We All Carry Implicit Biases. Christopher House Is Learning to See and Change Them.

Jan 9, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by Karen Ross-Williams

Research shows that, as early as preschool,  racial bias affects student learning. From a young age, we adults are treating children differently based on their skin color, and we are nearly always blind to the ways in which we are a part of the problem. 

While there are important systems and policy changes that need to take place to create more equity, there’s also work we can do on the ground to create more thoughtful, reflective teachers who can see and stop bias. At Christopher House in Chicago, we are just beginning this journey; here’s what we are learning along the way.

We Need to Explicitly Talk about Implicit Bias and Give Tools for Correction

One recent example at Christopher House arose between a White teacher, an African American scholar and his mom. As part of the daily routine, his teacher would ask all students to come to the carpet and “sit criss-cross applesauce for storytime.” The young scholar was consistently getting in trouble on the carpet. 

After trying several discipline strategies when the scholar appeared to defy the request, the teacher addressed what she thought was a discipline problem with Mom. Mom nodded along and said she would work on it with her son. Then she turned to a teacher of the same race and whispered, “What is criss-cross applesauce?” Neither Mom nor son was familiar with the term. A brief tutorial in the preschool seating position with a teacher Mom trusted resolved the problem. 

Did the White teacher assume a discipline problem because the child was Black? Was this her implicit bias coming through? I’ll never really know, but I do know the research shows that young, Black boys are among those most likely to be affected by implicit bias, so for me, it is important that we take extra care with these students. 

What if the teacher had evaluated her instruction rather than assuming the child was misbehaving? As educators, we always need to be looking at our own instructional practice first, ensuring that it is universally designed to ensure all students’ success. 

We are pushing our staff to examine their experiences with race more openly and self-reflectively. By doing so, our teachers can see  how race affects their interactions with students and their classroom environments. We are increasing our training around implicit bias, to equip teachers with tools and practices to identify their own biases and correct course. [pullquote position="right"]Part of the learning process is knowing that we all carry this bias and that there’s an opportunity to do better.[/pullquote]

We Need More Teachers Who Look Like, Sound Like and Live Like our Students 

Research shows that the presence of diverse teaching staff who foster an inclusive classroom can catapult the success of children of color. 

To correct this imbalance, we are encouraging our assistant teachers to become leaders. [pullquote]A variety of external factors and systemic barriers have prevented these educators, who are largely African American and Latinx, from pursuing their teacher certification.[/pullquote] I found it did not take much to encourage many of them to get on the track to full certification. 

We Need to Reach Out to Parents, Too

After increasing the presence of African American men in our classrooms, I had several parents ask if “that man” (their children’s highly qualified teacher) is allowed to be in the classroom. And I have had to navigate uncomfortable but necessary conversations about our commitment to equity and inclusion. 

Christopher House has long held the values of equality, providing students access to high-quality schools and immersive family support services that close the opportunity gap. We are just digging into the challenging work of confronting and correcting implicit bias in our classrooms. We recently launched a pilot training, attended by a cross-section of staff at our schools. Some staff left the training exhausted, others energized—but it was clear for all that this is an important conversation in which we will continue to invest time and resources. 

[pullquote]The work is difficult, and we encounter each step as an opportunity to make us a stronger, more equitable learning community.[/pullquote] Ultimately, this journey moves us towards a more equitable future for our children.

Karen Ross-Williams

As the director of early childhood and youth development for Christopher House, Karen Ross-Williams oversees the agency’s early childhood education and after-school programs. Ms. Ross-Williams has over two decades of experience at Christopher House and previously served as site director of the Chicago, Uptown site. She oversaw Christopher House Uptown’s NAEYC accreditation. Under her leadership, Christopher House Uptown became the largest early childhood site in Illinois to earn a four-star rating under the state’s quality rating system. In 2013, Ms. Ross-Williams was voted Employee of the Year by her colleagues. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member of the early childhood education department at Truman College, of the City Colleges of Chicago.

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