EDITORIAL – Brushing Away Biases

by Dr. Brian Ricca, Montpelier Superintendent of Schools

The Montpelier Public Schools (MPS) Leadership Team is participating in a series of trainings with CQ Strategies—a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations become more culturally competent—called “We All Belong,” in a sustained effort to grow our own cultural competency.

One of the goals in the MPS Action Plan is “To implement an articulated multi-tiered system of support to provide equitable learning opportunities for students in safe and inclusive learning environments.” A substantial part of that commitment is working to address our own shortcomings and actively grow as leaders in MPS for this work.

During a discussion at a recent training, one of the participants asked our facilitators if there is a way to ever fully overcome unconscious bias. The facilitator paused before answering, and the answer was stunning in its simplicity. “Well, do you brush and floss every day? While doing that is never going to fully prevent dental decay and larger problems in your mouth, we still know that is just good dental hygiene.”

We all do something every day that is not guaranteed to make a difference but is considered just good practice.

I have unconscious biases, simply by growing up and breathing in the ethos in the United States of America. We all have unconscious biases that impact us as we go about living in the world. Anyone who says otherwise is simply not being fully honest. Once we have admitted that we have biases, we must take the next step to ensure that we are working to keep them in check and do what we can to minimize their impact on our day-to-day relationships.

For those of us in education, the expectations are much higher. We must be vigilant not only for the biases in our own life; we must also be just as vigilant for evidence of biases in our students, in our schools, and in our community. As educators, our responsibilities include educating the whole child, not just the head but the heart as well.

We must ensure that our students are practicing habits that will prevent further development of biases, as they move in relationships not only during the school day but during the rest of their lives as well. We state in MPS that one of our goals is to have our students be in “safe and inclusive learning environments.” We have a responsibility to our students as well as to our fellow human beings to be aware of our unconscious biases.

At the 2017 Rowland Foundation Annual Conference in late October, Professor Ruha Benjamin inspired and challenged us around issues of race in the state of Vermont. A tweet from MHS Principal Mike McRaith summed up her message insightfully: “A big takeaway for me is to help the overserved understand their privilege and develop empathy so they can be whole.”

There are real issues of equity and privilege in our state. They extend beyond that of just race and include class, gender, gender identity, and ability to name just a few. Anyone who feels marginalized in 2017, who is not in a position of privilege, is working harder and harder every day to overcome the injustice and then engage in the process of learning.

I am not whole, because I am overserved and I have privilege. I promise to brush and floss every day to try to keep my unconscious biases in check but will need help with my blind spots. Will you help me? I promise to help you with yours, so that we can honor all our students to make schools truly safe and inclusive for all of them.

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