Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Want To Address Teachers’ Unconscious Biases? First, Talk About Race

Ayana Coles sits with her students at Eagle Creek Elementary School.  At Eagle Creek, students of color make up 77 percent of the student body. Yet, all but four of the school's 37 staff are white. Coles has led conversations about race with colleagues throughout the year. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Ayana Coles, rights, sits with students at Eagle Creek Elementary School. At Eagle Creek, students of color make up 77 percent of the student body, and all but four of the school’s 37 staff are white. Coles has led conversations about race with colleagues throughout the year. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

INDIANAPOLIS — As Ayana Coles gazed at the 20 teachers gathered in her classroom, she knew the conversation could get uncomfortable. And she was prepared.

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

At Eagle Creek, students of color make up 77 percent of the student body. All but four of the school’s 37 staff are white. Throughout this past year, Coles has led a series of after-school discussions with teachers about race.

“We talked about unquestioned assumptions,” Coles said to her colleagues at the meeting. “Like some parents or groups of people have no value of education, or their parents are uneducated, their parents don’t have money.”

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

But getting there means first exploring often-taboo topics: race, power and teachers’ biases.

Unconscious Biases

Different biases effect us in different ways, yet many overlap.

To give a few common examples:

  • 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?

According to study after study after study, teachers’ behaviors — often directed by conscious or unconscious biases — affect students’ lives, from student discipline to promotion.

Nicole Goodson, a staff attorney with Disability Legal Services of Indiana, works with many students who have been suspended or expelled from school.

“We do see a disproportionate number of minority cases,” Goodson said.

Many of her clients are black and Latino boys.

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

In Indiana, black students are suspended at four times the rate of their white peers. Schools, on average, suspend one in 20 white students, but one in five black students — and almost one in three black boys, a StateImpact analysis of U.S. Department of Education data shows.

Schools often suspend those students for non-violent reasons, according to Goodson.

“Not necessarily behavior that puts anyone at risk, but maybe not following the rules exactly as they’re written,” Goodson said.

Reasons like “non-compliance” and “disrespect.” Situations that require a judgment call.

And that’s important to acknowledge in Indiana, where 94 percent of educators are white.

Because what happens if one’s attitude towards race, and those biases mentioned above, unconsciously cloud that judgment?

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The ‘Courageous Conversations’

Back at Eagle Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis, Ayana Coles and colleagues were deep in conversation about race and power.

The meetings aren’t part of any larger program. Just a group of teachers getting together voluntarily, for what Coles calls “courageous conversations.”

Music teacher Jason Coons told the group he felt bias can be a two-way street. He’s white, and almost four out of every five students at Eagle Creek are students of color. He said he thinks students come in with biases about him.

“As a white heterosexual man, that’s a lot of what they see,” Coons said. “And if they’re hearing at home how I’m the enemy… 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.”

“Here’s what I’ll tell you,” Coles said, “I have no answer for you. I am not the end all be all. I have no answer. But this is what I will 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 — ”

“I was taught not to trust black people, so…,” Coons said.

“I get it,” she said, with a laugh.

Both Coons and Coles agreed that their upbringing influenced those thoughts, but that they’re not rigid — they’ve both grown and changed.

Yet, historically, white people have had the institutional power to create policy, social stigmas and programs based on those kind of biases, Coles said. Black people have not.

And understanding that difference, Coles said, can help teachers identify how that plays out in their school building.

A Specific Example: Language

“I actually had someone ask me, ‘Why don’t black people speak right?’” said Dorothy Gerve, speech pathologist at Eagle Creek Elementary. “And it threw me…”

“I actually had someone ask me, ‘Why don’t black people speak right?’”

—Dorothy Gerve, speech pathologist

Gerve and Coles were the only black teachers present.

“So, a lot of our kids use ebonics,” Coles said.

Language alone can trigger biases, said Cole: Who’s smart? Who’s not?

“How do we then bridge that gap between ebonics and standard English?” said Coles.

But some, like kindergarten teacher Robin Lawrence, were hesitant.

“I don’t think we should go so far as to say, ‘Well that’s you, so you don’t have to learn the standard way,’” Lawrence said.

Coles agreed, but said, even so, some teachers may not see the full picture.

“I think that the problem is that — I’m just speaking for myself and not all black people — but I can remember being younger and if I used standard English, I’d feel like I was acting white,” Coles said. “And so I was opposed to it because I wanted to embrace my culture and heritage.”

