The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Sarah Hopp

Unconscious bias in the classroom and discreet disability

Teachers need to be aware of why they might react to certain behaviours in certain ways. Sarah Hopp provides some context for the self-reflection process.

Someone may assume that a person is capable or not capable of doing something based only on their judgement of that person’s external appearance.

According to Imperial College London (2022), these judgements are an automatic brain response made within seconds of meeting a person and influence our attitudes and behaviours towards them.

They can form what is known as unconscious bias – making an unfair judgement about a person that we are not consciously aware of, which affects our attitudes, behaviour and decisions about that person.

What is a discreet disability and unconscious bias?

A discreet or hidden disability may not be obvious to others and, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association (2020), the term may be defined by symptoms such as severe pain, cognitive difficulties, internal injury, learning differences and mental health difficulties.

An assumption that a student will fail could ultimately end in the student failing

For example, students I have met who identify as high-functioning autistic say that often assumptions are made that, because they are academically very able, they can also function in the same way emotionally and socially. 

These students report that they are either left to their own devices by teachers, because an assumption is being made that they don’t need help, or they are treated patronisingly as if they are generally incapable, resulting in feeling misunderstood and undervalued.

Their interpretation of the teacher’s perception of them affects how they feel about themselves.

The Pygmalion Effect

It has been widely documented that teachers’ beliefs about students’ abilities affect their teaching practices.

Jacobson and Rosenthal (2003) describe the Pygmalion Effect, the phenomenon of behaving and achieving in ways that confirm the expectations of others.

They argue that, when a teacher believes that a student is capable of achievement, this has a positive effect on the learner’s own effort and belief in their own capacity to achieve.

It is the teacher’s reaction to the event that may influence an outcome

Similarly, an assumption that a student will fail could ultimately end in the student failing.

Students need to believe that they are capable of achievement and they need to have high expectations of themselves. They need to be nurtured to do this and the teacher should not assume that the learner can or cannot attain an outcome or goal by themselves. They should not be left to struggle.

Dealing with existing stress

An added complexity in the classroom is that teachers face external pressures, such as meeting examination deadlines, complying with curriculum specifications and education policy, lesson observations, performance-related pay and accountability measures, as well as life’s daily struggles.

The teacher may unintentionally manifest the effect of these pressures in the behaviour of the teacher in the classroom towards students and teaching assistants.

Teachers need to be given space and time to be able to truly self-reflect

As each person is influenced by their own perception and mood at any given time, classroom interaction may quickly become fraught with anxiety for both the learner and the teacher, which may lead to miscommunication and confrontation.

Beck et al. (1985) argue that at the core of anxiety is the fear of vulnerability. There may be a sense of impotence and consequent panic which can result in blaming outsider groups or other people.

An example of unconscious bias in the classroom

This can be demonstrated in the following scenario.

A learner with ADHD, finding it difficult to control their impulsivity, repeatedly refuses to wait their turn in a class quiz and shouts the answers out. The teacher sees the learner’s behaviour as unruly and mistakenly views it as disrespect. 

Earlier in the day, the teacher received negative feedback from a lesson observation, and also had to deal with an angry parent who projected their own anxiety onto the teacher by blaming the teacher for the issue, making the teacher feel incompetent.

The perceived disrespect from the student now confirms the feeling of incompetence on the part of the teacher when in reality the student is just trying to communicate an unmet need, that is ’I’m excited about this topic but I can’t control my impulsivity – please show me how I can overcome this.’

As a result, the teacher may react defensively towards the learner, taking an authoritarian approach, which they may feel commands respect.

If the learner already has low self-esteem, they may see the teacher’s attitude towards them as one of disdain, making them feel worthless and so they may lash out defensively, possibly resulting in an altercation with the teacher.

Reflecting on perceptions

The teacher is in a position of responsibility to lead the student. Therefore, the teacher needs to be given the space, time and education to be able to truly reflect on their perceptions, views and attitudes so that they are able to see events in the classroom for what they are, rather than personal attacks, and understand that it is their reaction to the event that may influence an outcome.

Acceptance of mutual vulnerability could provide a sense of solidarity

Senior leaders need to consider allocating time and space for reflection as fundamental to successful teaching and learning when creating strategic policy and when timetabling.

Nussbaum (2006) contends that human flourishing (self-realisation) is the nurturing of intellectual and moral virtues and the fulfilment of specific physical and mental capabilities which may be different for each individual in their own context.

Both student and teacher have their own personal strengths, limitations and vulnerabilities – it is what makes us human.

Embracing mutual vulnerability

I believe that teachers have a duty to nurture and, if we are to nurture another’s self-esteem, flourishing and potential, then we need to embrace the vulnerabilities, needs and fallibilities that we share with others, so that we can appraise ourselves and develop the empathy and compassion needed for the flourishing of both ourselves and those we interact with.

Our own flourishing as teachers is intertwined with the flourishing of our students

Nussbaum (2011) likens a person to a plant in that a plant is fragile, but its beauty is inseparable from its fragility. This fragility, or human vulnerability, is part of the human condition and should not be viewed as a weakness as we are all vulnerable at different times in our lives.

Acceptance of mutual vulnerability could provide a sense of solidarity: enabling the students and teacher to emotionally bond through shared empathy and trust nurtured through a dialogical relationship in the classroom.

Communication helps us to understand ourselves

However, trust is undermined by fear and anxiety, when the other person is seen as a threat. This anxiety may be overcome if we learn to truly listen and talk to each other, if we are to become aware of our conscious and unconscious biases and keep open the channels of communication.

It is only through dialogue that one may come to understand the other and become aware of one’s own perceptions and biases, change our attitudes and evolve.

This interaction then may become a catalyst for change, promoting a better understanding of each other, breaking down barriers, overcoming conscious and unconscious bias and nurturing confidence and self-esteem both in the student and teacher.

In this way, our own flourishing as teachers is intertwined with the flourishing of our students.


Beck, A.T., Emery, G. and Greenberg, R.L. (1985) Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Basic Books.

Imperial College London (2022) What is Unconscious Bias? (Last accessed: 14 February 2022).

Invisible Disabilities Association (2020) What is an Invisible Disability? (Last accessed: 14 February 2022).

Nussbaum, M.C. (2006) Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, M.C. (2011) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Revised Edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


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