I attempted to measure my implicit bias in the classroom


At the end of the school year, in addition to the standard feedback surveys, I had my kids complete an anonymous implicit bias survey on me. On the survey, I had three questions. For the first two, I listed every kid in the class and asked them:

  • Which three kids in the class do you think I favored the MOST?
  • Which three kids in the class do you think I favored the LEAST?

For the third question, students had to identify what I do that gives them these impressions. This one was multiple choice with an “other: ____” option.

It’s important to note that students had to choose particular students; there was no “Mr. P is not biased” option for the first two questions. A colleague mentioned that this might make kids feel boxed in, especially if they truly felt I held no bias towards any student in the class. This was a fair concern, but my thinking was that if a large number of students felt that I was unbiased, and I still forced them to pick, then the data would simply capture my unbiased tendencies; my “favoritism” would be evenly distributed across everyone in the class. There would be no clear favorite or least favorite student since each kid in this group who thought I was unbiased would choose someone at random to simply answer the question. Full disclosure: I could be way off about this.

I also think that by forcing students to choose and not giving them an opt-out, I was asking them to question their own implicit biases when it comes to their teachers being unbiased. Teachers strive to serve students fairly and justly, but is this possible? Are their teachers really as unbiased as they say? On the surface, things may look unbiased and fair, but as their teacher, I’m confident that I have biases (e.g. what I get excited about or how I gravitate to a student’s previous experiences or who I tend to call on). My hope is that this survey could help them realize — in a small way — that implicit bias and its impact are both unintentional but still natural phenomena.

Another interesting aspect of this survey revolves around equity. Every kid in the class has a set of unique needs that require a unique response from me. I can’t treat everyone the same or I would have a bigger problem on my hands. A kid with autism, for example, might not respond well to eye contact, and so I might never give it. Or what if I know a student has lost a loved one, but no one else in the class does, and I elect to leave them be when they put their head down for the entire period? These sorts of scenarios play out every day in the classroom at various levels of severity, and students often never know why we teachers do what we do. Nonetheless, over the course of an entire school year, I wonder how the sum total of my decisions and actions in the classroom appear to students. How does what I do or say make them feel about how I feel about other kids in the class? Does what I do (or not do) make students feel a certain way about who I favor or not favor? How does this impact how they feel in our class? Though they may not know why I’m doing what I do, how it appears to them matters. And I may be blind to that without asking them to identify it for me.

So, anyway, I gave the survey to four classes. Here are the responses from one class (names are blocked out):

I’ve looked over the results a couple of times and I’m still not sure how to interpret them. In all of the classes, I noticed that some of the kids who were ranked as my least favorite where all quieter, more reserved students. Did the majority of the class believe I am not biased, but instead of choosing some random person in the class (like I talked about above), chose peers who were less outwardly engaged during class? One student even commented, “I don’t particularly think you have a least favorite, but _____ was not in class for a large period of time because she took a trip so I put her down.” At the same time, it’s likely that I did favor these students less than I realized. Could I have been more public in my appreciation and validation of them? Besides, across all classes, the majority of kids selected “Who he calls on during class” as their reason for choosing the students that they did. Reflecting on the matter, while I try to remain balanced, I have a terrible habit of relying far too much on certain students, especially in certain scenarios. Interestingly, my quieter students also received far fewer votes for most favored.

The converse was also true: many of the more vocal, more participatory kids were voted as the students who I favored the most. This wasn’t always the case, but I certainly did see a trend. Surprisingly, a few students who I thought I favored more conspicuously than most didn’t get voted as most favored.

Another thought: I make it an absolute priority to create a personal bond with each and every student, whether it be a handshake, an ongoing joke, attending their games, or learning and remembering their passions. I do wonder how these small connections come off to students. For their rationale on the survey, two students mentioned that “he seems more interested in certain people than in others” and “the little ‘things’ he has with each person shows a lot. I feel like the ppl I put that he favored least never really had a ‘thing.’ ” I think being more systematic about these connections (e.g. tabulating them) could help me be better in this area.

Through all this haze, I can’t help but think that I’m seeing what I want to see in the data. Confirmation bias is no doubt alive and well in these reflections of mine. Planting a seed: It might be worth my while to have someone examine the data who knows nothing about my students and the relationships I have with them. Maybe a colleague and I could do this survey next year and interpret each other’s data?

