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3 Strategies to Reflect on Our Biases

by Naashia Mohamed |

Some time ago, I facilitated a faith-based workshop for a group of multilingual women from different ethnic backgrounds. English was our lingua franca, but I wanted to end our session with a prayer in Arabic. During a break in our programme, I approached Seema, a participant I knew was an Arabic speaker. She was older than the rest of the group, and well respected by others. Assuming she would be perfect for this task, I asked if she would be comfortable leading us in the prayer to end our session. She agreed.

When it was time to close the session with prayer, Seema was visibly shaken. She took out a book of prayers and started reading in a monotonous voice. What I had intended to be a powerful end to the session became an awkward one, and Seema went on and on faltering through passages that had no relevance to the focus of the workshop.

“Why did you ask Seema to do that?” my colleague asked me at the end as we packed up our things. “Did you just assume that she would be a good prayer leader?” As we discussed it, I realized that I had assumed Seema to be more capable than others because she was older, identified Arabic as her dominant language, and seemed to exude authority. What I didn’t realize was that although she spoke fluent Arabic, she had no experience in leading prayer and did not have the confidence to do so. My decision to invite Seema was a result of my unconscious biases about her, her language, and her cultural background.

In this case, my expectations of Seema were positive, based on the stereotype I had formed unconsciously. But biases can often be negative, leading to potential implicit prejudice against an individual or group. Recognizing I had biases unknown to myself but visible to others caused me to reflect deeply on other ways in which I may have been unintentionally treating others.

We all hold unconscious biases and prejudices that affect all aspects of our lives and the lives of others we interact with. In the classroom context, when all eyes are on the teacher, it is easy to call out the teacher when we recognize biases. But it is far harder to look within ourselves and acknowledge the implicit beliefs we hold and how they impact our actions, causing us to potentially discriminate against others.

Here are a few thoughts on strategies we could employ to reflect on our biases and eliminate them from our professional practice.

1. Acknowledge Your Biases

We all have them to varying degrees. It is essential that we recognize them and work toward change. Even though time is never on our side, we need to press pause and find time to think about our students and those we work with. Here are some helpful questions to guide your reflection:

    • What are my core beliefs? How might these impact how I see my students and colleagues? Do my beliefs limit or enable my perspectives of others?
    • What privileges do I have that my students and colleagues might not?
    • How do I react to people from different backgrounds? Do I hold stereotypes or assumptions about a particular social group?
    • How would others (students/colleagues/community) describe my teaching approach? What would they say about my relationships with students and colleagues?
    • What expectations do I have for each student? Do these differ between individuals? If so, why?
    • Do I put myself in the shoes of the other person and empathize with their situation, even if I don’t relate to it?

Reflecting on answers to these (and other) questions can help us see patterns in our thinking that can expose biases that we hold unconsciously.

2. Review Teaching Materials

What biases are present in the materials we use to teach? Are there a range of authors/perspectives represented? Are the students and their communities in our classrooms represented in our teaching materials?  Are they represented positively? Whose points of view are visible? Who is involved in selecting topics and materials? How could students and community be involved to increase representation?

3. Have Honest Conversations and Seek Feedback

Honest feedback helps us to grow and develop self-awareness. Create a safe space in your classroom and with colleagues to have difficult conversations. Reach out to people whose perspectives may be different from yours. Often these different perspectives are more insightful than simple affirmations that what you are doing is right.

Ask colleagues: “I value your opinion and want to understand how you see my approach to teaching so that I can continue to grow in my profession. Would you be willing to have a conversation about this?”

Ask students to leave written feedback after a class: “I value your opinion and want to understand how you see my approach to teaching so that I can teach you in ways that benefit you the most. Please write down what you think is working well, and what you would like done differently in my classes.”

Listen to the feedback with an open mind and with the intention of learning.

Be prepared for discomfort. Learning to embrace change can be challenging at first.

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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