Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Uncovering The Long Term Effects Of Implicit Bias In The Classroom And The Five Steps We Must Take To Combat It by Kim Phan


They always assumed I was “smart”, but they never assumed that I would cheat.

I remembered the first time I cheated on a test. It was in my 9th grade statistics class, and I got an A. Having been rewarded for cheating the first time, I proceeded to cheat periodically in my math classes and I always got away, until…

I finally got caught.

It was calculus. My teacher started to notice that every single time she gave a test, I was absent. Then I would come to school the next day and ace the test. It took her about 3 exams to finally notice a pattern. On a hunch, she completely changed the test and gave me different version than the one she gave everyone else.

I failed.

She asked me why I did it, who was giving me the answers, and what my parents would think of this. My silence angered her, so the next day she said to the whole class, “It’s a shame that some of you want to be doctors but you choose to cheat in school. Imagine having a doctor that cheated their way through school. Would you want that doctor to treat you?”

I was exposed. It felt horrible. What was wrong with me? No matter how hard I tried, the truth was, I wasn’t good at math. Actually “not good at math” is an understatement. I was a senior in high school and I still got my 6, 7, and 8 times table mixed up, so you can imagine how I felt about memorizing complex math concepts.

Because I was “smart”, I never got any intervention.

My whole life, I was told that I was destined to be a doctor or an engineer. There weren’t any other choices for me. I was hiding behind a stereotype. I worked so hard to get A’s and everyone, even my closest friends assumed that I was “smart”. The truth was, I was lying. I was hiding how much I truly struggled. I made it through school without being able to read any chapter books. I made it through school without being able to focus on my teachers for more than 5 minutes. I made it through school by using SparkNotes, watching youtube tutorials, and turning in every single assignment, and asking my teachers for a redo when I got the answers wrong.
What took most kids 30 minutes to complete, took me 3 hours. I studied for at least 4 hours a day, and it didn’t seem to make any difference.  I wasn’t understanding what I was reading and I was horrible at rote memorization. I was always lost in my own thoughts and unable to focus.

But since I worked hard and always turned in every single assignment, I got A’s. Since I got A’s I was a “good” student, I was “smart”, I was my stereotype…

But deep down I knew something was wrong with me, and I never spoke up. I lived with the anxiety, the pressure, the guilt, and the false sense of hope that I would somehow, make it as a doctor. Because that’s what my parents wanted and what everyone else expected of me.

How implicit bias affect me?

If you looked past my ethnicity, past my grades in school, past this facade of the “perfect” student,

You’ll find someone who is struggling.

I struggled in every single subject in school. I struggled to please my parents, my teachers, and most importantly, I struggled to please myself. My true identity and talents were hidden behind social constructs because I LIVED to fulfill an image that has already been chosen for me.

I went to college armed with the same career goal, to be a doctor. Even up to that point, I had no idea why I even wanted to be a doctor.

Of course, the methods that worked in high school didn’t work in college. I was soon confronted with the fact that I was never going to be good at math but worse of all, I wasn’t good at reading either.

I was only able to find myself when I finally let go of trying to be perfect. When I no longer cared about my grades, it was when I flourished. There were giant holes in the subjects that I never excelled in the past and when I patched them, I got A’s. Those A’s were nothing more than temporary relief to my pain.

After years of confronting my biggest fear, I finally found my one true passion.

I became a special education teacher. I wanted to help students who felt just like me.

Why we have implicit biases in the classroom and how it affects our students. 

When you look at a child, do you look at the whole child? Or do you judge them based on their looks, their test scores, or how they act in the classroom?

As teachers, we all have a certain demographic that we specialize in. Due to this, we lump all of our students into one big generalization based on our previous experiences. Our brain has generalizations and biases because it’s convenient for us to process information and make split-second decisions based on information we already think we know.

We all have biases and that’s mainly due to the culture that we are raised in. These biases result in the inequality of education that our students receive which furthers the achievement gap for our minority students.

