A former educator is diving into the Eugene tech field to change how teachers address bias in classrooms. Her virtual reality program could help decrease student suspensions.
In Wendy Morgan’s downtown creator space, the layout is bare. Apart from a few chairs lining plywood walls, and a desk, there’s not much covering the concrete floor. But put on a set of VR goggles and you’ll see what Morgan’s been working on.
MORGAN'S VOICE: “Welcome and thank you for participating in our VR scenario. In a few moments you will enter a proxy classroom.”
Morgan’s project is part of a joint effort with the University of Oregon to figure out how to train teachers under stress. The idea is to stick teachers in artificial classrooms where there’s laughing, moody students, noisy desks, and then have them attempt to teach.
MORGAN: “That’s one of vital pieces because the teachers really have to be immersed. They have to believe they’re in a classroom. The sound, everything around them and that way they will react normally and predictably as they would in an actual classroom.”
Morgan contracted with Glimmer Technology, a Eugene based tech company, to build the prototype. By using digital avatars, Morgan, says teachers aren’t putting real students at risk. Something that she says she’s had experience with.
MORGAN: “I went and practiced on real kids and I know I did things wrong and I know for sure. I mean that’s where the inspiration came from this being thrown into a classroom and making mistakes that I knew impacted students and I didn’t know how to prevent that”
Morgan says teachers make inequitable decisions that often fall on marginalized students.
MORGAN: “If you look at achievement gap, the disparity’s there if you look at disproportionate discipline the numbers are astronomically high. For every type of diversity whether it’s alternately able or ethnicity, or religion, all of it even ESL. So there’s obviously a problem there. We have to make a difference.”
During the simulation teachers get a brief 3 minute break where they’re transported from a chaotic room to standing in a gazebo surrounded by calming waters.
MORGAN'S VOICE: “Gently guide your awareness back to your breathing. As you embrace your stillness consider these words. I am a competent and capable teacher I treat myself with kindness and respect.”
MCCLURE: “And as much as this might sound quite “woo-woo” –laughs- the fact is our physiology makes a difference in our ability to react with creativity to remember with have a full range of options available to us to when confronted with challenging behavior.”
That’s Heather McClure director and researcher for the U of O’s Center for Equity and Promotion. She says everyone has implicit biases.
MCCLURE: “Because our brains, evolutionarily, we have so much stimuli coming at us from our environment, we can’t possibly really pay attention to that stimuli. We would be so overwhelmed we would never get out of bed in the morning.”
McClure says our brains develop assumptions and stereotypes as shortcuts. So when teachers find themselves under a significant amount of stress, it often translates to sending students out of class. And those students, McClure says, are four times more likely to be Black male students and students with disabilities.
MCCLURE: “We also know here in Oregon that the rate at which students are referred out of the classroom or the rate at which students are suspended from school compared with the percentage of those students in those schools is much higher also among Native American students, and higher in certain places with among Latino students, as well as among students living in poverty.”
McClure says teachers often remove kids from class because they see them as being willfully disobedient. But that can range from students not putting away cellphones, to not having a pencil.
After piloting the virtual classroom on over a dozen seasoned teachers, Morgan and McClure found that their simulation worked. It stressed teachers out.
MORGAN: “We then showed that we were able to significantly reduce their experience of stress because of this three minute mindfulness interlude.”
They believe this can give less experienced teacher’s tools to cope in the classroom, which could lead to better student outcomes. Wendy Morgan’s working on getting the program market ready for distribution later this year.