Leading Change to Overcome Implicit Bias in Schools

Continuing the Principals' Voices in School Equity blog series: After experiencing bias against her early in her career, one principal explains how she leads her school to be more mindful of uncovering and eliminating implicit bias.

What is implicit bias? According to ThoughtCo, it’s any unconsciously held set of associations about a social group. Implicit biases can result in the attribution of particular qualities to all individuals from that group, also known as stereotyping. Implicit biases are the product of learned associations and social conditioning, and they can affect how we lead our schools, students, and faculty. How can we find a way to “de-bias” ourselves within the principal role?

Experiencing Bias Firsthand

Years ago, I was 20 years old and about to embark on a teaching career. At the time, I wasn’t too conscious of implicit bias, and I was beyond excited to acquire my first teaching position. The school administration welcomed me to my new city and gave me directions to the teachers’ credit union. Teaching had always been my dream, and I was on my way to being a life changer. During the summer, I woke up at the crack of dawn to decorate my new room and then decided to head to the teacher’s credit union that afternoon.

As I waited in line, the person in front of me asked me where I would be working. I proudly stated my school’s name, and she congratulated me on my position. She said, “That’s great! There is nothing wrong with being a school custodian. Just make sure you give it your 100 percent.” She then quickly went up to the bank teller, made her deposit, and waved goodbye. I went up to the bank teller and told her I was opening an account because I was a new teacher in the district. She welcomed me and asked why I had not mentioned my position to the principal in front me. I was a little stunned to learn she was a school leader, and I did not have an answer at the time. That evening, I went home, looked in the mirror, and asked myself, “Why had she assumed I was on the school custodial team? Why didn’t she ask me what I was doing? Was it my ethnicity? My age?”

Benefits of a Diverse Staff

Later, I saw her full staff at the district convocation and realized that none of her team looked like me. It was evident that the school leader assumed I was not a teacher due to stereotyping. It was at that moment I became interested in implicit bias within education. Since the mid-1990s, psychologists have extensively researched implicit biases, revealing that, without even knowing it, we all possess our own implicit biases. Research suggests that anglicized‐named applicants receiving more favorable pre‐interview impressions than other ethnic‐named applicants.

To mitigate this issue, we have to make sure that we are hiring a diverse staff. According to 2017 research by John Hopkins University, having at least one Black teacher in elementary school cuts the high school dropout rates of very low-income Black boys 39 percent. It raises college aspirations among poor students of both sexes by 19 percent. Our students need role models who look like them within our schools. Implicit bias within our classrooms due to lack of diversity can lead to microaggressions toward students’ race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or other groups.

Recognizing Bias

Not too long ago, I observed a teacher during her class reading time. The teacher read a book and then had the students perform a reader’s theater. The teacher proceeded by selecting a student to be the main character. Most of the students were shying away from portraying the character. A little girl waved her hands in the air and was excited to volunteer. The teacher tried to convince other students to take on the main character role. I kept looking at a little girl who came from a tough background and did not have the other students’ experiences. Why was she ignored? A young boy was selected, and the little girl whispered to him when he would forget a line. As I exited the class, I pulled the girl aside and told her she was the theater’s director. She smiled and stood up with pride. Later, I called the teacher to discuss the observation. The teacher was shocked and did not realize what she was doing unconsciously.

Leading Change

As school leaders, we have to be open to a new view. We have to make a conscious effort to be mindful and focus on accuracy, appropriateness, and fairness. How can we do this?

  • Be conscious of our own biases and take the lead in changing our perceptions first. Take this Project Implicit test.
  • Lead staff in recognizing their own implicit biases, make genuine connections, and establish that everyone has unconscious bias. Our goal is to connect with our colleagues and our students explicitly to make a fair and equitable environment. This phenomenal video by Verna Myers is a great place to start.
  • Walk through classrooms, be aware, and be free—free to see through your own eyes and that of others. What stories are being told in the school? Who are the main characters? Are we unconsciously making statements that could negatively affect one group over another? Bring race and identity into the conversation. Take a look at A Leader’s Guide to Talking about Bias.
  • Seek out lead ambassadors in your school. What teachers are closing gaps and cultivating awareness of their biases? These ambassadors in your school can be part of your school taskforce. Listen to them and lead your school to the next level.
  • Remember that implicit bias often has limits because people are unwilling to share their biases due to being politically incorrect. Leaders must continually target misconceptions and build the unity that allows for open conversations about explicit and implicit biases.

Principals have been called to lead in the most interesting times. How we deal with implicit bias will affect every aspect of our school community. As school leaders, we need to take action now and build real relationships with diverse people. These practices will stimulate positive associations and help our schools become what they should be.

Annette Sanchez is principal of Hampton Moreno Dugat Elementary School in Beeville, Texas.

Read more from the Principals’ Voices in School Equity blog series.