When we base our lessons solely on a student’s test score and what we think they are able to achieve, we limit them from their true potential.

I was told all my life that I was that “nerdy, genius kid” because I was Asian. But when I didn’t feel smart, I would crack under pressure and it resulted in years of anxiety and depression.

But despite this, my teachers were always understanding and willing to help me. They always listened to me and allowed me to redo assignments, tests, and projects when I turned in something that was subpar. Through the struggle, they could at least see that I was trying my best and that I was a hard worker. However, as I enter this profession, I’ve soon come to realize it has a lot to do with race. Since I was Asian, I feel as though there were many leniencies and privileges that were given to me.

But flip that story around. Think of what black and Latinx students go through when they are stereotyped as underachieving, slow, or lazy.  I have witnessed so many minority students who were trying their best but were not receiving the same responses as I had. They were not getting the support that they needed and quickly thrown in special education classes without viewing all of the options.

When you just look at test scores and numbers, you’ll see the wide gap that these students have to overcome. Imagine having to go through school with everyone labeling you and believing that you won’t grow up to amount to much because that’s what the statistics say.

We can never truly know what our students are dealing with. The kid who misbehaves in your classroom might just have a genius IQ. The straight-A girl who seems to have it all together is just one grade away from having a nervous breakdown.

As educators, we need to be aware of our biases because it will affect our students for the rest of their lives.

5 steps you need to take to overcome implicit bias in the classroom

Never allow pieces of paper to equate someone’s importance.

Pieces of paper… What do I mean by this? Well, have you ever noticed what it takes for people to be determined successful? Often times, it’s “proven” by pieces of paper like money, a college degree, a 4.0 report card, high test scores, certificates of achievements, the list goes on. Have you ever looked up a student’s file? Often times, the only things you will find in there are the attendance records, their test scores, and if they were ever written up for misconduct. It’s as though those are the only things that attribute to their importance. This is why we must take the time to get to know our students as individuals and look past the paperwork. As a special education teacher, I have seen countless IEPs that placed my students far below what they were capable of. I would get 7th and 8th graders who had goals like “adding two-digit numbers”, some of those students went on to solve multi-step equations and some were even able to grasp the concept of functions. I teach 7th and 8th grade students but rarely saw IEPs with goals that surpassed DOK 1. This happens often, and sadly it happens to minority students far more often than it should. There is an overrepresentation of minority and impoverished students in special education despite the laws that are supposedly in place to stop it from happening. Once a student is in special education, they could never think of themselves the same again. They will have a sense of self-doubt, they will feel isolated from their peers, and they will be stripped away of their self-confidence. As an Asian student, I had the privilege of being “smart”, before someone even got the chance to talk to me. So if there is a high number of low-income black and latinx students in special education, it’s not that they aren’t smart or that something is wrong with them. We need to be asking what is wrong with us?



Know that the “problem child” is a child, not a problem.

We all have those difficult students in the classroom who seem to make our jobs a lot harder than it should be. It’s hard to be calm and composed when you’re trying to meet the needs of a few dozen students. Just remember, that student who is giving you “problems” in the classroom, might have a few problems that they themselves need to solve. In most cases, students who misbehave in class are actually the best problem solvers, because they have a lot of problems in their lives. Whether they have something that they are going through at home, whether they do not understand the material, or even if they are bored. They are exhibiting a behavior because that behavior works for them. We often jump right into punishment or consequences, rather than implementing more positive behavior supports in the classroom. Remember it takes time to break out of a habit. Researching the necessary steps for positive behavior supports such as taking ABC Data, the Cue, Routine, Reward method, and implementing replacement behaviors, can prove to be much more effective than just punishing our students who misbehave. Students who misbehave are not dumb and they are not helpless. If we are unable to see this, then the “problem child” often ends up getting suspended, expelled, or thrown in an “emotionally disturbed” classroom. Our African American and Latinx students are victims of this injustice. As a nation, our tolerance for minority students is a lot lower than our white, high income, privileged students.

Combat racism and privilege inside the classroom and outside of it. 