Coons, the music teacher, said since the after-school conversations, he’s started looking at things differently.

“Like what I think is misbehavior,” Coons said. “And I’m not trying to sound like some hippie or something, but like, OK, is this really 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 said he’s still learning.

“I’m also just on my own little journey as well, you know,” said Coons. “I’m thinking about the kids, but I’m still growing as a person quite a bit, too.”

An Impact On Student Lives

A recent study from Indiana University researchers looked at the students recommended for gifted and talented programs across the nation.

It found black students were three times more likely to be identified as gifted if that call came from a black teacher, not a white teacher.

“Expressions of learning may be different,” said Jill Nicholson-Crotty, an associate professor at Indiana University”s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

She authored that study.

“Because that’s what we grew up with, doesn’t mean everybody did,” Nicholson-Crotty said.

Ayana Coles sits with her students at Eagle Creek Elementary School. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Ayana Coles sits with her students at Eagle Creek Elementary School. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

For Students, A Growing Outlook

Eagle Creek administrators praise the after-school meetings. The school and the “Courageous Conversations” were recognized by the Indiana Department of Education as a promising practice that encourages culturally relevant teaching.

Third grade teacher Ayana Coles said she plans to continue these types of conversations next year, with both staff and students.

She was surprised by how comfortable her third-grade students were talking about power and perspective.

“They’re honest,” said Coles. “They’re just like, ‘This is what I think, so this is what I’m going to say.’”

And Coles’ students say discussions about those topics helped change the way they think.

Lynae Gude, 9, works on a class assignment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Lynae Gude, 9, works on a class assignment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

“You can have power for any perspective that you have,” said Lynae Gude, one of Coles’ third grade students. “Like if you look at the world and you see negativity you can be an advocate and say something about it.”

Nine-year-old Lynae is heading to Puerto Rico this summer with her family. She’s nervous about flying, but said she has big plans for the future when she gets back.

She shared one last assignment with her peers: a letter to her future self.

“‘Dear Future Lynae,’” Lynae said. “‘One thing about you is that you are a 24-year-old activist…’”

She said she’ll be an activist and teacher.

“‘You talk about fairness and how you feel about the world inside. Your family lives in a safe facility,’” Lynae said. “‘Hope this ends up to be a perfect life. Follow your dreams future me. Sincerely, yours truly, 9 year old Lynae.’”



  • Fred Welfare

    It found black students were three times more likely to be identified as gifted if that call came from a black teacher, not a white teacher.

    “Expressions of learning may be different,” said Jill Nicholson-Crotty, an associate professor at Indiana University”s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

    I wonder what those expressions of learning are that are identified differentially by black teachers than by white teachers?

    • Bluack

      Seeing potential…application of multiple intelligences, not just a standard test score

  • Old Man

    Question: Is it possible that other parents like Ayana Coles’ are telling their children not to trust white teachers? And children, being told not to trust or possibly respect white people, are following through and being disrespectful? So the suspension of these disrespectful children would not be caused by white racism, the assumption of Ms. Coles who admitted she still had some trust issues, but caused by the parents?

    • Fred Welfare

      My experience as a NYC Teacher for 30 years is that no one gets suspended for “disrupting” the class, or disrespect, or interfering with the teaching-learning process. Suspensions were for fighting or weapons possession, and never for cutting, lateness, or walking out. Other than violence, the best way to handle student deviance is to have a parent conference but this puts the pressure on the counselor, dean, and administrators who may not want to handle the teacher-student relationship. The problem is not simply racism which everyone in the US participates in because race is a vital statistic, it is that students assume they are passing because the teacher likes them and not because of relevant demonstrations of understanding course material and skills. Or, they believe they failed because the teacher did not like them!!

      Disrespect towards teachers and towards the educational process was always greater towards black teachers (“sell-outs”) than towards white teachers. One way you could see this unfold was in the lack of appropriate behavior by students in the black male teacher’s classroom and often in the white female’s classroom, (hate to generalize but) whereas black female and white male teachers usually had a better management routine. This however does not translate into more passing grades, higher test scores, or actually learning more skills during the year.

