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Battling bias in public schools

CMU professor researches experiences of hijab-wearing Muslim girls


Every person has biases, whether they realize it or not.

That’s what Wafa Hozien, assistant professor of educational leadership at Central Michigan University, tells future school leaders each semester.

“We are all walking biases,” Hozien said. “Education leaders need to understand their biases in order to effectively communicate with students, staff, teachers and stakeholders to ensure student success in their buildings.”

Hozien teaches master’s and doctoral students who aspire to become principals, superintendents or athletic directors. She says if these educators understand their own biases, their students’ achievements will increase.

Students who are different than the majority often experience unspoken nuances from their teachers and guidance counselors.

“There are always big and small ways that minorities in the U.S. are experiencing some kind of bias,” Hozien said. “Researchers are seeing that bias is systematic. It’s bigger than your school, your city or even your country.”

School leaders need to have bias awareness to ensure they work for the best interest of every student, Hozien said.

“Most educators tell me they didn’t know they had certain biases, and they didn’t realize what they don’t say or do also can show bias,” Hozien said. “For example, if you praise Johnny — the white child — and you rarely praise Jamal — the African-American child — it will impact their achievement. We have to understand our biases. You have to own up to what you have inside of your heart in order to grow and become a better leader.”

Bias awareness is something Hozien has focused on since she began studying the experiences of hijab-wearing Muslim girls in U.S. public high schools.

“There was one high school girl who was ranked No. 8 out of a class of 550 students,” Hozien said. “She went in to see her guidance counselor who said to her, ‘Don’t apply to college. Girls who look like you get married.’”

With encouragement from her AP-level math and chemistry teachers, she applied to college anyway.

“I asked her how this made her feel, and she said it gave her a lot of self-doubt about who she was and her capabilities,” Hozien said. “She didn’t even think being ranked eighth in her class was a good thing.”

Hozien later emailed the girl to catch up. She had received a full-ride scholarship to Rutgers University.

Additionally, it is important to consider personal situations that impact the success of children in school, Hozien said.

“I tell people to understand who it is they are talking to,” she said. “A child could be adopted, their parents could be in jail or their mother could be an addict. You need to try to understand their situation. I’m not asking you to assume things. I’m asking you to channel in and try to understand who they are.”

Hozien says the battle against bias starts with each educator.

“My mantra is that when you are walking into the building, you are no longer yourself,” she said. “You are the 220 students you serve. You work for the best interest of every student.”

Hozien has been honored for her work in this area, recently receiving the Michigan Education Association award for multicultural education. She hopes that her work continues to impact students and schools, as well as start conversations about the impact of biases.


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