Implicit Bias Training for Classroom Teachers of English Language Learner Students

By Sahra Ahmed

“Racial and implicit bias is inherent in our classrooms. Our classroom walls, the expectations we set for our students, our body language, how we connect with families, what resources are available, what we choose to say or not say, all give students a clear message about how we feel about them” (Agarwal-Ragnath, 2017).

Today’s classrooms are increasingly diverse- both culturally and linguistically, and given the increase in the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in US schools, all teachers need to be prepared to address this emerging population.  Current research shows that by 2024, 29% of all students will identify as Latinx, 6% as Asian/Pacific Islander, and 15% as African American (Puzio,, 2017).  The National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that 9.2% of the total student population are classified as English learners (2017).  With the current demographic changes in the U.S. population, it is more than likely therefore that many teachers across their careers will at some point come into contact with students who do not have adequate sufficiency with the English language and are unable to fully access academic content in a traditional classroom (Ballantyne, Sandeman, & Levy, 2008). Over the past few years, there has been more attention given to preparing mainstream classroom teachers to work with ELLs, but there still remains a growing need for knowledge and practical based ideas on exactly how to prepare teachers for this student population.  I am very passionate about the topic of Preparing Mainstream Classroom Teachers for English Language Learners because of my first hand experience of working in majority ELL schools.  During my own teaching career, most of the teachers I encountered viewed ELL students mainly in deficit terms. They emphasized what ELL students cannot do, rather than what they can do, and equated their ELL status with a disability.  Ortemeier-Hooper (2008) referred to the “ELL Label” as a “Deficit Model” or as the “Glass Half Empty” approach, because it tends to institutionalize students to labels that are mostly problematic and rarely helpful.  When it comes to the deficit model, Bishop (2016) built on the work of Valencia (1997): “In effect, if we think that other people have deficiencies, then our actions will tend to follow our thinking and the relationships we develop, and the interactions we have with these people will tend to be negative and unproductive” (Bishop, 2016, p. 411).   I heard countless of stories from my fellow teachers on how they were ill prepared to “handle” ELL students.  These classroom teachers did not quite know how to deal with “these” students, and also had a difficult time communicating with them because of language barriers.

In fact, the majority of schools I worked in were No-Excuse schools where zero tolerance policies were harmful to the students.  In these schools, students were often silenced and their independence and interaction skills were muted.  It was always silence at all time- silence in the hallways, silence in the classroom, silence in the lunch room, and so on.  If students dared to misbehave in class, they were automatically sent to the detention rooms where they had to write over and over again that they will obey classroom rules and listen to the teacher at all times.  My worst experience was having to witness youngsters in kindergarten walking with their lunch trays to the detention room because of some minor classroom infraction.  It was heartbreaking to say the least.  Many teachers practiced this No Excuse policy to the extreme since they were not equipped with other alternatives of classroom management or discipline procedures.  If students misbehaved, and benching, detention, suspension, etc. did not work, teachers felt their last resort was somehow to push these children who were at times rowdy to the special education track.

In essence, what the accountability discourse in educational policy such as No Child Left Behind does is to hides the structural and ideological roots of the rampant disparities in urban public schools across the country.  Our current obsession with testing and accountability in educational policy has led to a ‘sorting machine’ mechanism in which minoritized students are systematically tested, failed, expelled, sorted, labeled, and pushed out in order to funnel them into the school-to-prison pipeline. Research has shown how zero tolerance school policies and practices with its continuing implicit biases and systemic inequities have on a larger scale, harmed students of color than their White counterparts (Lipman, 2011).  According to the Kirwan Institute, implicit bias is defined as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner” (2016).  Implicit bias should not be confused with known biases in which people can choose to reveal or conceal when they want to, but is in fact gained through serious thought, and developed at a very early age.  Furthermore, it directly results from association we often tie to specific groups of people.  Therefore, if we are constantly bombarded with knowledge that associates certain groups of people with particular characteristics, we unconsciously associate the signifying identity with the characteristics, even though the association in not aligned with reality.

It is evident from the above discussion that mainstream teachers have many misconceptions regarding ELL students.  It is very important to change these unwarranted and baseless views about ELL students, since they affect classroom practice.  Fortunately, implicit biases are not at all resistant to change and can be altered through: education via the Implicit Bias Association Test (, taking action and widening our social contacts, and taking accountability for our action and beliefs.. If it is possible to change implicit bias through professional development strategies, then it is very important that mainstream teachers of ELL students receive this training.  Walker et al. (2004) found that “even a little appropriate training can go a long way in preventing and improving negative teacher attitudes” (p. 142).   Professional development efforts that are at aimed towards ELL teachers ought to be comprehensive and continuous.  The rapid increase in the number of ELLs in the US requires that all teachers be prepared to address ELL needs in mainstream classrooms. By adopting new beliefs for successful inclusion of ELLs, mainstream teachers will have the tools to successfully teach ELLs in their own classrooms.


Agarwal-Ragnath, R. 2017. How can teachers approach race and bias in the classroom? In:

Ballantyne, K. G., Sanderman, A. R., & Levy, J. (2008a). Educating English language learners: Building teacher capacity. Vol.1. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. Retrieved from teachers.htm.

Bishop, R. (2016). Freeing ourselves: An Indigenous response to neo-colonial dominance in research, classrooms, schoools, and education systems. In Denzin, N. & Giardina, M. (Eds.). Qualitative inquiry- Past, present, and future: A critical reader. New York, NY: Routledge.

de Oliveira, L. C., & Yough, M. (2015) (Eds). Preparing teachers to work with English language learners in mainstream classrooms. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing and TESOL Press.

Lipman, P. (2011). The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. Routledge.

Ortmeier-Hooper, Christina. (2008). “English may be my second language, but I am not ‘ESL’.College Composition and Communication. 59.3, 389-419.

Puzio, K., Newcomer, S., Pratt, K., McNeely, K., Jacobs, M., & Hooker, S.  (2017).  Creative Failures in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy. Language Arts, 94, 223–233.

Stinson, P. (2016). Implicit Bias Review: The Kirwan Institute.

Valencia, R.R.(1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. London: Falmer Press.

Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Illiams, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroom. National Association for Bilingual Education Journal of Research and Practice, 2, 130-160.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity was established in 2003 as a center for interdisciplinary research at The Ohio State University. The Kirwan Institute works to create a just and inclusive society where all people and communities have opportunity to succeed.