Teacher applying Leadership principles thought in Leader in Me educator seminars

To be human is to have bias

The following is an excerpt from The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias by Pamela Fuller, Mark Murphy, & Anne Chow.

“Unconscious bias arises from the brain’s capacity problem. We take in an astonishing eleven million pieces of information each second, but we can consciously process only about forty of those bits.

To handle the gap, our brains build shortcuts to make sense of this information. We focus on the one angry customer instead of the hundreds of raving fans (negativity bias).  We pay special attention to data the proves our strategy is working and gloss over data that casts doubt (confirmation bias). We unconsciously prefer the first job candidate we meet (primacy bias). And we like people who are like us (affinity bias).

These shortcuts can be a boon for time-strapped professionals, letting us make quick decisions without having to deliberate on every detail. They can also distort the facts, cause inaccurate judgements, and inhibit our professional performance and possibilities.

As logical and fair as we try to be, we are nearly always operating with a degree of bias, without ever being aware of it.  But the sense that people who have biases are inherently ill-intentioned or morally flawed is one of the paradigms that stops us from making progress on this issue.

There’s no shame in having unconscious bias; it’s a natural part of the human condition that shows up in our decisions, our reactions, and our intentions with others. This is true in our relationships, our teams, and our organizations. We all have bias, so let’s acknowledge it and begin to improve” (p.1).

“We absorb bias in the same way we breathe in smog—involuntarily and usually without any awareness of it.”

– Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

Coaching for Elementary Teachers

The Unconscious Cycle of Teacher Bias

In The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias, the author define bias as “a preference for or against a thing, person, or group compared with another.  Biases may be held by an individual, a group, or an institution” (p.4). They go on to note that “research shows we have unconscious biases around gender, race, job function, personality, age/generation, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, nationality, language ability, veteran status, culture, weight, height, physical ability, attractiveness, political affiliation, virtual/remote working, hair color – even the messiness of someone’s desk or their posture. These unconscious biases can have a positive, benign, or negative impact” (p.5).  Over the decades, educational researchers have documented the impacts of a specific bias that teachers can hold with respect to students that has a demonstrated impact on their achievement.

Essentially, when we have lower expectations for a student, our behavior toward them creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In her research on teacher expectations, Dr. Christine M. Rubie-Davies explained how self-fulfilling prophecies create a cycle of expectations that can keep some students from reaching, or even realizing, their potential. You can read more about Dr. Rubie-Davies’ compelling work HERE, but as an overview, these are the three main steps in the cycle:

Step 1. At the beginning of the year, a teacher begins to form opinions about each student based on their grades, test scores, and what they’ve learned from previous teachers.

Step 2. This information becomes a lens they see the student through. This lens impacts the expectations the teacher has for the student’s academic achievement, which then impacts the teacher’s interactions with the student, as well as the learning opportunities given to them.

Step 3. A student’s academic outcomes are directly impacted by their learning opportunities and teacher interaction. This information is then passed on to their next teacher(s) and the cycle starts all over again.

Students assimilate the teacher’s expectations and, over time, come to achieve at the level at which the teacher expects them to.

– Dr. Christine M. Rubie-Davies

using student data

What Can We Do?

Schools are becoming increasingly aware of the impact unconscious bias can have on student outcomes, but general awareness is not enough. To stop the impact of unconscious bias, educators must become aware of their personal biases and learn how to take specific actions to overcome their student impacts. To do this most effectively, educators need to collaboratively support each other’s growth, as well as the support of an administration that is committed to ongoing professional learning that effectively supports anti-bias practices.


To begin to explore your own unconscious biases you can use the  Implicit Association Test.

This is the most prominent test of unconscious/implicit bias from researchers at Harvard University. On the site, you will find many different kinds of bias you can test yourself on. The tests are all free and the results are confidential.

If you want to learn more about what some of those foundational best practices look like in Leader in Me Schools, check out this research brief.

To learn more about Leader in Me’s “Equity in Education” all-staff workshop, email [email protected].

Franklin Covey Education