If you had been watching the news lately then you probably have heard of white private school students wearing MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats mocking and disrespecting a Native American elder during the Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial. In the leaked video footage, you can clearly see, hear, and witness the mockery that is coming from these young teenage boys. Only a day after it went viral, there were thousands of people rushing to the defense of the MAGA hat boys. Not only were they interviewed by several news outlets, but they were also invited to the White House as they were commended for their “bravery”. There have been countless times where we see white children get the upper hand because of manipulation by media. White kids are often given the chance to tell their side of the story. Because they are in a position of power, the truth is twisted to avoid tarnishing their “bright” future ahead. But how many times are Black children given the same opportunity? What about their side of the story? What about their futures? Often times they unable to speak on their own behalf because they are… dead. Even if they were alive to tell their story, who would believe them? It seems as though we only choose to listen and believe those who speak English eloquently, who dresses “like a good Christian”, and who “seem” like an honest person. Culturally we reject accents and dialects of people that seem even slightly foreign. Slang is an entire culture that is so much a part of the art that millions of Americans enjoy, yet we are quick to judge those who speak it. I have witnessed a handful of teachers correct Black students while they are speaking to each other and even teachers that tell their Spanish speaking students to stop speaking Spanish. Instead of being offended by their dialect, we should learn how to better communicate with students. Lastly, we need to know that these biases exist and speak out against it in order to stop it from happening.

Get to know your students and promote culture in the classroom

With staggering class sizes, budget cuts, and standardized testing, when will we ever the chance to truly get to know our students? We are taught how to teach the curriculum to our students, we are taught how to get them to regurgitate information, and it is mandated that they learn the all mighty common core. But we are rarely ever told that cultural efficacy is crucial in the classroom. Out of 50 states, Alaska is the only state that has cultural standards that are mandated and implemented. So how can we also adapt more culturally responsive pedagogy in our own classrooms? We can start by selecting text that includes a variety of cultures, viewpoints, and experiences. Besides this, I encourage all teachers to promote more storytelling opportunities in their lesson plans. Think, “how does this lesson relate to who your students are and why it should be important to them?” We should be asking our students to self-reflect more often in the classroom because emotional intelligence is just as important as academics. When a student is not engaged with what we are teaching, question if they are able to connect with the content that is being taught. Reevaluate whether the text that you choose reflect the lives and beliefs of the students that you teach and whether or not you are taking the necessary steps to assess it.



5. Approach ignorance with caution

Now I use the term “we” a lot when speaking about those who are racially biased against minority students. But there are good teachers out there. I have seen so many activists on BATS fighting for equal treatment of all students in the classroom. Although it seems as though our group is filled with activists we are only a small portion of the teachers that make up the education system in the United States. I have seen many posts that cry out for a revised system that is unjust against minority students and many who are quick to reply, “not me”. We need to know that we all have implicit biases and not only that, we need to be aware of what happening around us as well. While it angers us and quite frankly sometimes we are pushed to the point where we think about taking physical action against those who mistreat minorities, we also need to change the way we approach things. Our initial reaction towards ignorant people is to shake them and yell, “STOP”. For us kindness is common sense, but for many others it isn’t. This often leads to endless bickering and bitterness for both sides of the group. Instead of disagreeing and arguing, we need to get together and collaborate. If you see someone who is practicing something that is unjust, approach them with kindness. Offer them suggestions. Rephrase the way you respond in order to get a positive response. It is very hard to be kind to those who aren’t kind. But if we approach ignorance with anger, it won’t change things. It would probably make them further their unjust beliefs because when we yell, when we criticize, when we get angry, it makes it harder for the other side to actually listen and reason with what we have to say. Instead, stay calm and speak rationally towards one another. Give them a chance to listen, give them a chance to take action, and nudge them towards the right direction with the same kindness and compassion that you show your students.

Kim Phan is a middle school special educator who specializes in empower students who have been diagnosed with emotional disturbance. She found her passion for teaching after working closely with students whom are often misunderstood.

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