‘Wimpy’ or ‘well thought out’: NYC educators describe the implicit bias training they have received

One memorable lesson from the education department’s contentious implicit bias training involves a controversial 2008 Vogue cover showing basketball star LeBron James shouting at the camera with his arm around supermodel Gisele Bündchen.

A white teacher who attended a training in a Columbia University lecture hall was perplexed that his facilitator only talked generally about assumptions that viewers of the photo might make and didn’t overtly mention the uproar that the cover created, including criticism that it evoked “King Kong” and perpetuated negative stereotypes of young black men.

But when that same image was projected at a different training in Manhattan, another teacher voiced how she thought criticisms of the photo were “ridiculous” and felt the room become “anti-Caucasian.”

“I would have found this training a lot more helpful if I didn’t feel like I was going to get my a – – kicked during my lunch hour,” said Dawn Gallagher, a white teacher in the Bronx who was one of 100 educators responding to a Chalkbeat survey about the trainings. “It incited a lot of anger, and there was no solution to it.”

The teachers’ wildly different reactions to the same exercise illustrate just how complicated the department’s sped-up rollout of mandated anti-bias trainings to 125,000 educators can be. Already the department appears to be behind schedule on delivering the trainings, which officials have said focus on unconscious assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, race, and disability status. And the varied responses give a window into why the sessions have attracted a rash of recent criticism — as well as rallying support.

Chalkbeat asked educators to tell us what they thought about the trainings, a cornerstone of Chancellor Richard Carranza’s school improvement efforts that have prompted a series of critical articles in the New York Post. Of the nearly 100 respondents, about 70 said they had received the training, while others had participated in different anti-bias efforts at their schools.

Forty-nine of the the respondents who said they’d taken the mandated workshop rated it as either effective or thought it was effective but could have been longer or more detailed. Twenty-two people found the training ineffective for a variety of reasons — some felt it was a personal attack on them for being white and that it was raising unnecessary discussions about race. On the flip side, others who seemed to support anti-bias efforts said it felt like a waste of time because it didn’t go far enough or provide useful strategies to combat implicit bias in the classroom.

One person criticized a facilitator for going on “a long tangent about how much he loves his SUV” and thought too much of the material had the flavor of early-2000s forwarded email with “makes you think” messages. Another respondent, however, described the same moderator as easy to comprehend and didn’t understand why anyone felt “threatened” by the trainings.

One respondent who identified as Asian-American initially thought the training “would not be worth my time” but found the workshop “well thought out.” Another who identified as Latinx thought the session had provided vocabulary for setting “healthy boundaries” when interacting with colleagues engaged in “microaggressions.”

But one administrator thought the training had only succeeded in creating “resentment” and “mistrust” and would cause her to “second guess every decision I make because I am fearful people will misinterpret my statements or behaviors based solely on the color of my skin.”

Carranza has defended the trainings, saying that they’re supposed to start tough conversations. Paul Forbes, who helps oversee the education department’s anti-bias efforts, acknowledged that not all trainings will provide specific strategies to take back to the classroom, but argues that they set people up to think deeper about how they are teaching.   

“One thing I say in my session as I begin is, ‘You won’t be saved, you won’t be cured, you won’t be sanctified, you won’t be healed,’” Forbes said in a recent interview with Chalkbeat. “Don’t think you’ll walk away from a workshop and think, ‘I’m good to go.’ It’s a daily process.”

Chalkbeat reached out to numerous respondents to elaborate. Some described the five-hour sessions as almost an introduction to racism that included a variety of visual aids, such as slideshow presentations and videos. They were given real-life examples of implicit bias, data on racial disparities, and information about how the brain works.

Lonice Eversley, a teacher at a school in the South Bronx, said they had group discussions and looked at data, for example, about how students of color have been “over-policed, over-suspended, physically abused in some cases,” compared to white students.

Eversley, who is black and has taught for more than 20 years, said she found useful lessons from the training and believes everyone should go through it.

“We all in the room had probably experienced, to a large degree, a very Eurocentric way that we learned,” Eversley said in an interview. “And even if you are a person of color, you probably have a mindset that has been influenced in a way that we all need to understand and be mindful of that and check that — so students can have voice and students can learn together and students can be empowered in classroom spaces.”

But some, even among those who felt attacked by the end of the training, thought it wasn’t challenging or useful enough. Gallagher, the Bronx teacher who criticized the Vogue cover exercise, told the group it was “getting ridiculous” in their responses about the racial implications of the photo. All she saw was “two very good-looking, very successful people.” Some black teachers in the room began to argue with her, she said, but all agreed they wanted to talk their differences out. Instead, the facilitator cut off discussion.

“I haven’t had to deal with a lot of things that people of color have dealt with, and I would never ever attempt to marginalize that struggle because it’s profound and real, but why are we looking for hatred where it doesn’t exist?” Gallagher asked. “Why are we provoking those feelings when we are taught to be compassionate?”

Leah Clark, a white middle school teacher in the Bronx, didn’t feel uncomfortable at all during her training — which she found deeply problematic. Clark has participated in numerous anti-bias discussions and was expecting a robust debate among participants, led by questions from department officials. Instead, her impression was the training was “wimpy and lackluster” and made “palatable” for teachers who didn’t want to have tough conversations about race.

“There was no talk about harm to kids, and that had me feeling very sick,” Clark said.

And while several survey respondents shared Clark’s frustration, others recognized it as an introductory training that they wanted to follow up on, such as Jodi Friedman, an assistant principal in Manhattan.

“I think at our school it’s a conversation that we want to continue,” she said.

Finally, Chalkbeat asked respondents to share questions they have for the education department about the training. “What are the expected outcomes, how are they measured and when will there be evidence that this training was effective?” one white school administrator asked.

Another wanted to see “the slides and powerpoints” that are part of training and have sparked controversy. And a third wondered if the training would go the way of other reform fads —“something that they will abandon, as they so often do?”

Chalkbeat has put the first two questions to the education department but has yet to receive a response. The answer to the last question may depend on time to tell.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.