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Psst…Your Bias is Showing

December 19, 2023

Want to create more just schools? Three Idaho educators tell you exactly how to do it.


Editor’s note: This story featuring Idaho’s work through the Leaders for Just Schools initiative was featured in NEA Today on Dec. 4.

By Cindy Long/NEA Today Senior Writer

Imagine standing up in a staff meeting at school and saying, “Let’s address institutional racism in our schools.” How would your colleagues react? Some might welcome an open discussion, but many would probably shift in their seats and glance around nervously. A few might even get up and walk out of the room.

Talking about race openly and honestly is essential to creating educational equity for all students and for school communities as a whole. But the approach to the conversation must be handled with care. “You can’t march into a room of educators and announce that you are going to talk to them about racism. People will bristle and back away immediately,” says Caitlin Pankau, a former Idaho high school English teacher, a facilitator for NEA’s Leaders for Just Schools (LJS) program, and a staffer with the Idaho Education Association.

“You need to take the right steps first, and that’s what Leaders for Just Schools is all about.”

The program helps participants understand how to cultivate equitable, just schools for students of every race, place, background, and ability.

It focuses on the intersection of racial justice in education and public policy, understanding how to use the levers of local, state, and federal policy (specifically the Every Student Succeeds Act) to create equitable learning spaces for all students.

More than 200 educators from across the country are currently engaged in the program. The three-year program, typically held in summer, kicks off with virtual sessions followed by in-person learning experiences. Throughout the program, facilitators check in with participants to support their advocacy and provide access to learning opportunities.

In the first year, educators learn about critical definitions and topics in education justice. They also turn inward to explore their own biases.

In year two, educators examine structural inequities in education, with a focus on building partnerships with families and communities to break those structures.

In year three, they create a plan to address a “problem of equity” they have identified in their own schools or community. Over the course of this learning journey, educators develop knowledge and skills to advocate and organize for education justice.


A powerful first step is to ask participants to reflect on their race and how it has impacted their experience and how it would be different for a person of another race.

The LJS curriculum is punctuated by several powerful sessions. One seminal activity is the “privilege walk.”

During this activity, participants line up and step forward or back based on different prompts. For example, step back if you are the only person in your family who went to college. Step forward if you can easily find Band-Aids that match your skin tone. If you would not hesitate to call the police to help in an emergency, step forward. If someone in your household ever abused substances, step back. If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, step forward.

Usually, after all the questions are asked, those who grew up in primarily White, middle- to upper-middle class communities are at the front of the group. People of Color from low-income communities are mostly in the back.

“The goal is not to send White people down a shame path,” says Pankau. “It’s to help them identify and acknowledge advantages and disadvantages people of different races experience.” about their foundational and lived experiences and characteristics. The result is a visual representation of privilege and the extent to which various circumstances (most beyond the educators’ control) may have resulted in visible or invisible advantages that influence how the educators navigate their lives and professions.


Pankua has completed all three years of the program and is now an LJS facilitator herself. She and two Idaho colleagues, former high school science teacher and Idaho Education Association staffer Jamie Morton and middle school English teacher Lindsey Smith, were part of the pilot cohort, in 2018, and engaged in the program as both participants and facilitators.

“We were so proud of where the curriculum had taken us, we wanted to take it more broadly at home,” says Smith, who along with Pankua and Morton, worked with the Idaho Education Association (IEA) to design a statewide LJS curriculum.

Today, the colleagues are fostering a community of educator-leaders who are prepared to address institutional inequities in their schools and communities.

“The first step is figuring out how we can change as individuals,” Smith says. “Then we learn how to talk about race and inequities, which are not always easy to discuss. When we’re more comfortable talking about this openly, we look at the students and how they are impacted by what we teach and by other factors at school, like dress codes or discipline practices.”

That is when it all comes together, say the three Idaho leaders. It is very powerful to discover how everyone can help make schools equitable by first taking a hard look inward at how one thinks, speaks, and acts and how that is received by the world.

“Once you know better, you do better,” Pankau says. How have LJS participants been doing better? They have implemented more equitable classroom policies, reviewed school handbooks for racial bias, offered testimony at school board meetings.

The fact that the work is ongoing is part of the beauty of the program, Morton says. “Having a one- or two-day trainings on equity wasn’t working, but with LJS, the goal is to make ongoing, systemic changes with a cohort of people who connect with each other like we did, and then make connections back home,” she explains.

“We keep working on this, purposefully and intentionally, throughout Idaho.”

Now there are about 30 educators throughout the state who are leading the LJS trainings. They hold sessions at state and regional IEA meetings and offer them through their districts and schools.

After educators take the training, facilitators check in regularly to talk about how the work is going: Are they making changes to lessons and updating curriculum to make learning more equitable, inclusive, and culturally sustaining? Are they addressing school policies that aren’t fair for all students, or participating in school-, district-, or statewide-committees to ensure equity is on the agenda? Facilitators find out where people need assistance and how they can help.

“Our hope is that folks will keep practicing what they’ve learned, either in groups or on their own. If you’re not a facilitator by nature, then your role can be to simply change your awareness, which then impacts your classes and potentially the lives of thirty or more students,” Pankau says. “Then, if you have a conversation with a colleague or two, and they change their awareness, that impact grows.”


“The program does an excellent job of explaining White privilege while also acknowledging that it was hard for many White people,” Smith says. “But it shows how we had a leg up from the start. When we understand that, we harness that knowledge on behalf of our students of color.”

Awareness generates empathy and grace, she explains. It also filters into lesson plans, like teaching about People of Color who are leaders in art, science, or engineering, and assigning literature in which People of Color are the protagonists and heroes of the story.

“We’ve learned how to have difficult conversations and to counter assumptions people might have about students from different backgrounds,” Morton says. “If you hear something that perpetuates negative stereotypes, don’t stay silent, but approach the situation delicately. For example, you can ask, ‘What do you mean by that?’ The LJS curriculum offers strategies to help colleagues reflect on how some statements can be perceived and how it could be harmful.”

All of this work takes time, practice, and relationship building. But the effort pays off by creating more equity, more successful students, and better humans.



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