How do I know if my biases affect my teaching?

Have you ever mumbled, under your breath, “Oh, goodness, here comes Chris” as a response to an “active” student who frequently disrupts the flow of class?  

Have you attached certain identifiers to this particular student based on your perception of the “ideal” student? Have you considered where your understanding of the ideal student was conceived? Is it founded in privilege, a dominant narrative and/or white supremacist thinking?

Have you reflected on having built expectations for certain students, whether they are White or of color, male or female, able-bodied or with disabilities?

How are you thinking about your students?

All of these questions consider the biases that ultimately affect your teaching. As teachers, we often believe that we can be “objective” with our students. In fact, many of our teacher education programs emphasize the importance of objectivity in assessment. Although we may try to be neutral, we all have values, beliefs, and predispositions that impact how we relate to others. These assumptions are not necessarily a “bad” thing since they often help us understand unknown situations or try to make sense of what is happening around us. But when our assumptions are manifested as implicit biases that can lead to imposed identities, we often reinforce negative stereotypes and negative school climates without even knowing it (Hanselman, Bruch, Gamoran, & Borman, 2014). In fact, teachers' hidden biases can often lead to a goal reduction or diminished expectations for students of color and from under resourced communities (McKown & Weinstein, 2007). Similarly, teacher bias can lead to differing gendered expectations for girls and boys in STEM (Robinson-Cimpian, Lubienski, Ganley, & Copur-Gencturk, 2014). Understanding hidden associations, assumptions, or biases allows us to better understand our “self” so we can work with “others” towards a mediated identity where positive academic and social identities can be affirmed and nurtured through an asset model for identity construction (Delpit, 1995; Nieto & Bode, 2011).

By analyzing institutional bias based on social difference in classrooms, Chen, Nimmo, & Fraser (2009) offer a framework for teachers to reflect and re-examine their practice. This framework is rooted in teacher self-study. The self-study is broken down into four sections: self-awareness, physical environment, pedagogical environment, and relationship with families and community. By critically analyzing each section, teachers can become more aware of how their preconceived notions and implicit bias can interact with institutional structures to perpetuate bias and inequity. Through self-study, teachers can re-examine practices, programs, and policies, so as to embrace culturally responsive pedagogy and provide more equitably opportunities for their children to learn.

Similarly, Carime Bersh (2011) explores White prospective teachers’ understandings of their own cultural identities. This study posits that White teachers must understand their own cultural identity, privilege, and the ways they are inscribed and often perpetuate institutional bias if they are to “deconstruct, reconstruct, and recreate” their own multicultural practice.
Below are tools you can use to examine your own biases and how they may affect your teaching.

Do you experience implicit bias?
Challenge yourself to reflect on your own cultural identity and implicit bias. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a research-based way of examining one’s hidden biases or comfort level about interactions with people of races different from their own. The basic finding of research on this test is that almost everyone is vulnerable to the influences that result in bias or unease in dealing with people of different races and ethnicities.

Explore your hidden bias by taking the IAT. Click on the link above, read the test information, then select “I wish to proceed.” You will see tests for a range of differences, including race, disability, religion, sexuality, and so forth. We recommend that you challenge yourself on implicit associations by taking the IAT on "Race" and at least a couple of additional identity categories. After completing the IAT, think about the following questions:
  • How did the IAT inform your understanding of hidden bias?
  • To what extent were you surprised or not by your results?
  • How does understanding your own implicit bias better equip you for respectful engagement with diverse populations?
How can our assumptions about race be wrong?

What happens when these incorrect assumptions influence how we see our students? This belief serves to perpetuate stereotypes and unintentional racism. Race: The Power of an Illusion is PBS series produced by California Newsreel. This series tackles the construct of race and what race means. In deconstructing race as a social construct and discursive modifier, California Newsreel offers a number of interactive activities to raise awareness and reflexivity in the same vein as the Implicit Association Test. Among these is the Sorting People activity where you are asked to sort people into racial categories based on your response to individual pictures.

Akin to the PBS series, Understanding Race, a project of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), deconstructs the power of race as socially constructed. Similar to the sorting activity above, the AAA offers an activity where you have to determine Who is White? (You can get there by taking the link for Lived Experience.)

Go ahead! See if you can tell who is White just based on a picture. Could you determine someone's race by simply looking at the person?

After completing “Sorting People” and “Who is White?” think about the following questions:
  • To what extent were my assumptions about individuals’ racial categories “accurate”?
  • How can my assumptions influence how I see and interact with people in negative ways?
  • How can I be more aware of my implicit bias??
What about our teaching?

If these implicit associations influence how we see people in general, then how do they influence our interactions with students? How do they influence our expectations for students? Consider the following questions posed by Teaching Tolerance (2015):
  • What influences teachers' perceptions of student potential?
  • How do educators' perception of this potential influence their expectations and student performance? 
  • What factors do you consider — consciously or not — when you first encounter a student?


Carime Bersh, L. (2009). Deconstructing Whiteness: Uncovering prospective teachers’ understandings of their culture-A Latina professor’s perspective. Multicultural Perspectives 11(2), 107-112.

Chen, D. W., Nimmo, J., & Fraser, H. (2009). Becoming a culturally responsive early childhood educator: A tool to support reflection by teachers embarking on the anti-bias journey. Multicultural Perspectives 11(2), 101-106.

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Hanselman, P., Bruch, S. K., Gamoran, A., & Borman, G. D. (2014). Threat in Context: School Moderation of the Impact of Social Identity Threat on Racial/Ethnic Achievement Gaps. Sociology Of Education 87(2), 106-124.

Nieto, S & Bode, P. (2013). Affirming diversity: The sociopoltical context of multicultural education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Robinson-Cimpian, J. P., Lubienski, S. T., Ganley, C. M., & Copur-Gencturk, Y. (2014). Teachers' perceptions of students' mathematics proficiency may exacerbate early gender gaps in achievement. Developmental Psychology 50(4), 1262-1281.