also serves as Director. Follow the movements via Twitter @OppAccNetwork and @HSG_KY. Stan tweets @StanTorzewski.

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