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Thankful: An Unexpected Lesson From A Stranger

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Simple Truth: Our conscious (and subconscious) biases can have a real impact on our students.


It went on for weeks.

During my pre-dawn drives to the gym, I would routinely pass a middle-aged man alongside the road. He wore the same clothes and was usually digging through trash or trying to hitch a ride. Day by day I drove past him, often wondering about his story. Who was he? What experiences led him to this point?

And most importantly, what could I do to help him?

One morning I decided to pull over and give him a ride. That led to other rides, and before long, I was routinely stopping to pick him up. He is a military veteran, and a man of few words. Morning by morning I would pose a variety of questions, yet I only received short and to-the-point answers.  A fitting example: when I asked his name, he simply shared three initials.

I got it.

He wanted rides, not conversation. It seemed like he put up some pretty strong walls, deflecting any attempt for me to get to know him. Maybe this was his defense mechanism that he had learned to use over time. I assumed that he was homeless. My heart went out to him, and I struggled to figure out how I could help this man. The morning rides went on for weeks. As did our short conversations, which never amounted to much.

Then one morning it happened.

A conversation of substance, which began with my very casual question about the weather. I asked him if he had a favorite season. His response caught me off guard. "Do you have siblings?" he replied. His response startled me. Not only because he was extending a conversation, which never happened.  But more importantly, his gruff usual voice seemed to soften.

His questions continued. "If so, did your parents have favorites?" I was curious where this was leading. "What about when you were in school, did your teachers have favorites? You see, the problem with having favorites is that some people are left out. Not being a teacher's favorite can really impact a kid in school."

I was stunned.

He went on to discuss the many negative impacts adults playing favorites could have on a child. This coming from a man who always seemed to have this rough exterior and a crass attitude. Yet, he expressed in detail and with deep empathy the effects of students being excluded by teachers.

That day, after I dropped him off at the gas station where he always requested, I began to think about why this topic was so close to his heart. Had he been impacted by being passed over as a student, or even in his family? And if so, how did those experiences impact where he found himself in life now? 

This conversation was such a powerful learning experience for me. Not just with him reinforcing that educators should not have favorites.

There was much more.

I recognized that I subconsciously held personal biases against him. All along, I was reaching out to this man so that I could help him. Yet, it was clear.  It was him who was teaching me.

And for that, I am thankful.


Research Tells Us:

The research is also clear. When educators favor or show bias to students, there are real academic and social impacts. Studies indicate that teachers can favor male students in classroom conversations by spending up to two-thirds of class time speaking with them versus their female students. Teachers tend to interrupt female students, though allow males to talk over the teacher. Some research has found that girls are assumed to have lower math IQ's by their educators and parents. In addition, researchers noted that some teachers gave females a lower grade on math tests when they knew the students' gender, as opposed to when there was no name on the test. One study found that if a teacher had a similar personality to certain students, then that educator had a more positive perception of those students. Research involving high school teachers indicated that "high schoolers who were considered good looking received higher praise, better grades, and more credit for being warm and sensitive." Finally, one analysis of student suspension data found that "black girls with the darkest skin tones were 3 times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin."

Yes, the research shows that we can play favorites and have biases, and that can directly impact those around us. Then the question is, what can we do about it?


Try This:

1.  Acknowledge that we may have a more natural connection with certain students and negative biases against others. Be deliberate in reflection to consider who we may favor and what biases we have.

2.  Don't skim over Step 1. Seriously. It's easy to do so, yet carefully considering our own biases is foundational for any meaningful change.

3.  Want to learn more about your biases? Take the Project Implicit test, which was developed by top university researchers to "educate the public on hidden biases."

3.  Jot down some short and long term goals to interrupt how we favor and show bias to students. This TED Talk by Verna Myers provides practical suggestions on overcoming our biases. Our thoughts become our goals once we put them on paper.

4.  Grow as a culturally responsive teacher. Click here to learn more and explore 3 crucial steps.

5.  Understand that overcoming our biases is not a one-time experience; it's an on-going process.

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As a professor of education, Tony Kline, Ph.D. is always learning. Having taught in rural villages in Africa to urban neighborhoods in the midwest, he has been surrounded by individuals who've dedicated their lives to impacting students. Now as a professor of education who has taught on four continents, he's had the great pleasure to work with colleagues to help prepare over 1,000 current teachers who are passionately serving in today's classrooms. Tony Kline, Ph.D. is an assistant professor for the Franks School of Education at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. He has been honored by Phi Delta Kappa International as an Emerging Leader Under 40 and was the recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award by Ball State University and Trine University. These thoughts and views are personal and do not represent any outside organization.

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Guest Sunday, 23 October 2016