Quick – picture a fast-food cheeseburger!
If you’re from where I’m from, you probably pictured McDonald’s. But if you live in a different region, maybe Jack in the Box or In-N-Out Burger came to mind. Our biases, which are culturally created, bring up these associations before we even have time to think about our answers. We think we’re all seeing the same cheeseburger, but because I’m putting it in a box with those golden arches on top and you’re picturing a Jack in the Box wrapper, we’re seeing different things. As an elementary school principal, I use this simple exercise to set the stage for long-term equity work with my team. By growing our awareness of how easily our unconscious biases influence what we see and do, we can grow our commitment to overcome those biases for our students.
We instructional leaders know that because bias is ingrained in our cultural communities, it’s ingrained in our schools and classrooms, too. That means self-knowledge is the first step to equitable, inclusive teaching. If we school leaders don’t equip educators to overcome unconscious bias, we can’t equip them to empower students. That’s why I’m sharing three anti-bias activities I use to shift perception and practice with my team:
1. The Cheeseburger Shoutout
Educators who truly want to provide an anti-racist learning experience may still engage with their students in harmful ways – not because they aren’t sincere about supporting every kid’s success, but because they don’t yet have the training to see the moments when they start looking at their students through a biased lens, and to make shifts in those moments.
That’s the nature of any preconceived cultural conviction: We didn’t dream it up on our own, so it’s not always easy for us to notice how it shapes our thinking – we have to teach ourselves to see it and correct it. That’s why it’s so important for us school leaders to create opportunities for our teams to step back and look at that lens of unconscious bias, instead of through it. And that’s why I love using the “Cheeseburger Shoutout” I shared above: It’s the first step my team and I take to think about what our biases are, how they might unconsciously undermine our commitment to equity and how we can respond.
As teachers shout out their answers, they start laughing and discussing – “Culver’s is the first thing you thought of? I’ve never even been there!” – and that dispels any tension about exploring our biases together. Because this exercise is low-pressure, it promotes trust, but because it clearly illustrates the unconscious nature of bias, it shows everyone that self-knowledge is crucial to being an anti-racist educator.
2. The Privilege Walk
Another activity I rely on is often described as “The Privilege Walk.” We start the activity lined up together, equal. One of us reads statements such as “If you grew up in a two-parent household, take a step forward,” and “If English was not the first language you learned, take a step back,” and then we talk about where we’ve landed.
It’s important to note that this exercise requires a lot of trust from everyone who participates, and that trust has to be built beforehand: I don’t advise asking teachers to share their familial and cultural histories without first creating a supportive space, most likely working with an equity expert. Once that groundwork has been laid, I use this activity to invite my team to discuss their experiences of systemic bias and to examine the biases our culture has instilled in us all – and that encourages us to understand the biases our students may have experienced, in our school community and in the world.
As we think about the limiting lenses we may bring to our students – and the limiting lenses they may bring to their own potential – we can recommit to seeing our kids for all they are and all they can become.
3. Circles of Identity
Sometimes, it can be difficult for a teacher to buy into the importance of centering student identities in classrooms and lesson plans: It’s easy to say, “Well, they’re not here to be themselves, they’re here to learn.” That’s why I use an activity called “Circles of Identity” to create a shared investment in student voice.
We start by sitting down with a sheet of paper with six circles on it. In each circle, I write down one key aspect of my identity, and each educator does the same. Then I ask everyone to cross out one circle, then another, then another. We reflect on the sense of confidence and capability we lose with each part of our identity. Then I encourage them to consider how we might be asking students to leave parts of their identities at the school’s front doors.
As teachers imagine how hard it is for those students to take a risk or tackle a challenge, it becomes clear that we’re not “just” talking about allowing kids to be themselves – we’re talking about allowing kids to learn. If we want to empower student success, we have to empower students! By making our students feel like they are the center of our school community, we make them feel like they can master anything – and they will.
Shining a light onto our biases may not feel easy, for teachers or for us leaders – but it can offer us the opportunity to create and sustain a deeply felt, deeply shared commitment to equity with our teams. By guiding educators to examine the impact of internalized bias on students, we can inspire them to become consciously, actively anti-bias in the way they teach. I’ve seen teachers shine that light on their practice and make powerful shifts for their students – from selecting materials to planning engagement. Those small shifts can make a big difference to student achievement. When we school leaders encourage educators to look at unconscious bias for what it is, we’re equipping them to look at kids for who they are – and that can change education for all of our students.