Relationship Building

Finding and Fighting Our Biases (Ep. 089)

If we are being honest, all teachers have some biases. What types of students we connect with, who we like to work with, and who we might favor implicitly. And it takes a really strong teacher to be able to recognize these biases and move past them, creating a quality learning environment for all of our students. So how do we get there? Andrew brings Tim on the show to talk about all of these somewhat difficult topics. They talk about the importance of recognizing our own biases (4:45),the mindset we want our kids to have (11:00), and how societal expectations inform our classes and our teaching (16:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

I had this weird realization a few weeks ago, you know about being an art teacher, being creative and I immediately thought it’d be an interesting topic for a podcast. As my go-to resident guest for when I have a weird topic, I first thought of Tim to come on here and humor me or at least help me make sense of this weird idea.

This weird idea, if I’m being honest, it has been something that’s been in the back of my mind for while, but it got kind of knocked loose a couple of weeks ago. This idea is all about biases. I wonder if we as art teachers have some unconscious, definitely not intentional – biases. Do we have certain types of students that we gravitate towards? Students that we find it easier or more enjoyable to work with?

This is really kind of a horrible and tough thing to admit, but I think if we’re being honest, it’s human nature. It’s probably easiest for a lot of us as teachers, to identify and work with students that are similar to ourselves, similar interests, personalities, maybe they remind us of us when we were younger.

It takes a mindful, reflective, and masterful teacher to be aware of these biases and have a concerted effort to work around them and give all of our students a great, artistic, experience.

Now these biases don’t just manifest themselves as a one-way street however. This isn’t something that only affects a teacher and kind of goes downward towards our students. Our students also have biases that affect how they come to school, how they come to our class, what sort of mindset or attitude they have when they come see us.

I have a difficult time speaking of generalization and biases here. Working with students that have a fixed mindset. You know, those students that kind of fold their arms and think that they’re helpless and uncoachable, and they’re never gonna get better at something. That is such a defeatist attitude, and it’s so foreign to me, that I have to pause and really focus myself to understand where did that learned helplessness come from, in order that I can deal with it and try to defeat it.

One of the things that I know Tim and I are going to touch on are societal biases about creativity in the arts in regards to gender. I am a little worried to go there with him because I think nothing smacks more of man-splaining than two older white guys bemoaning how no boys ever take art classes, or how creativity is mistakenly thought of as being an engendered concept.

But again, if we’re being honest and telling some hard truths, our society, far too often, looks at creativity as a feminine endeavor. And I wonder if that doesn’t steer guys away from taking art classes.

Or maybe it’s broader than that. Maybe creativity is seen by society and parents as being, you know, it’s a nice thing, but it’s a frivolous thing. And “My kids are gonna be something important some day, and they just don’t have the time for that fluffy stuff.”

What I’m getting at here, is I think that creativity has some really bad P.R. There’s plenty of people out there touting how important it is, but when the rubber hits the road, and it’s time to sign up for classes or to fund departments, art and creativity all too often lose out to STEM and those all important core classes.

Creativity really is in crisis. If you really want to better advocate for yourself and for your students creativity as a whole, AOE has a great class aptly titled Creativity in Crisis.

In this class, students dissect the how and why creativity is so undermined in our schools and in our society, and you’ll even get to experiment with some ways to boost your own creativity and the creativity of your students. So head on over to and check out Creativity in Crisis and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

All right, let’s bring on Tim to see if he also has some biases that he’s willing to share. Or at the very least, let’s see if he encounters student biases in regards to his art program.

All right Tim, thanks for joining me man.

Tim: Hey, thanks for having me on. Good to talk to you.

Andrew: Yeah, well don’t say that just yet because this might be a really weird one. I want to talk about biases. This idea kind of came to me a while ago, but there’s a part of me that thinks maybe this isn’t even something that we should talk about because it is really tough to admit. But on the flip side, I think it’s important as teachers, we identify and name some of those biases.

Number one, do you think it’s important that we kind of fess up to some biases? Before I maybe ask you yours, I want to know, should we even be having this conversation?

