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Want To Address Teachers' Biases? First, Talk About Race

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As Ayana Coles gazes at the 20 teachers gathered in her classroom, she knows the conversation could get uncomfortable. And she's prepared.

"We are going to experience discomfort — well, we may or may not experience it — but if we have it that's OK," says Coles, a third-grade teacher at Eagle Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis.

Coles is black, one of just four teachers of color among Eagle Creek Elementary's 37 staff. Throughout last year she gathered co-workers in her classroom for after-school discussions about race.

Her goal? Create a common understanding of race and power, with hopes that teachers acknowledge, then address, how that plays out in the school.

Coles says her son's schools have left him behind. That he's been suspended for minor reasons. That his teachers have never really connected with him. She wants teachers here to do better.

First, that means exploring often-taboo topics: race, power and teachers' biases.

Unconscious Biases

According to study after study after study, teachers' behaviors — often directed by conscious or unconscious biases — affect students' lives, from passing students to the next grade, to discipline.

Different biases affect us in different ways:

  • We may pay attention to things that justify preexisting beliefs — confirmation bias.
  • We may favor people like us — ingroup bias.
  • We may expect members of a group to act a certain way — stereotyping.

But what happens when these, or other biases, are implicit? In other words, they're unconscious but still affect our outlook and behaviors?

Nationally, black students are suspended at almost four times the rate of their white peers. Often for non-violent reasons like "non-compliance" or "disrespect." Situations that require a judgment call.

And in U.S. schools, where 82 percent of educators are white, that's important to acknowledge.

Because what happens if a teacher's attitude towards race unconsciously clouds that judgment?

Talking About It

Ayana Cole's meetings aren't part of any formal program. The 20 teachers gathered, including speech pathologist Dorothy Gerve, came on their own time.

"I actually had someone ask me, 'Why don't black people speak right?'" says Gerve, the only other black teacher in the room. "And it threw me."

So, Coles steers the group toward a discussion about ebonics. Language alone, she says, can trigger biases: Who's smart? Who's not?

"I can remember being younger and if I used standard English I'd feel like I was acting white," she explains. "And so I was opposed to it because I wanted to embrace my culture and heritage."

Coles hopes understanding cultural differences and privilege might get teachers to think about how that affects students' educations.

Jason Coons, who teaches music, told the group he feels bias can be a two-way street. In a school where most students are students of color, he feels some don't trust him as a white teacher.

"At the end of the day I'm just frustrated with the fact that I don't feel like I can do anything about it," Coons explains.

Coles responds with honesty. These meetings can get raw: "Here's what I'll tell you. I was absolutely taught to not trust white people. It is hard for me to trust white people. And I'm being dead serious. Until I got to college — "

Before she can finish, Coons interjects, "I was taught not to trust black people, so..."

Coles "gets it," she says, with a laugh.

Coons, who grew up in Alabama, says he's seeing things differently.

"Like what I think is misbehavior," Coons says. "And I'm not trying to sound like some hippie or something, but like, OK, is this actually something that needs to be addressed? Or, is this just because it's so different from what I grew up with that I view this as offensive?"

He says he's still learning.

"I'm thinking about the kids, but I'm still growing as a person quite a bit, too."

An Impact On Student Lives

Coles says she plans to continue these types of conversations this school year, with both staff and students.

She's surprised by how comfortable her third-grade students are talking about power and perspective.

"They're honest," she says. "They're just like, 'This is what I think, so this is what I'm going to say.'"

Coles' students, like nine-year-old Lynae Gude, said those discussions helped them think about the world differently.

"You can have power for any perspective that you have," she explains. "Like if you look at the world and you see negativity, you can be an advocate and say something about it."

Copyright 2016 Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. To see more, visit Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations.

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