I’m also wondering how else I might slice up the results. How can I complicate it? Take gender, for example. Would the survey results show a bias I have towards certain gender identities in the room? What about race and ethnicity? The overwhelmingly majority of my students are black and latinx with a low percentage of asian and white students. If I pursued it, what would that angle say about me? What about body type? What about students with special needs? What about grades? Do I appear to favor (or not favor) students with higher or lower averages? What if I somehow found a way to compare classes? What would that reveal about the biases I have for specific classes over others?

So many questions. So much to think about. While I’m leaving with few answers from a survey that I hoped would give me revelations, maybe that’s a good thing. To be continued.



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As a white person,

For the last several years — and especially in the last several months — I have often found myself prefacing things I say with those words.

As a white person, I try to be conscious of what I read.
As a white person, I teach high school mathematics in the Bronx.
As a white person, I notice that this room is filled with nothing but other white people.
As a white person, I have a lot to learn.

In a meeting this week with colleagues who I respect dearly, I once again caught myself using those three words to precede a statement. Saying it wasn’t new to me, but my colleagues, who were a mixed-race group, good-heartedly laughed at me and poked fun. “Of course you’re white!” a few of them said. I laughed too. They were right, and I didn’t need to say it, but in the moment, before I finished whatever it was that I was going to say, I selfishly used a few minutes to reflect on why I feel the need to say “As a white person,” so often.

Those few minutes of public blabbering helped me realize that, on a personal level, using that phrase is my small way of pushing back against white supremacy. By uttering it so frequently, it reminds me that I am white and that I walk through this world with a white frame of reference. It helps me place my conscience in a white context. Before I open my mouth and say something that perpetuates racist ideas, which I have often done, those three words slow me down. They don’t stop me for saying or doing racist things, but they do remind me that my white privileges played a role in whatever it is I’m about to say.

Using those words regularly is also important for me because of how white supremacy works to keep white people oblivious to their inherent and unearned advantages. As a good-meaning, progressive white person, it doesn’t want me to confess my whiteness; my racial ignorance is a big part of what keeps it alive. For the first three decades of my life, like many other “good” white people, I was colorblind. I didn’t acknowledge race because I never had to. Race never affected my life in any significant way. Ignoring race was a personal choice that I never interrogated, but it was also the direct result of the socialization that comes with living in our white suprematist society. We swim in an anti-black, anti-brown culture and I do nothing but reinforce its racist norms if I refuse to speak of my race out loud. Having not done this for so long, I am disappointed. But it’s all the more reason why I find myself pushing the words “As a white person,” out of my mouth as much as I do. They help me break rank — however briefly — with white supremacy. Those words allow me to outwardly recognize my race, which white supremacy wants only to conceal.



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Haiku #7

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing haiku about my teaching practice. This is the seventh post in the series.

A few years ago I was at a book fair and learned about blackout poetry. It’s a form of poetry where the poet takes an article or other piece of writing and removes — or blacks out — a bunch of its text. The words that remain after all of the crossing out is the resulting “blackout poem.”

I’ve never written blackout poetry, but I find the idea fascinating and want to create some not using newspaper or magazine articles, but my blogposts. Since I’ve been into haiku for awhile, why not double up and make my first few blackout poems haiku? My blog, my rules!

To play off the syllabic structure of haiku (5-7-5), in the coming weeks I will attempt to write three “blackout haiku” using my 5th, 12th (5+7), and 17th (5+7+5) blog posts. This post features my 5th blog post, which I published on September 14, 2014. It details a classroom economy that I have long since abandoned, but still think is pretty interesting. Here is my blackout of the post:

My resulting “blackout” haiku:

find the little things
earn love, tally how much sums
no tax to mimic

I really appreciated the process, but subtracting that much text to get down to 17 syllables was surprisingly hard. You would think that you would have so much to choose from that’d it be easy! No, no, no. There was lots of combing through, counting, simplifying my ideas, and then recounting. Despite the challenge, the simplicity and structure of haiku is why I’m drawn to it, so I guess that’s why I getting rid of so much text. Food for thought: I was conflicted on whether I wanted the poem to reflect a compact version of the original blogpost or be something independent, which is what it turned out to be. It would have been interesting to go the other route.


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Why versus what (Murd Letter #3)

My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other this summer and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the anti-racist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the third post in the series.

