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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