Field trips help teachers face implicit bias

Teachers in a Tennessee district tour neighborhoods in effort to connect with students
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 11, 2019
Students collaborate during a service project-planning session at Sussex Technical School District, which has been training teachers to recognize their own implicit bias to better support cultural diversity in the classroom. Students collaborate during a service project-planning session at Sussex Technical School District, which has been training teachers to recognize their own implicit bias to better support cultural diversity in the classroom. 

It’s one thing to hear students talk about their neighborhoods; it’s another to contend with implicit bias by viewing firsthand the diversity of their communities.

During the summer, new teachers at Tennessee’s Hamilton County Schools (45,000 students) took neighborhood bus tours with their mentors as part of their summer orientation program designed to foster cultural diversity in the classroom.

Veteran educators also joined the eye-opening rides, which were provided free by the Chattanooga district’s transportation provider, says Erin Kirby, a new teacher induction specialist.

The goal of the bus tours was to help teachers gain a better understanding of implicit bias and of their students, regardless of whether the children come from affluent or economically disadvantaged areas. “It makes a teacher think more about those first day of school questions, such as: ‘Where did you go on vacation?’ or ‘How great was your summer?’” Kirby says. “Not all kids experience that.”

Twenty-two of the district’s 78 schools participated. On some trips, experienced principals served as guides and made teachers aware of other community resources, such as Boys & Girls Clubs and recreation centers.

“This helps our teachers develop empathy and an appreciation for where our kids are coming from,” Kirby says.

Implicit bias training prompts ‘lots of tears’

Persistent achievement gaps compel district leaders to take similar steps to help educators better relate to diversifying student populations and confront their own implicit bias.

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But educators, even those who promote cultural diversity in the classroom, don’t always understand their own implicit bias, says Wendy Nance, assistant superintendent of K-12 education at Chandler Unified School District in Arizona.

Administrators of the district (44,000 students) ramped up equity training about two years ago when they found that despite Chandler USD’s record of high academic achievement, some groups of students were not making as much progress, she says.

Now, throughout the year, the district holds professional development sessions on de-emphasizing language proficiency in gifted assessments, in trauma-informed teaching practices and in behavior management. “There are lots of tears in these sessions,” says Nance. “This journey can become very personal; it forces you to take a look at your own practices and appreciate another person’s point of view.”

When disciplining a disruptive student, for example, teachers who have recognized implicit bias now know to consider whether that student has a job or has to take care of younger siblings.

Chandler USD hosted a two-day “Breaking Barriers” equity symposium for teachers and administrators at the end of the 2018-19 school year. Leaders at each district school are also creating an equity action plan that covers developing instructional strategies and rigor, using data to measure progress, and working more closely with parents.

Solve the underlying issues first

Educators can take a big step toward cultural competence by learning as much as they can about the histories of different cultures represented in their classrooms, says Sonia Nieto, professor emerita of language, literacy and culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Education.

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Other ways to create a more inclusive environment include not Anglicizing students’ names; building a classroom library of books that represent multiple cultures; and making sure images in the school and classroom reflect the diversity of the community, Nieto says.

Upon taking over Sussex Technical School District in Delaware in 2018, Superintendent Stephen H. Guthrie discovered that despite the high school’s achievement gaps, there was no plan to provide PD in cultural competency.

An informal, faculty-created equity team became an official advisory committee tasked with reviewing district policies and procedures to eliminate discriminatory language and cultural bias.

The committee is also tasked with gathering staff input for proposed PD activities in the district, where about 35% of students identify as minorities.

“The common mistake systems make,” Guthrie says, “is trying to address achievement gaps before addressing the underlying issues, so they don’t really get anywhere.”