I Know Now That It Was Unintentional: A Reflection

Writing was always my favorite subject in school. I loved writing assignments, and was very excited when one of my elementary school teachers announced to my class that we would have the opportunity to write an essay on a state of our choice. There was one catch. Everyone in the class had to have a different state. It did not take me long to decide which state I wanted to write about.  Since my last name was Armstead and my teacher always did everything by last name order, I would not have a problem getting the state of my choice.

This time she threw a curve ball and decided that in order to make the selection process fair she would randomly draw names.  I remember sitting at my desk with the name of my state  on a little piece of crumpled paper in my hand for what seemed like the longest time. She finally chose my name, and I was ecstatic to share that I had selected Hawaii. I was  even more thrilled when she let us loose to choose our resources and get started. We were thoroughly prepared. She worked very hard the weeks prior teaching lessons on the writing process, summarizing, creating remarkable lead sentences etc. I completed my essay and was so proud of my work. I still remember part of my introduction: It has crystal blue water, beautiful scenery and graceful palm trees. Where else could it be but lovely Hawaii…

Sometime later, my teacher returned the essays. She called us one at a time to her desk. She never said anything, but I could tell by her facial expression and the way she called a student’s name when she was either pleased with a paper or…not so much. When she called me to her desk, I was more than confident that she would be proud of my creativity and effort, but I didn’t like the way she called my name or looked at me. Without saying a word she handed me my graded essay which included the following feedback:

C-  You did not write this. Show me the book where you copied this paragraph. 

How did I feel? I was nine years old and felt both deflated and confused. For a moment, I lost my optimistic spirit. I had proven myself to be a hardworking,  good student.  Why would my teacher all of a sudden lose confidence in me?  I showed her my resources, and she still didn’t believe me. The next day to her surprise I produced solid evidence—my mother.

Fast forward 30+ years later and I can feel that experience like it was yesterday.  I think about the dire consequences for students who are not armed with the tools to respond to this type of situation. I used that experience to become better.  My mother helped me see that if that teacher thought  my topic sentence was so great that I must have copied it from a book, imagine what I could give to the world through my writing.

I don’t believe that teacher intentionally set out to destroy my confidence as a student or writing credibility. I actually enjoyed being in that class.  The fact of the matter is, our expectations of students can be shaped by our implicit biases.  The article, 5 Keys to Challenging Implicit Bias, discusses the far -reaching effects of implicit bias in schools. It’s way beyond my unfairly graded paper about Hawaii. The consequences of implicit bias can pervade throughout a student’s entire educational experience. It is actually becoming a more focused topic of discussion in girls’ education.

I challenge us to reflect upon the sources of information that help mold and shape our expectations of students. Project Implicit  developed a tool that may be useful as we reflect on our implicit associations in the context of a variety of topics.

I would love to hear  your thoughts as well as resources you have used to facilitate conversations on this topic.

Have a wonderful week,

Dr. Joy


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