Educators encounter students daily from a diverse range of ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, academic abilities, learning styles, and socioeconomic situations. From the very first day of school, teachers often make initial observations of their students as they enter the classroom. It is natural to notice a range of behaviors – from shyness displayed through averted gazes to exuberant confidence reflected in a lively stride. Some students may appear nervous, while others radiate excitement. These initial impressions are part of the normal teacher-student interaction. In some cases, however, teachers may unknowingly harbor biases when assessing their students, basing their judgments on factors such as appearance, race, or ethnicity. Recognizing and addressing these preconceived biases is essential for fostering an equitable and inclusive educational environment.
Being an educator is a huge responsibility, as each student is an amana or trust from Allah. In the chapter on Knowledge and Learning in Mukhtasar Ihya Ulum al-Din, Imam Al-Ghazali said, “The first duty of the guiding teacher is being softhearted towards the student and treating him as he would a son, due to the Prophet’s words, peace and blessings be upon him, ‘I am to you like a father to his children.’” (Referring to an authentic hadith in Abu Dawud). Educators are our children’s influencers, playing a huge role in shaping their academic experience and future. They will encounter a diverse range of students, each with unique backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles, and must therefore be prepared to deal with differences without letting bias come into play.
Bias in education can manifest in various forms, so it is essential to define what it is as well as how and why we experience it. In the book, Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, authors and diversity experts Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman describe bias simply as the tendency to favor one thing over another. They argue that bias is a natural human tendency, and some biases are harmless. Humans naturally develop cognitive shortcuts to process the vast amount of information they encounter daily. Our brains instinctively categorize things as good or bad, straight or crooked, tasty or vile, and so on. However, bias can manifest as unfair treatment of individuals based on their identity or background.
Given that bias is an inherent aspect of human nature, educators are not immune to it. Each teacher is shaped by their upbringing, surroundings, and societal norms, potentially leading to unconscious bias. In these cases, educators may unknowingly hold preconceived notions, perpetuate stereotypes, or display preferences they have absorbed throughout their lives. The issue becomes particularly problematic when this bias is openly expressed and acted upon. This type of bias can manifest as stereotypes, prejudices, or discriminatory actions, often stemming from deeply ingrained societal, cultural, or personal beliefs. Failure to address and manage these inherent biases may result in favoritism or unfair treatment of certain students over others.
To be effective guides for their students, it is imperative that teachers remain free from biases that could hinder student development and growth. If you are in the business of education, and you are worried about bias, here are some ways to suppress and combat bias in the classrooms to honor the unique needs of your students:
1. Check your intention.
Before entering the classroom, reflect on your motivations as an educator. Remember the Prophet’s words, peace and blessings be upon him:
“Verily, deeds are only with intentions, and every person will have (the reward for) only what they intended.”
(Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)
Set positive intentions, putting Allah first and teaching for His sake, whether that be to feed your family or to leave an educational legacy, or both. Remind yourself daily of your goal as an educator by affirming things like "I want to incite positive change" or "I want to make a difference in all my students' lives, inshaAllah, God willing." These reminders can help you stay focused on your mission to provide equitable education.
2. Educate yourself.
Take the time to learn about your students' backgrounds, histories, and cultures. Memorize key facts and acknowledge their differences in a respectful manner. Read books and articles from the perspective of students with various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to broaden your understanding. If some of your students speak another language, take the time to learn some words in their language and surprise them. Appreciate Allah’s creation by observing the diversity in your classroom. Allah says in this powerful verse:
“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed, in that are signs for those of knowledge.”
(Surah Ar-Rum, 30:22)
3. Increase your empathy.
We know that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was an expert in emotional intelligence. Follow his example by putting yourself in your students' shoes. Try to understand their unique challenges, aspirations, and experiences without making assumptions. This empathy can help you connect with them on a deeper level and tailor your teaching style to their needs.
4. Get to know your students' families. r
Building strong relationships with your students' families can provide valuable insights into their lives outside the classroom. Show genuine care and interest in their wellbeing, as this can create a supportive and inclusive learning environment. A simple greeting can go a long way in developing lasting relationships. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, advised:
“You will not enter Paradise until you have faith and you will not have faith until you love each other. Shall I show you something that, if you did, you would love each other? Spread peace between yourselves.”
5. Check your privilege.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, privilege can be defined as an advantage that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position or wealth. There are people, Muslims included, that have more advantages in society due to their socioeconomic status, race, nationality, or gender. Often, they are unaware of this special status and ignore the fact that others do not enjoy the same. Educators must learn to recognize privilege and how it affects them and their students. They should know that not all students have access to the same resources or opportunities and should likewise avoid assumptions about their backgrounds and abilities.
6. Stand up for marginalized students.
Allah says in the Quran:
“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, of what you do, Aware.”
(Surah An-Nisa, 4:135)
Educators should advocate for the rights of marginalized students and ensure they are treated with respect. Taking a firm stance against bullying, favoritism, or any form of discrimination in their classroom will ensure that all students feel safe and valued. If you witness bias in other teachers, provide guidance or report it to the appropriate authorities.
7. Recognize your biases and practice mindfulness.
Continually examining your own biases and incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily routine is essential for fostering a more inclusive educational environment. By regularly reflecting on your beliefs and attitudes, you can remain conscious of any implicit biases that might influence your interactions with students. Additionally, expanding your social circle beyond the classroom allows you to broaden your exposure to different perspectives and cultures, enabling you to develop a deeper understanding of the diverse backgrounds of your students. Furthermore, distancing yourself from individuals who harbor prejudiced views serves to minimize the reinforcement of biased thinking patterns and promotes a more open and accepting mindset.
8. Free your mind.
Finally, seek help in prayer and guidance in the Quran and Sunnah. Allah left clear indications regarding bias in the Quran when He declared:
“O mankind, indeed, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Aware.”
(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:13)
In this verse, the Almighty addresses every human being, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, male and female, to inform us that despite our differences we are all equal. Our worth only increases through faith, compassion, and humility. Similarly, during his farewell pilgrimage in front of a huge, mixed crowd, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, reminded his followers:
“O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no favor of an Arab over a foreigner, nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin, nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness.”
Jana and Freeman mentioned in their book that “homogeneity stifles creativity.” A diverse classroom provides a wide array of perspectives, experiences, and ideas. In essence, diversity in the classroom serves as a catalyst for mutual learning and growth. It nurtures creativity by encouraging students to explore different viewpoints and solutions, ultimately preparing them to navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. It reinforces the idea that education is not just about acquiring knowledge but also about developing the skills and mindset necessary to thrive in a diverse and dynamic global community.
Muslim educators must actively work to eliminate bias in their classrooms to provide an equitable and inclusive education for all students. By understanding the origins of bias, remembering Allah’s words and the guidance of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and implementing the above strategies, educators can honor the unique needs of each student. By embracing and celebrating the diversity of their students, they can create an environment where every individual feels loved, accepted, and motivated to learn.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, former educator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.