What I’d Tell My First-Year-Teacher Self About Bias

by | 02.5.19

When I first started teaching, I was working in a school that served mostly students of color. Even as a teacher of color, I didn’t share a lot of the same experiences my students had. Unlike many of my students, I grew up with two parents who had resources and time, which meant I had a lot of supports with my academics. I had an aunt who would send me books every summer, from birth to high school, and for me, it was such a joy. So when I met students who struggled with reading and grammar, I was surprised. I couldn’t see right away how their different experiences could lead to some unfinished learning.

I’d be looking at my students, asking, “Why don’t you have a pencil? Why don’t you love books? What do you need?” I had no clue where to start. I didn’t realize I had biases. But I can now see the ways I was projecting my values and background onto my students. I was assuming all kids had the same supports I had. I made a lot of assumptions about what my students should be able to do, what resources they should have and ways they should think.

Thankfully, I had folks in my circle who were more experienced teachers and who would challenge me. I needed people to help me recognize and unpack the beliefs I was bringing into the classroom. Changing my mindset involved a lot of self-exploration. I had my biases, and I also had those first-year insecurities about my own teaching – both of which got in the way of supporting my students.

A lot of times, we focus on race when we talk about equity, but there are a lot of other factors. I worked with students who qualified for special ed services, and had to come into my understanding that I wasn’t holding them to high enough expectations. There was this idea that, “Because this kid has X disability, they can’t access this learning.” I needed to unpack that, too.

The problem wasn’t that my students couldn’t rise to the expectations set before them. It was that I wasn’t able to see them for who they were – and I wasn’t yet giving them the supports they needed to reach that high bar. Maybe my students needed more support with reading, but I wasn’t literate when it came to equity. I wanted to be an amazing teacher on Day One, but I realized I had some unfinished learning, too.

By the time my second year came around, I knew I couldn’t start Day One as my best self if I didn’t do some internal work first. I told myself: “You know what, before I meet my kids, I need to self-assess.” I decided to sit down and make a chart: How did I learn? What supports did I have? How might this compare to the access and supports my students have?

If I could go back in time and say one thing to my first-year-teacher self, it would be, “Examine your biases about what you believe your students can do. Sit with the fact that they may not learn how you learned as a kid. What do you believe about your students?”

About the Author

Jonathan Bolding
Jonathan Bolding

Jonathan Bolding is an educator in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @jmarcbolding.

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