Tim: Yes. Yes we should. I don’t know. I talk all the time about how important I think it is for teachers to reflect on what they’re doing, and that goes beyond just lessons. Like, hey would this media be better for this project? Maybe this kid should be using this. I think we need to go beyond that. There’s a bigger picture. Teaching just isn’t about what you’re presenting to your kids, or how you’re presenting it.

Pedagogy’s obviously important, but there’s a bigger picture at play too, and I think we need to think about that, and I think we need to talk about that as well. So yeah, short answer, yes. We need to talk about these things.

Andrew: Well, and to me, this idea dawned to me a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll get to that in a second, but I do think everyone has biases, and I do think that they can subconsciously or unintentionally kind of affect or change how we work with students. But I also think it probably works the other way where students have biases too, and it might affect and change how they come to the art class, their preconceived ideas and notions.

Okay, so if we’re both on the same page that this is weird and awkward conversation to have, but worth having. Can you, if you’re feeling comfortable enough, maybe share some of the biases that you have when it comes to being a teacher?

Tim: Yeah, I can do this, and who knows if we’ll get pushback for these or not, but like you said, I think it’s important to talk about. There’s two that I can think of. First one is if I can just put it really bluntly, I like teaching poor kids way more than I like teaching rich kids. Again, that may take people aback at first. I’ve said that to people before, and they’re kind of shocked by it.

But when you dive into it, and you think about it, for me, this was kind of crystallized way back when I did elementary art. I went to a lot of different schools, and the kids with the lower socioeconomic status, I would go to those schools, and they were so appreciative of everything I did. Every art experience was a new experience for them, and every material I got out was this like world of joy just opening up for them. And I loved that.

Then I would go to the schools that were much more well-off, and those kids were just nonplussed about everything I did. Like, “Hey check out these awesome oil pastels.” “Oh yeah, I have four sets of those at home.” And you know, just nothing was exciting for them.

I guess that was established a little bit more when I taught high school. I feel like kids who are really well-off, don’t necessarily need you. And I’m not saying that they’re bad people or anything like that, but just like they’re gonna succeed whether I’m there or not, if that makes sense.

There are a lot of kids who are coming from different backgrounds that really need a lot of help, and that’s why you get into teaching right, to help kids. So I find myself always drawn to those kids who need me a little bit more. So my bias is to enjoy working with them a little bit more.

Then secondly, I know I’m rambling, and that was a long answer, but my second bias that I want to talk about is I like teaching girls way more than I like teaching boys. Boys are immature and smelly and obnoxious. And girls like sit down and do their work and can carry on normal conversations like an adult, and I appreciate that maturity that most girls have, and most boys don’t have.

Anyway, those are my two big ones, but I’ll turn it back around on you. What are your biases?

Andrew: How great would it be if I just said like, “Oh Tim. I have zero.” I’m a saint, and you come off as being this horrible person.

Tim: Yes, make me feel really guilty about what I just said.

Andrew: Yeah. Well, I do want to actually give you kudos because I was at first a little taken aback, the way you say that, but it actually does kind of make a lot of sense. And I think there’s something about just putting it out there in thinking about students with means, and students who don’t have means. And we teach them all, and what you said kind of about how much kids need you, and I think that’s really interesting and very true.

I’ve had students who have means, who are amazing students and are so generous and kind and warmhearted, and you would never know that they don’t want for anything. And then conversely, I’ve had kids who have a sort of sense of entitlement, and that can be a little frustrating sometimes to work with.

To me, I don’t know that it’s bias in kids I find difficult, but I definitely know that kids who are really nerdy and kind of like have these nerdy tastes and interests, I’m like, “Oh I really like you. You’re like a lot of fun. You’re interesting.” And so many times, as a secondary teacher, we have students who are like, “Oh you’re just not very interesting. You’re really bland still, and you haven’t kind of found you yet.”

So I tend to, I guess, gravitate more to the kids who already have some kind of quirks and you know, interests that make them unique. And I would say one of the attitudes or mindsets that I find really frustrating to work with, and I just am like, “Gosh, I have to find more patience in the reserves to work with you,” are those kids who just have a fixed mindset and just think, “Well I’m not good at art. Art is stupid. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

And it’s like, it’s day one. Why are you coming at me with that attitude? Those kids are pretty tough to work with, but I will say if you are persistent with them and crack it open. That can be really rewarding. But those kids are really tough.

