Building Racial Literacy

7 ways for education leaders to address implicit bias through professional learning.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction, Equity and Diversity

You might think that your district sufficiently addresses implicit bias as part of initiatives involving culture and climate; social-emotional learning; or diversity, equity, and inclusion. The district might even frame equity as an ever-evolving journey of awareness and awakening.

But explicitly addressing implicit bias is the foundation of equity work. The process requires dialogue, reflection, and repeated practice; a one-day training, presentation, or guest speaker won’t address implicit bias, and awareness alone is not enough to create sustained changes in behavior.

Principals have the opportunity to model, question, disrupt, and address implicit bias every day, every hour, and in every interaction. But first, they must develop their own racial literacy and engage in reflective dialogue and practice. Professional development in recognizing, managing, and mitigating implicit bias prepares building leaders to build the capacity of their colleagues to understand and address implicit bias.

Strategies to disrupt implicit bias can be learned in combination with a reflective process at the individual and group levels. Schools often encourage professional learning in mindfulness, perspective-taking, and empathy, but they rarely use the term “implicit bias” due to its potential for an emotionally charged response. This is a missed opportunity—especially for the students and families we serve.

When designing a framework to address implicit bias, focus on three areas: understanding, practice, and reflection and responsibility. Here are seven ways to get started:

  1. Frame an ever-evolving, reflective journey. Addressing implicit bias through a learning community requires leaders to remain flexible and evolve the work in a nonlinear way—meaning no checklists, one-time trainings, or initiatives. Instead, frame the effort to address implicit bias as more of a shift in mindset toward improvement or a way of being. Use the metaphor of a journey to describe the reflective process, and model the reflective process as a leadership disposition. Develop stakeholders’ understanding of the process, and relate it to learning and unlearning.
  2. Establish a culture of trust and safety. The ability to reflect and dialogue relies on a safe culture. Time invested in listening, developing relationships, and modeling vulnerability will strengthen trust and safety. Superintendents play the role of protectors who are committed to the process, and the board of education can provide a layer of protection for those facilitating. The superintendent and board of education must align their vision, mission, values, and norms.
  3. Meet resistance with patience. Leaders might struggle with a conflict between the urgency of the work and learners’ readiness, as well as their own preparation and knowledge. Understanding the level of readiness is part of the journey; leaders should meet people where they are and move forward. Moving forward isn’t optional. Resistance is the most common challenge, because addressing implicit bias means challenging the status quo and often requires deep personal change. Face resistance with resilience, bravery, and courage. Patience with the strategy provides stamina for the work.
  4. Redefine the professional learning community. Challenge mindsets and boundaries to redefine the professional learning community (PLC) model and who is involved in it. Typically, the PLC model includes faculty and staff. Bridge school and community to include students, parents, and community members early on in its design and delivery. When the community engages and collaborates with school leaders, there will be less pushback among internal stakeholders.
  5. Form tiered structures, roles, and teams. Create a multitiered design for embedded, ongoing professional learning. Most common is a three-tiered structure of roles and teams at the student, building, and district levels. Create opportunities for feedback and participation to reduce resistance.
  6. Create entry points on the pathway to action. Use a cycle of inquiry to build capacity through modeling and dialogue. Addressing implicit bias can be emotionally charged, so it’s essential to provide context to move beyond a kneejerk response. Entry points can include the hiring process, grading, curriculum, data, and shifts in demographics; they can lend purpose to goals and lead to improved outcomes.
  7. Make it interdependent, organic, and tangible. District and building structures are interdependent. Daily interaction between levels offers opportunities to plan learning in tangible segments. Partner with another district that’s further along in addressing implicit bias as a form of mentoring or coaching. Storytelling—the sharing of stakeholders’ lived experiences—can help build empathy and engage more perspectives.

How do your school and district address implicit bias? What are the entry points that will help move them from awareness to action? What matters most is not how enlightened or aware we can become; action is what’s most influential on student outcomes.

Susan Lohret is an elementary school principal based in New York.