      The problem with lower class students, often of color, is their family relationships and their peer relationships – tremendous tension. The different language forms by lower class and black or hispanic students is a result of illiteracy and vocabulary development – when you don’t have words to express your feelings you are more likely to act them out by fighting. Fighting and disharmony mark these students’ lives: they are constantly fighting, resisting each other and defiant. Not that plenty of white students aren’t, there is too much conflict all around. But, middle class students seem to be able to handle a homework load and pay better attention in class that leads to college level skills where the lower class students just do not learn how to read and comprehend at the college level. This is what is really all comes down to – the conflict between people is about the same but expressed more in fighting and violence in the lower classes, and more in discrimination, harassment and covert microaggressions in the middle classes. I don’t think that coercion and exploitation are less anywhere.

      Trust is an emotional, affective and feeling state. Professionals however are given their positions because they are trusted, due to their training, by authorities of the state, not by parents or students, or by other colleagues. Basically, there is very little trust and everyone must cover their ass and one way they do this is by not taking any risks. Teachers cannot trust students who will expose whatever teachers do under interrogation, so teachers must play everything by the book. Therefore, grades, tests and expectations are all spelled out. Teachers comply with administrators expectations to hold their positions; students fail by the bushel because they do not comply with the requirements to be on time, in class everyday, taking notes and paying attention, avoiding violent conflict, and taking testing seriously by doing the reading and studying. Discounting school related tasks by both parent and students results in either failure as not-graduating or minimally passing grades which are not good enough for college. Some parents consider it their life goal to make sure their children graduate from college! These are few among the lower classes and not as many as you might think among the middle classes.

      The experience of failure by making conventional efforts – attempting to meet homework demands and attentional demands in the classroom – leads to attempts to pass by cheating. When this also fails, most of these students just give up, drop out, and (retreat) treat school as a social playground.

      • Old Man

        Do you realize that by trying to avoid a direct answer to my question by discrediting it (the disciplinary problems described are not part of your real world experience), you discredited the thesis of the whole article? All I did was connect the dots in a straight line. But as it turns out, you state the problem is worse than I thought as minority parents may also be teaching their children not to trust minority teachers because they are “sell-outs.” Please, either develop that point or direct me to a good source that does.

        You have expanded the subject exponentially, and it is a complex subject. And complex problems cannot be solved by painting broad strokes with one brush. Nor can they be solved by blaming the innocent. I find any notion that large percentages of white teachers are racist totally illogical and leads to the pro hoc fallacy and thesis of the article that most white people are racist, a higher percentage of minority students are punished, therefore the cause is white racism. Racists do not flock to professions where they will be forced to serve large percentages of minorities, where their actions will be scrutinized by minority administrators who got their jobs (in the racist’s mind) through affirmative actions, and where they earn lower pay than they could get elsewhere. Any that make that mistake will likely be out after one year.

        But we are seeming to agree that a major part of the solution will begin in the home and with parental attitudes. If you taught for 30 years, you may be old enough to remember the time when parents recognized teachers as the people who were trying to help them give their children the tools for a better life, including knowledge and discipline. If I got in trouble at school, I was in trouble at home. Whatever the teacher did was backed up. Today, the generalization is more that the teacher has to defend their actions against angry parents who don’t think their precious angel capable of misbehavior or failing. Why did teachers loose that parental trust, and how do we rebuild it? Certainly not by painting them as racists and telling children not to trust them or calling them sell-outs.

        And, if I may add something to your big picture overview of class struggle in American society which I accept as a reasonably accurate generalization, the “tremendous tension” you mention comes from insecurity which is not limited to the poor as many of the most insecure are those with much to lose. Which, ironically in my world view, is the same place that racism of any direction comes from.

    • Bluack

      This question is in itself a red herring. Part of implicit bias is constantly questioning data that you disagree with even in light of overwhelming data that presents the issue, in this case implicit bias. A good educator and research always asks questions, however the nature of said questions is indicative of whether there is true intellectual curiosity or a manifestation of something else. In your case obvious bias.

      Only a biased white person would ask if Black families “tell or teach” their children to not trust white teachers. Such a question in light of the premise discussed in this article only seeks to shift blame and to absolve individuals from being held accountable for their implicit bias. You did not ask if white parents teach their children not to trust white teachers or black teachers. White children in spite of many commonalities with their white teachers still get into trouble and face discipline, yet your focus is on what we teach our children. I wonder what your assertion is being that Black students are suspended 3x the rate of their white counterparts for the same or similar infraction. Based on your logic implicit bias would not be considered, only that the Black children must have somehow been more deviant or deserving. You and those like you are the problem.

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