I’m really glad that you mentioned the whole boys versus girls things. I don’t know that I’ve ever really though about if I enjoy teaching girls more than boys or boys more than girls, but I do think about the fact that I just don’t have a lot of dudes.

This was like a couple of weeks ago, and this is what got me thinking about this. I was presenting at the Art Educators of Iowa Conference, and I actually gave a bunch of different talks that day. I would say, throughout my three talks that I gave, I had roughly 70 different teachers. Now some of the teachers I saw a couple of different times, and I’m just kind of approximating here.

I’d say out of those 70 teachers, there were probably like six guys. You know what I mean? And I knew all of them because it’s like, “Hey, how’s it going Danny? I see you every time.” It’s like the one token guy in my session.

So here’s my question, and this kind of goes to biases in teaching and art and art education. Are we just really weird anomalies? There’s nothing inherently feminine or masculine in any of those things. Right? So what gives? Why is art education and art classes so female-heavy?

Tim: Yeah, you know, I wish I had the answer to that. I mean obviously teaching is a female dominated profession, especially at the elementary level. So yeah, the male elementary art teacher is such a rare breed. It’s definitely something different, but I don’t know why that is. I don’t have an answer for that, and I wish I did.

But I think it’s worth exploring too, just your classes because I feel like when I’m looking at my high school courses, it’s a majority of females in there, especially when we get to more advanced classes. And I don’t know the reasoning behind that. I don’t know why it’s more majority girls. Maybe that’s my bias coming through. Like the boys realize I don’t like teaching them, and they drop right out of there.

Andrew: Interesting.

Tim: No, I really don’t think that’s the case. I take a lot of steps to not let that show through. But you know, maybe they are just drawn a little bit to the subject matter because if you look at data, generally boys are going to dominate economics courses and physics courses. And girls are going to be more likely to take language and literature. Maybe there is something about the subject matter that draws more females to art, but I obviously don’t have that answer. So what do you think?

Andrew: I kind of gotta disagree with you there because I mean, I think you know, most teachers I think at the secondary level, when it’s chosen, we’re gonna see that. And to be honest, we’re just this little podcast here talking about really what is gender norms and stereotypes. These are bigger issues than just a couple white Midwestern art teacher guys kind of scratching their heads at this.

But I don’t think that there’s anything biological or scientific that says boys are going to be more analytical and prone to spacial and engineering and all of this stuff. I know that there is research out there and data that points to that, but I wonder what percentage of it is that. And then what percentage of it is how we socialize boys and girls in their emotional development, their cognitive development. What do we praise, and what do we recognize in students that we kind of like start to steer them in their own little boxes that we put them in. Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And I can see like generally, we don’t praise boys for some of the qualities that make you a good artist like, “Oh you’re so expressive. I can see so much emotion coming through in your work.” That’s not something that boys get praised for, and yeah, I can see that having an effect.

Andrew: Here’s my next question because I believe that there is this sort of socializing that’s going on, and we praise females for this, and we don’t praise males for this, and then vice versa.

You know, I coach robotics teams, and it’s always really important to me, and I’m passionate about this that my teams are an even mix of the sexes because I think a team of roughly half girls and half boys just function so much better than all boys or all girls.

I think that there’s a concern in STEM, where people are like, oh my gosh, women are really under-represented, and that’s all societal. Here’s my leap, and I know people will probably laugh at me and say that I’m way too idealistic.

If people are concerned that women are not represented in STEM, shouldn’t we be concerned that guys are not well represented in classes that build creativity and empathy and understanding and thinking outside the box? Shouldn’t there be a big uproar to push guys into those fields?

Tim: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean we’re dealing with, like you said, a big picture that I don’t think anybody has a real good grasp on or a real good understanding of. But I can see where you’re coming from with that.

My question is do we really want to push kids? Don’t we want kids just to generally follow their passion and be participating in the activities that they really love or that really work for them? I assume your comeback is, are we socializing them into those activities? Are we developing their passions for them?

I don’t know that we have the answer to that, but yeah, I think it’s worthwhile. If we are pushing girls into STEM, I can see where you’re coming from, and why we may want to push guys into things that are more creative or more empathetic and things like that.

