4 Things Educational Leaders Need to Know About Unconscious Bias

Author: Dr. Eve Miller
December 9, 2020

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Pamela Fuller, lead author of FranklinCovey’s newest book The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias. I know I am going to sound biased (no pun intended), but it is an incredible book. Nearly every page of my copy is marked with notes and highlighting! I learned so much while reading the book and talking with Pamela. Here are four of my favorite lightbulb moments from the book that inspired me the most.


#1 The role of psychological safety in the performance of those we work with. 

When we talk about workplace safety, it is often in the context of preventing accidents and protecting ourselves from harm. Pamela digs deeper into the neuroscience of safety and the way bias can cause people to feel unsafe in their work environment. For example, when a person does not feel respected for who they are or has no voice in decisions, it affects them. Brain science tells us that this can impair the thinking centers of our brains. If that perception of the lack of safety continues, it can impact our ability to engage with our work and reach our full potential in our role. This finding is just as applicable to students. Seemingly minor actions can erode a student’s sense of psychological safety and thus, their ability to engage in their learning.

Actions for School Leaders

Ensuring psychological safety requires us to think about how to even out power dynamics. For teachers, creating safe spaces for student learning means building positive relationships with each of our students, so we know how to best support their learning. 


#2 Belonging is the most important responsibility of leaders. 

Building from the research on psychological safety, the authors offer important insights about why cultivating a culture of belonging is, and should be, a primary goal of leadership. In short, we must feel like we belong before we can make meaningful contributions at work in areas like collaborative problem solving and innovation. For students from marginalized groups, the classrooms and learning materials can reinforce and trigger negative stereotypes that harm their sense of belonging and create unseen barriers to learning.

Actions for School Leaders:
The book covers three main areas of an organization that are too often barriers to belonging. You can start to assess which barriers to belonging may be present in your school(s) by considering the following questions:

  1. Language: What kind of language is commonly used in our district? Is it conveying an unintentional bias or expectation? Is it aligned with our beliefs about a student’s worth and potential? For example, “parent night” can isolate students who are living with a guardian whom they do not see as their parent and can reinforce a sense they do not belong at their school.
  2. Policies and Procedures: How were our policies and procedures created? Were these decisions informed by those most impacted by them? For example, did we ask for student feedback on discipline policies to check for unintentional disparities in how they affect different students? 
  3. Representation: In the classroom, this means being intentional about making sure all students see themselves represented in leadership roles, curriculum and learning materials, and stories of success. This also matters in the hiring and promotion practices within the district. The more students see themselves represented in the teachers and administrators in their school, the greater sense of belonging they will feel.


#3 The Power of Networks in Fighting Bias

I often think of networks as a group of people who connect around professional interests, but Pamela expanded my understanding of networks to be a powerful tool for mitigating bias and coping with its impacts. Networks can mitigate bias when we intentionally seek out opportunities to build perspectives different from our own. And networks can help us cope with the impacts of bias by building our sense of belonging and growing our cultural competence.

Actions for School Leaders:

  • To support your own growth: Take steps to grow your own network to include those from different backgrounds and those who hold perspectives different from your own. This will increase your ability to make decisions that are effective for your whole staff. 
  • To support the growth of your staff: Encourage networks within your work setting by creating opportunities for mentoring, coaching, and affinity groups.


#4 Seeing bias as a journey, not a single destination. 

Discussing topics of bias always comes with discomfort. It would be ideal if we could simply identify our biases, work to address them, and have that carry us through the rest of our lives.  But, in reality, because our brains and our social systems default to bias as a cognitive processing shortcut, addressing them requires consistent monitoring and regular efforts to mitigate harmful bias. Understanding this reality allows school leaders to go into this process with more accurate expectations and set appropriate goals. 

Actions for School Leaders:

A Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias heavily features practical and effective ways to ensure long-lasting positive impacts from their work around bias.  Here are a few strategies that leaders can utilize immediately:

  • Get curious about your reactions.
    When you feel frustrated with a member of your team, this is an essential time to challenge your assumptions and grow your awareness. Ask yourself questions to help challenge the narratives you may be creating, like, “What information may I be missing?” and “What do I know based on fact?” Then, use this increased awareness to continue to improve and grow in ways that will have transformational impacts on the effectiveness of your teams.

Commit to staying updated about bias in education.
This could be through the thought leaders you follow on social media, the podcasts you listen to, or the networks you engage in.  Each time you revisit the topic in a meaningful way, you are increasing both your understanding of bias and your skillset in addressing it.

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