Engage - Maintain - Restore: A Personal Attempt at Addressing Implicit Bias

Sean Riley

I recently went to the University of Washington’s RELATE project, a research-inquiry into how teachers and students can develop better relationships. The project gave me another pedagogical acronym, EMR. Instead of putting it in the drawer of forgotten bureaucracia, I offer it to you as a gift. Those letters stand for Establish - Maintain - Restore. The concept isn’t groundbreaking, but is helpful, for instead of being practical at the beginning of the next school year, it’s practical tomorrow, and not only for our day-to-day but the teaching soul.

The project’s idea is that in a healthy teacher-student relationship (an analog for all relationships) the two establish a relationship, maintain it, and when discord arrives, restore it.

As the project leaders reported out their ideas and findings, I found myself making a list of students with whom I need to restore a relationship. The students who I began thinking of weren’t students who had “blow-outs” or who were massively behind. The majority who came to mind were students who slowly, quietly, and unintentionally I forgot. One student I thought of eerily doesn't clamor about anything. Another cannot see her strengths and talents but can see, microscopically, her faults. Another suffers from debilitating mental anguish whose wretched powers I cannot imagine.

While I was thinking about these students, the project leader asked the audience, “Who don’t we talk to in the classroom, and why might that be?”

I avoid conflict. For me, one type of conflict is discomfort. I try to overcome it. I succeed in fits and starts, and it is usually lectures or role models or art or the thrill of a meaningful and unexpected event that jolts me back into having the courage to pursue discomfort.

Individual students cause--even when I’m unaware--personal discomfort. Sometimes I have no clue how to help a student, not to mention what help they need in the first place. Sometimes I perceive they passionately don’t want my help, and their refusal will be so acerbic, I won’t be able to persist. Sometimes I don’t have the courage to display a requisite of relationships, what masculinity shuns: vulnerability. Sometimes a student is  so utterly different than me, I don’t even know where to find basic commonality to begin forming a partnership.

However, as previously said, I also know that a meaningful and unexpected event--the very thing getting to know and help a student does--realigns me with my purpose. 

I began to make a checklist for myself, a personal mandate (the most important kind) to be open to all students in the abstract and specific students in the concrete. I formalized it this week.

⬜ Follow up about about a non-school interest.

⬜ Ask a really hard question.

⬜ Compliment them to another person.

⬜ Tell them they’re inaccurate or wrong, explain why, and follow up to see their next attempt until they do it right.

⬜ Share something about my personal life, particularly a struggle or overcoming a hurdle.

⬜ Ask him/her for feedback on what I did today that helped them learn or what I could have done better.

My list is meant to keep me honest to personalization, high expectations, and formative feedback. I know that not all students need to know a teacher. I know that teachers must beware of being cloyingly expressive or inauthentically conversant. That said, I want to error on the side of too much interaction, the building block of hope, rather than too much distance.

As we enter winter vacation, I encourage you to ask yourself, “Who aren’t I talking with, and why might that be?” Ask yourself in an effort to stoke your idealism, your belief in people, in kids, in yourself, so that when you reenter that classroom in 2018, you're not entering a stultifying stasis but a redemptive fluidity. 

We can try again. We can change. We can make it better.

May all you teachers--some my favorite people on the planet--have a rejuvenating vacation.

  • Communication
  • Cultural Competency
  • Student Engagement
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