But how do we do that? If I can turn that to you? How do we go about that?

Andrew: Well, I don’t know. And I actually think, you know we’ve been talking about gender a lot, and we actually kind of started the conversation talking about in our classes other biases we have. One of the things I kind of wonder about is if we don’t have in our schools, students and parents and even teachers who have a bias against the rigors of creativity. Right?

So when we see awesome kids, and like, “Oh you’re a great kid. I remember having you in 7th or 8th grade.” And you’re like, “Hey, are you gonna take an art class now that you’re in 10th grade?” “No, I’m only taking serious classes. My mom and dad only want me to take serious classes.”

It’s like, dagger in the heart. So it’s like that is a bias that our students and our parents have, and I kind of wonder if we’re even getting always … Like I don’t know if you felt this way. Did you feel like when you look at your classes, like you’re always even getting the best kids or even the kids who like creativity and like art, but they’re not taking it because of whatever other reasons is out there.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s an issue that is out there for every art teacher. I think you see a split between what kind of kids are coming into your class, and what kind of kids are still out there that you would love to have in your class.

I mean obviously, you’re gonna teach every kid who comes through that door, and you’re gonna do it as well as you can. But I think you’re onto something there, where rather than pushing kids here or there, maybe we push our class, and we say, this is for everybody. We have an open classroom. Creativity is something that everybody needs.

So no matter who you are, no matter what other activities you do, this is something that can help you. This is something that’s worthwhile for you because I think that’s a bias that is a lot stronger than anything else we’ve been talking about.

Andrew: Wow, that’s really well put man. I think you’re onto something. I think that’s the big solution is, you know, I think we have to consistently advocate and try to break down those biases that people have, whether it is gender or mindset, you know, “I can’t do this.” Or talent, or that’s not a rigorous or serious class, to get our classes as diverse and welcoming to all different types of people as we can. And that’s an advocacy thing I think.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely, and like I said way back at the beginning of this interview, reflection is the biggest thing. So I think we probably all need to reflect on our biases. Then we also need to reflect on what we’re doing to kind of spread the word about our classes. I think if you put those together and just kind of look at things with an open mind, I think that’ll give you the answer for what needs to be done in your classroom.

Andrew: Very interesting talk man. I appreciate you coming on, and kind of humoring me a little bit with some of this, but also, shedding some light on kind of how nuanced this notion of biases and then its ramifications is for all of us out there.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s definitely worth talking about, so thanks for having me on.

Andrew: Yep. Thanks Tim. We’ll talk to you later.

Wow, I really appreciate the blunt way that Tim puts it there. I’m sure to some degree, just vocalizing some of our inherent biases is shocking, and I think Tim is kind of playing with that shock. But in doing that, perhaps that shock will jolt many of us into examining some of our own preferences and biases.

I have to share this little story. I used to do this little thought experiment with my university art education students as we started looking and talking about classroom management, and this even kind of pertained to curriculum design as well.

I’d have my students close their eyes, and I’d tell them that I wanted them to imagine an ideal student. This student is a real people-pleaser. This person always turns their work in on time, always listens, very respectful, very neat, very tidy, cleans up, very helpful, nice to all their classmates. The type of student that you wish that you could clone and have more of, you like this student so much.

I’d then have my students, my pre-service teachers open up their eyes, and I’d ask them to describe this student. Every single pre-service teacher in class said, when I pressed them to go more into it, that this ideal student was a girl, and that she was white.

Now gender and race were never mentioned anywhere in my description of this ideal student. But as they went about personifying this ideal, it was so easy to make a mirror image of themselves. You know, and side note, and perhaps this is obvious. The vast majority of my students were exclusively, almost all my students were white, and they were female.

Now I’ve never blamed these pre-service teachers for having these biases. I myself have these biases, and had I been given that task when I was 21 years old, I would have come up with probably the exact same student. But it’s interesting and helpful to hold up the mirror a bit and ask ourselves what biases and stereotypes we work with, so we can actually figure out a way to work around them.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker.

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As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday. Additional content can be found under the podcast tab on All right, thanks for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.