The elephant in the Room

In this post, I would like to address the big elephant in the room: Teacher’s bias in the classroom and its consequences on our children’s academic success.  

A study conducted in 2018 by the OECD has found that children with a foreign background do not do as well in school as their native peers. The study analysed school performance of more than 500,000 15-year-olds from different economic zones in 72 countries. One fourth of the students assessed had at least one parent with a foreign background.

When we talk about the topic of inequality in the classroom, we usually focus on factors like socioeconomic status, funding, zoning, family situation, precariousness, language barriers for immigrant children or children with a migration background… These are very relevant issues and definitely play a significant role but there is a big elephant in the room most of us feel uncomfortable addressing: Teacher and school staff bias.

Let’s start off on the right foot. It is not about accusing anyone of anything, especially not the people who dedicate their time and energy to teach our little ones. However, educators are front-liners in terms of the society’s efforts to promote equality.  Very often they are one of the most important (if not the only) sources of information for disadvantaged students. Unless we address the big elephant in the room and help everyone grow awareness of this topic, teachers can unintentionally discriminate against some of their students based on stereotypes about race, gender, origin…

 What is bias?

Bias (conscious and unconscious) is a learned set of beliefs about a race, a religion, a gender, a social class… that either causes you to like or dislike the group of people who belong to it. People can also develop all sorts of negative bias against people from their own groups. It is acquired through society and absorbed over time.

Let me break the news to you: We all have our own biases. This is how the human brain works. Our brain has the capacity to process about 10 million pieces of information at a time but can consciously only deal with a few. The rest is categorized into groups and given an instinctive reaction. In other words, the brain creates shortcuts to make its job easier. These mechanisms are useful but can also subtly, positively or negatively, influence our actions or opinions about other people.

Before I carry on, I would like to say that intersectionality is very important to this topic. The combination of a pupil’s different social and political identities may create different modes of discrimination and privilege.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the situation.  

In many countries, the number of immigrant children i.e. foreign born or children with a migration background i.e. students born in their country of current residence who have at least one foreign-born parent is increasing every year. Between 2003 and 2015, the share of foreign-born students or students with a migration background in OECD countries grew by six percentage points. In Germany, every tenth student currently has no German passport and the number is even bigger for Germans with a migration background (1 in every 4 German).

According to the OECD, almost every other pupil with a migration background performs badly at school.

In Germany, The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) showed that in 2016 12.1% of  young people with a migration background between 18 and 25 years of age left school without a school leaving certificate Vs 4%  of those without a migration background and 6.7% for those who were born in Germany, but have a migration background.

In the USA, studies have demonstrated that black and Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended than white students, and nearly twice as likely to be expelled.

A 2016 research has revealed that implicit bias affects teachers’ expectations for black students. Black teachers’ expectations for black students are 30–40% higher than non-black teachers. 

Again, we very often hear about all the socioeconomic arguments but a study by the Yale Child Study Centre led by Professor Walter Gilliam and a team of researchers pointed to clues that these disparities may also exist because of implicit bias.

Professor Gilliam and his team showed a group of 135 educators videos of children in a classroom. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl. They were asked to detect ‘challenging behaviour’, if any. NO SUCH BEHAVIOUR EXISTED IN ANY OF THE VIDEOS.

42% of the teachers identified the black boy as the trouble maker. The participants’ assessment closely reflected the results of an eye-tracking technology used by the research team, which showed that preschool teachers “show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys, when challenging behaviours are expected”.

The students involved in this experiment were all PRESCHOOLERS, let that sink in. It starts that early.

Examining unconscious bias is imperative to achieve more equality of opportunities, particularly for low-income students, minorities, and women in STEM. We need to focus on what is happening in the classroom. The most well-meaning teachers can hold stereotypes that affect their students’ future. A study conducted in the 1960’s by Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal to measure how teachers’ expectations affect student performance has demonstrated that “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,”

Teacher-Parent Relationship

The relationship between parents and the school is particularly important in the children’s formative year (ages 5-14). These are the years where students have the biggest biological and social growth. The role of parent involvement as a critical component of student success  is widely endorsed by research. The active participation of parents through regular and meaningful communication with the main teachers is a vital part of boosting academic achievement.

However, a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and New York University published in Social Science Research showed that teachers believe that mothers and fathers of minority students (even if they are not immigrants) are less involved in their children’s education and tend to reach out less to these students families. The result is that students whose parents were considered less involved had lower grades and less likely chance of being recommended for academic honours or special programs.

There are many walls that can prevent immigrant parents to be involved in their children’s education: transportation, work, lack of language proficiency, child- care, lack of knowledge of the educational system, illegal immigration status but also a difference in perception of what involvement looks like in different cultures. Many times, parental involvement is simply not recognised by the teachers or parents feel left out because the school doesn’t take them into consideration (no translators, meetings held at inconvenient times, no orientation offered to the parents) .

For immigrant parental support to be built, it is important that the school administration and teachers are trained so they can not only recognize culture differences but also respond to them with strategic plans.

This will lead me to the last point I would like to address: Diversity in schools.

Diversifying the Classroom

Improving diversity and inclusion efforts is beneficial to everyone. Many big businesses have reported a boost in productivity, creativity, and overall employee happiness by promoting more diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. The school is not exception.

The diversity among pupils does not necessarily apply to the teaching workforce or management teams. This lack of diversity can create some challenges for the teachers and the students. According to a significant body of research students benefit from having teachers who look like them, whether it is race, ethnicity, religion, gender, physical disability …especially students who belong to minority groups. We generally, tend to be inspired by role models we can relate to or identify with.

Researchers say it’s not entirely clear why this is relevant but it’s probably a combination of factors.

Diversifying the teaching workforce means having teachers form different backgrounds who can speak many languages and understand better their students and their families’ expectations and difficulties.

However, I want to stress that diversifying the workforce does not exclude the importance of adequate and regular ‘unconscious Bias’ trainings for teachers to detect and act on their own biases as sometimes we might internalize stereotypes about our own group.


As a parent, you shouldn’t wait until you are worried about whether biases may impact your child or your children’s relationship with their teachers. Be proactive. Ask for meetings regularly, get involved and voice your concern if you feel that you are being pushed away or not given enough attention.

It is also paramount that the school administration develops strategies that include immigrant parents and that meet the needs of the students. When people talk about these topics, they usually make them sound so expensive and complicated. In reality it can be as easy as planning meetings at more convenient times for working and/or single parents or NOT relying on actions like volunteering or attending parental conferences that might de facto exclude parents who have all sorts of constraints.

If you wonder why a country need to do all this to accommodate immigrants my answer is simple:

Discrimination = Loss 

Photo by Kaffeebart on Unsplash

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