What Principals Need to Know about Equity and Unconscious Bias

Eight tips on how to be mindful, responsive, and diligent to the needs of all students.

By Julie Bloss
April 2017, Volume 40, Issue 8

It’s been many weeks since I attended NAESP’s National Leaders Conference, but it left such an impression on me that I’m still revisiting the content that was discussed and I continue to reflect on how I can improve as a principal.

The conference, held in Washington, D.C., in late March, brought together more than 200 elementary and middle-level principals to address the theme “Equity, Equality, and Social Justice.” Despite never attending the event before, I knew the experience and professional development would be of the highest quality. After all, part of the training was going to focus on political issues and advocacy in preparation for the culminating point of the conference: going to the U.S. Capitol to engage in conversations with congressional legislators.

First on the agenda was Deborah Tyler, NAESP associate executive director of professional learning, who captivated the audience. She shared a heartfelt reminder that when all parents, regardless of background, hold their baby for the first time they have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations as anyone else. And, as principals, we should strive to serve our students with one incessant question: “Would I want this for my own flesh and blood?” Shouldn’t that be our continuous intent of service?

Tyler then presented a short clip from the award-winning PBS documentary Schools of the Future, which discusses the U.S. school system, technology, and how the brain works in its examination of how U.S. student test scores lag behind those of students in other industrialized countries.


Next up was keynote speaker John Jackson, CEO and president of the Schott Foundation. As Dione Christy, NAESP’s director of principal leadership development, introduced Jackson, I could feel the anticipation in the room. Christy described Jackson as a policy scholar who leads with heart and greatness.

During his keynote address, Jackson said that it is our role as principals to be mindful, responsive, and diligent to the needs of all students. A true leader, he noted, believes in students, regardless of challenges. To ensure that all students have a fair opportunity to learn, Jackson explained that there are three things we must keep in mind:

  1. Love comes before learning. Our students’ basic needs must be met before learning can occur, and classrooms can’t be so rigid that they aren’t conducive to learning, Jackson said. Students can’t care about learning until they understand that the educator cares about them. Some of our students come to school with a support system and others do not; therefore, it falls on educators to provide a caring, trusting, understanding environment for all students so they can have a fair opportunity to learn.
  2. Principals must stand by their principles. When advocating for education, the principal’s story is vital because he or she is on the front line of education daily. There are many different people involved in policy and decision making on behalf of educators, but no one knows what is going on in schools like the principal. Whether advocating on Capitol Hill, at the state level, or in one’s own community, principals have relevant information to share. And nothing speaks louder than the personal stories that we can relate about students and educators. If we don’t share our stories, Jackson noted, not all students will have a fair opportunity to learn.
  3. We all have a calling. Principals have a calling to provide our students a fair and substantial education. Jackson quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to express his point: “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. … Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’”

Jackson concluded by emphasizing that regardless of who you are or what you do, everyone can do something when they see social injustice occur; everyone can take steps to make sure they treat others with respect and dignity; and everyone can participate in the conversation about equity, equality and social justice.

The final session I attended on was titled “Leading for Impact and Equity While Addressing Unconscious Bias.” Despite it being the last session of the day after a full day of training, every single seat was taken. As I entered the packed room, I knew I had chosen a relevant topic with a great speaker.

Session presenter Sarah E. Fiarmann is a dynamic and passionate educational consultant who helps others address unconscious bias and is committed to fighting for equity—especially equity among children of color and other populations that have been underserved by schools. She is author of many books on these topics and, from her first sentence, I could tell that the conversation was about to get real.

Unconscious bias, Fiarmann explained, is in our schools and in each of us. We all have been affected unconsciously by experiences, the media, and conversations; it is all around us. According to Fiarman, unconscious bias can’t be addressed until it is recognized.

She presented research to validate her statements, such as studies that suggest black students are suspended three times more often than white students, and Hispanic students are suspended seven times more often than their white peers. What followed was a discussion about educators recommending harsher punishments for children of color. Audience members shared heartbreaking stories of how their own children had been unfairly treated. One after the other, principals spoke of incidents of bullying and biased punishments based on gender, ethnicity, and race.

In closing, Fiarman rallied the audience to build empathy for students in situations of unconscious bias by:

  1. Increasing our own awareness—for example, attend free online workshops and take MTV’s ”implicit association” test;
  2. Building empathy—get to deeply know your students and the meaningful things we have in common. View the child as a whole individual, not as part of a social group;
  3. Anticipating bias—create systems to reduce it. (Do you provide wait time for all students? Do you question all students? Do you check with a colleague before dishing out punishment if you feel you are getting heated?);
  4. Holding ourselves accountable—pay attention to how data are sorted. (Does your data surface anything that needs to be addressed?); and
  5. Questioning ourselves—are you more effective with some students? If so, what changes can be made in your practice so that you can be effective with all students?

“Unconscious bias is not like having your tonsils removed—it’s more like plaque. It’s something that constantly must be addressed,” said Fiarman

By the end of the conference, my mind was reeling with new information and a new way of looking at myself and my practices. After attending, I’m now excited for the upcoming National Principals Conference in Philadelphia.

Julie Bloss is principal of Grove Early Childhood Center in Grove, Oklahoma.

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