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President's Perspective

Understanding bias and how it affects us

New York Teacher

One of the great things about being a New York City public school educator is that we have a voice — enshrined in the DOE-UFT contract — in the classroom. We care about our students and we want what’s best for them, and that makes a world of difference for our students, in the classroom and beyond.

That’s why it’s important for us as educators to have conversations about bias in all its forms: age, size, sexual orientation, gender, race and culture. We all carry our own biases — it’s part of the human condition — and we can benefit from a better understanding of how they affect our relationships with others, personally and professionally.

It’s helpful to reflect on how our biases affect our work as educators and how our students’ biases affect how they learn. And I believe that we as public school educators — unlike the rest of society — have the presence of mind to have the conversation in a thoughtful and calm way.

Within the next two years, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has set the goal that every educator in New York City public schools will participate in a workshop on bias. It’s an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we can lessen the negative effects of bias on our students.

Some of the workshops our members have attended have been unhelpful to say the least. The Department of Education’s ambitious timeline led it to hire several outside contractors with questionable approaches that angered some of our members — and led to tabloid stories that inflamed the issue. We relayed our members’ concerns to the DOE, and school officials have told us they are working to address the concerns we’ve raised.

The UFT has had conversations about bias for a long time and in a thoughtful way through its Positive Learning Collaborative. It makes sense that the PLC would be engaged with this issue: Its overall mission is to help all school staff — from the custodian to the principal — understand how to avoid escalating student misbehavior into a crisis by examining their interactions with students and identifying the language that can trigger a negative student reaction or outburst. It requires a level of self-awareness and a willingness to take responsibility for one’s own behavior — and a willingness to change that behavior so all children can learn in a calm classroom environment.

There is real value to discussing bias because it helps us to become better teachers. So many cultures are represented in our classrooms; an educator can unintentionally hurt a child due to misunderstanding the behaviors and mannerisms specific to that child’s culture. To take a simple example, a child’s reluctance to make eye contact may look like an act of evasion, but in many cultures it is a sign of respect for authority.

If we are more aware of our own biases, we will also become more aware of the implicit bias our students may also harbor. Much student bullying is rooted in bias of one sort or another. Talking about bias allows us to reflect not only on ourselves but on our students and how they interact with others. We can help them move beyond destructive behaviors that harm themselves and others.

We talk often about the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice it represents. Numerous national studies have documented that African-American students — even the youngest children in the early grades — are punished more severely than other children, with lasting effects for their future success and well-being. We also know English language learners are steered into special education classes at a higher rate than other children.

How can we better see the individual child in front of us and their specific needs? It’s not about blaming or shaming anyone. It is about improving how we communicate with students, the better to teach them as individuals.

Can talking about these issues help? Absolutely.