Murd,

Thanks for getting back to me so fast! I was caught off guard by quickly you responded. The truth is, when you sent your response, I was actually still processing what I wrote; I was still trying to figure out what I discovered about myself through those 1,151 words. This normal for me. Even beyond our letters, I often do not know what I know nor feel what I feel until I find the words to capture it. This process of self-discovery causes me to reflect on what I write long after I write it.

Looking back on my last letter, I find it tantalizingly interesting that I shared my enthusiasm for abolitionist teaching with you…on the eve of the day that our nation celebrates its independence. The timing!

I’m so happy you’re making progress with your reading list! There is so much being thrown at us these days, it can be hard to dedicate time to some form of anti-racist work and not feel like we’re missing out on something else. Hats off to you. When you get around to reading We Want to do More than Survive, please let me know. And speaking of Crest of the Peacock, I’m about halfway through it. It’s super dope! Can’t wait to talk to you about both.

I really appreciated your thoughts on “fighting while we learn” and being “slow and measured.” Similar to you, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive ideals. True learning, when done honestly and openly, is in itself an action. You’re changing yourself, and this takes time. In Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad talks about exploring and unpacking white supremacy on the individual level and allowing this personal work to cause “a ripple effect of actionable change of how white supremacy is upheld out there.” She goes on to say that white supremacy is “a system that has been designed to keep you asleep and unaware of what having that privilege, protection, and power has meant for people who do not look like you.” Dismantling white supremacy requires action, no doubt, but it must be done “from the inside out, one person, one family, one business, and one community at a time.”

In case you’re wondering, Me and White Supremacy is marked as “Always Available” as an NYPL ebook. Maybe later this summer we read it together and check in with each other on the writing aspect of the book? I don’t think we have to finish it by the end of summer — maybe we use it as an excuse to continue writing each other after the school year begins? :-)

On a related note, earlier today I was reading a recent statement from TODOS on antiracist mathematics. Near the end, it talks about math teachers rushing to find lessons and activities that focus on matters of racial justice, like those found in Rethinking Mathematics. It emphasizes the importance of these types of actions, but also states that “if we as teachers simply take an activity and implement it in our classrooms without first doing the self-reflective work to understand how we all are impacted by racial trauma, then we may not be able to engage with the lesson in ways that are positively impactful for students.”

I have found that I’ve only been able to take meaningful anti-racist action in my classroom after I’ve done a considerable amount of racial soul searching and personal research. Of course, there came a time when I had to dive in, like I did with the graph of incarcerated Americans, but that happened only after I confronted my own racist patterns through reading, writing, and learning from other teachers (like Wendy Menard and Jose Vilson). Hell, these outward-facing letters I’m writing you are in themselves anti-racist actions that are the direct result of the personal work that I’ve done and continue to do. I would have never felt the need to write these public letters had I not first started seriously interrogating my whiteness.

Come to think of it, all of my racial soul searching enables me to continually discover my why when it comes to anti-racist action. And knowing my why makes my what (the actions I take) more clear and more impactful. Whatever anti-racist actions I do end up taking undoubtably then lead to more racial soul searching, more revision of my why, which then informs more anti-racist action. And so it goes.

Taking action is surely doable — I can implement anti-racist lessons all I want, for example — but without identifying my why, these actions can actually do more harm than good. In a sense, without doing the dirty work of reckoning with my purpose, my actions are hollow. This is akin to being an ally versus being a coconspirator in the fight for racial justice. It takes time to get to the heart of the matter, but when you do, you don’t have to push yourself to act. You are pulled. I would do good to remember this.

You mentioned your (lack of) transformation as a teacher. Sometimes I think about the end of my teaching career. I wonder about the moment that I step away from the classroom. Will I have regrets? Will I have closure? Will I look back and wonder what it would have been like to _______? (fill in the blank) Did I do right by my students or did I do what the system said I had to? What drives my work in and out of the classroom are those questions. Whatever school I’m at, whoever my students are, I want to make sure that I have left everything on the table during the previous 30 years. If there’s a big idea that I’ve been toying with, if there’s a way to reimagine my teaching, if there’s something that others think is crazy, I want to ensure that I try it. I may fail, but at least I tried and can look back and smile at my efforts. (And probably learn something important about myself in the process.)

Blowing up my teaching or going after a radical idea every few years involves huge risks — especially when you’re part of a school system that is constantly changing. But with the end in mind, I find those risks are absolutely worth taking. With that being said, I wonder what the next “big” thing is for you. I guess we’ll see.

Talk soon.

Finding my why,
Brian