At the heart of every major element of teaching, including curriculum delivery, teacher/student relationships, goal achievement and stress management and reduction, self-awareness enables us to learn and grow as educators.

Not simply a ‘wellbeing’ tool, self-awareness is fundamental to our ability to function at the highest levels in every area of our lives.

In the sphere of teaching, it is crucial for successful reflective practice and professional development as well as the facilitation of the social and academic success of our students.

One of the ways in which self-awareness is vital is around teacher implicit beliefs and attitudes, and their impacts in our classrooms.

Teachers, just like any other professional, operate from a foundation of knowledge, experiences and beliefs with emotions determining the type and quality of our interactions with others.

This combination of emotion and rationality not only form our beliefs and theories about teaching and learning, but help to determine the quality of the relationships we form with our colleagues, students and their carers.

Given the significance of these relationships to successful teaching and learning, knowledge and skills around how these relationships can be formed and maintained is important for teachers and education in general, yet the barriers that implicit attitudes can create to compromise our ability to form them is not adequately addressed in our training and professional development.

Indeed, recent reviews conducted around teacher training have found that there is little attention paid in pre-service training to equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to be able to forge positive teacher/student relationships or an acknowledgement of the importance of building them.

Nor is there sufficient guidance and acknowledgement of the emotional nature of teaching and the impact teacher attitudes and beliefs may have on student outcomes and classroom climate.

Self-awareness around our implicit attitudes and beliefs is key to becoming better teacher professionals and improving the outcomes of our students, yet by their very nature, it can be difficult to identify them.

Implicit attitudes and beliefs operate below our conscious awareness.

That is, we are often not aware of the way in which these beliefs and attitudes inform our feelings and our behaviour.

As such, they can potentially compromise our teaching practice and relationship building ability without us realising that we may be sabotaging our own classrooms through the beliefs and attitudes we hold. 

This is made even more problematic because these attitudes and beliefs are often contrary to what we say we believe, and what we think we do, at a conscious level.

But what are implicit attitudes and beliefs and what are their links to positive teacher/student relationships, effective teaching and successful learning?

Implicit attitudes and beliefs predict our choices, judgments and, verbal and non-verbal behaviours toward others.

Generally speaking these attitudes are defined as the unification of the cognitive and emotional appraisals we experience toward some kind of stimuli – such as particular students, families, colleagues or situations.

These appraisals suggest an association between the stimuli and positive or negative feelings determining whether we respond in a favourable, or unfavourable way, to it.

Essentially, an attitude is a tendency to react with specific judgements and behaviours in the face of certain people, places, things or situations.

Emerging from our developmental history, emotional experiences, culture and self, these beliefs and attitudes are ingrained and operate on a level below that with which we consciously define ourselves and our values.

This makes becoming aware of them even harder because we come from a position of denial to start with.

While our attitudes and beliefs can be favourable or unfavourable, they necessarily impact the way in which we perceive and relate to individual students, and in turn, how they perceive and relate to us.

As mentioned, the origins of our implicit attitudes, are dominated by the theory that they come from past, basically forgotten, experiences. Experiences that were, though perhaps forgotten, highly emotive and culturally or family/peer enforced.

While the way in which implicit attitudes are formed is important, their influence and impact on behaviour is the focus here.

Recent psychological research suggests that our implicit attitudes have a significant effect, producing a distorting influence on our judgements and our subsequent behaviour toward others.

In the school context this influence will invariably impact on the way we relate to our students and our ability to build positive relationships with them.

Within the context of education, and more specifically, the umbrella of teacher/student relationships, it is possible to see how our implicit attitudes can influence our responses to individual students based less on what they might have done or are doing and more on who they are or what they represent.

Indeed, implicit attitudes are not simply about obvious biases like someone’s age, race, looks, religion or socio-economic background, but are also formed around our expectations, assumptions and perceptions about what others should do, value and be. 

While arguments exist that might absolve us of responsibility for the consequences of the behaviour that our implicit attitudes and beliefs can trigger, the impacts they have on us and on others can be very damaging.

This is because, while implicit attitudes and beliefs operate beneath consciousness, their manifestations are, arguably, obvious to the observer, leaving others to judge us or feel harmed by us regardless of our lack of awareness.

Given the huge impact these attitudes and beliefs can have on our ways of interacting with our students and others, applying self-awareness can help us to see what role we may be playing in situations where these interactions are challenging.

Once we have defined our role, we can further use self-awareness to become conscious of our habitual thoughts, feelings and behaviour working to change them or modify them as required.

Importantly though, self-awareness is not about condemning ourselves but rather about knowledge, acceptance and change.

We all have implicit attitudes and beliefs, some serve us well and others do not, it is simply a case of making sure they don’t harm us, or those in our care wherever possible.