One of the most exciting waves of change over the past few years has been around the topic of social justice. To some, it’s a term that still carries some judgement. However, its implementation in everyday life has been crucial to every minority or underrepresented group.
It is essential that education professionals understand what “social justice” means so they can be equipped to discuss it. Social justice is not about being forced to believe in something. It is about unpacking one’s own inherent biases, which is a difficult task of monumental importance.
The biggest challenge with biases is that we all carry them. Karen Doss Bowman from NAFSA notes that “[u]nconscious, or implicit, biases are the attitudes, preferences, and assumptions that any person holds toward another individual or group of people. These beliefs — centered around a wide range of characteristics, from race, ethnicity, and gender to religion, speaking accent, physical appearance, and physical abilities — are formed from birth, outside of a person’s awareness.”
In a classroom context, these biases can take many forms. For example, a teacher may assume that a student will excel in certain subjects according to images traditionally linked to their ethnicity. Or, they might expect an international student to have a certain migratory trajectory. Most of these assumptions are not made on purpose to hurt a student, but they may negatively impact the pupil’s performance.
Taking Action Towards Solutions
There’s no question of whether bias in education exists: nowadays, there’s a consensus that it is a problem that institutions must tackle head-on. The first step is admitting there’s an issue and understanding how, as an educator, you may contribute to the problem. Scholastic compiled a list of tips to “bias-proof your classroom,” and the first is to ask yourself questions such as: “Do I truly believe that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background, are capable of academic success?” or “Do I have beliefs about their home lives or community that prevent me from seeing their academic potential?” and “Do I treat students how I want my children to be treated by teachers?” The answers may make you uncomfortable, but that’s part of the process.
After this critical step of self-reflection and self-assessment comes action. Many students from a different race, gender or national origin may feel like the teacher does not like them. It’s important to check in with them and make sure that they know that you actively care. Sometimes, favoriting a student over another may cause this rift. Educator Gail Thompson for Scholastic suggests that teachers treat their problem kid as the star student and “for 21 consecutive school days, force yourself to view and treat this student as if he or she were the brightest student in your class.” Exercises like these shift the dynamics entirely within the class, exposing what was not working.
Educators can also use other strategies to create a more democratic environment when attending to various student voices. In this department, technology can be your friend: using Doodle or Google Docs can allow students to contribute equally, not being outshone by those who are the “teacher’s pet.”
These are minor steps to take as soon as possible. But of course, educators must show no tolerance for abusive and discriminatory behavior of any kind: perhaps the most crucial step of all in the fight for social justice is to call out injustice when you see it — whether it be among students, teachers or parents.