Thank a Teacher Thursday - Dark Side Edition

All previous “Thank a Teacher Thursday” posts have been about the positive inspiration science teachers can provide. And you know I believe they deserve a lot more recognition for the huge but largely invisible role they play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and building a scientifically literate society. But, hey, it’s pouring rain today and I had a crummy commute, so I’m going to go a little dark and point out that with great power comes great responsibility.

In illustration, I give you this cartoon by Zach Weinersmith:

Teachers can inspire–they can also discourage. And while the occasional student may react with defiance and resolve, a great many students simply give up on math or science because they don’t think they’re “good at it.” In a conversation with Zach yesterday, he told me that exploring the theme of women in science is personal for him; he has a baby daughter and he worries about how to prepare her for the obstacles, subtle and otherwise, that might discourage her from pursuing a career in science, engineering, or mathematics. As Josh Rosenau noted in his recent post about Jim Watson, sexism, racism, ageism and other systematic biases are not restricted to a few obvious bad guys–we all have unconscious biases that can have dramatic, even tragic, effects on how we treat each other. The first step toward reducing the impact of these biases is admitting they exist. I found this interview, produced by the American Association of Medical Colleges, to be a thoughtful exploration of how unconscious bias affects a particular sector–that of health care. It also describes practical steps medical schools and hospitals can take to counteract it.

Teachers, like the rest of us, are subject to cultural biases–but they are in a position of rare power either to subtly reinforce, or boldly counteract them. In future posts, I’ll talk more about biases, conscious and otherwise, and how the best teachers address them. In the meantime, thanks so much to Zach for kindly letting us use his cartoon as illustration. Be sure to check out his other great science humor on his website, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.