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Are You Being Fair?

Tips for avoiding teacher's pets and favoritism in the classroom.

Found In: classroom management, discipline

Mary Beth Solano learned early on how damaging favoritism in a classroom can be. Really early. In first grade, Solano's teacher divided her class into reading groups: the capable students were named Blue Birds; the others were labeled Buzzards.

In first grade, Solano’s teacher divided her class into reading groups. The capable students were named Blue Birds. The others were labeled Buzzards.

“I remember her treating the Blue Birds differently than the Buzzards,” says Solano, a Blue Bird who went on to a 32-year teaching career mostly in Fort Collins, Colorado. “She was sharper with [the Buzzards]. It was more frustration with them. They were talked to differently.”

She may have only been six, but Solano said she knew the teacher’s methods just weren’t right. And as she progressed toward her own career in education, Solano promised herself she would “never ever do that.”

Banishing partiality takes conscious effort every day, but treating some students differently than others, whether subtly or overtly, can impact everyone in the class.

“People need for an authority figure to be fair,” says Elisha Babad, an education professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel who has spent decades studying the impact a teacher’s behavior has on students.

Babad, who in the late 80s studied the teacher’s pet phenomenon, says problems arise in the classroom when educators’ non-verbal behaviors, which can be extremely subtle, differ toward high achievers and low achievers. Those varied behaviors can make students angry or dissatisfied, he says.

“Favoritism in a larger sense has not to do with the teacher’s pet, but with the fact that teachers transmit different kinds of emotions to different students and students absorb that and interpret it and their feelings are influenced by that,” says Babad, author of The Social Psychology of the Classroom.

Luckily, there are things teachers can do to spread the love. Veteran educators have developed lots of tricks and self-assessment methods over the years to help ensure fairness, especially when calling on students, grading, rewarding, and interacting in general with them.

Leave No Child Behind

One popular approach to making sure every child gets called upon involves drawing Popsicle sticks (with a name on each one) or clothespins from one of two cans. Once a name is called the stick goes in the second can until everyone in the class has had a turn.

“It really put a stop to the ‘You never pick me’ comments,” a Las Vegas educator wrote in a recent discussion on NEA Today’s Facebook page.

For the more technologically savvy, there’s also an app for the iPhone or iPad called Teacher Tools — Who’s Next? that allows you upload your class roster and generate a random list of students to call on.

Barbara Capps, who retired in June after three decades of teaching in the Bay Area of California, traded in Popsicle sticks for used 3x5 cards with children’s names on them and would “stack the deck” for students with special needs by adding their names more than once.

Capps expanded her use of the cards to ensure she spoke with or rewarded every student, every day.

“I explained the system to them and they bought into it. They loved it,” Capps says. “Everybody felt appreciated, rewarded, and taught.”

And just so the students she’d already called on wouldn’t relax their attention too much, Capps sometimes “accidentally” dropped her stack of cards and said, “Oops, I have to start all over.”

Educator, Know Thyself

Solano, the teacher from Colorado, credited a staff development program she took in the mid 80s with helping her focus on the many ways she unintentionally might have been showing favoritism toward students. Called Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA), the program encouraged educators to examine their behavior. Do teachers wait the same amount of time for answers from high achievers as they do from low achievers? Do they spend equal time standing in proximity to high achievers as they do to low achievers? Do they praise all students and offer individual help, no matter what the child’s level?

“Every kid needs to know they have the same opportunities to succeed and their teacher likes them,” says Solano, who retired this past spring. “It’s important for their self-motivation, their self-esteem.”

When Diane Postman, a retired 31-year veteran of early education, taught kindergarten in the Tidewater area of Virginia, she asked a colleague to observe how she was interacting with a special needs student. The fellow teacher observed that when students sat on the carpet in front of Postman, she focused much more on the kids in the back and overlooked those right at her feet.

“It’s good to have another pair of eyes come in to see if they see things you don’t,” Postman said. “It definitely changed me. I was glad she pointed it out.”

For those who don’t like someone else sitting in their classroom, try using a video camera to record a session for review.

Find Something to Praise in Everyone

“There are always different personalities and attitudes that can rub the teacher the wrong way,” wrote Georgia elementary school teacher Gwyn Ann Raczkowski on NEA Today’s Facebook page. “I try to find something that each student can be the star at for the class. Joey may not be good at academics or being a quiet worker, but he is always reliable in taking attendance and getting things organized.”

That advice is also useful when displaying student work. When hanging students’ artwork, Diane Postman was careful to mix weaker pieces among the more polished ones to avoid favoritism. She’d remind herself that even if the work wasn’t great, a child put lots of effort into creating it.

Ensure Fair Grading

Using rubrics helps ensure fair grading. Raczkowski grades blind. “All papers from the assignment are graded at the same time, organized into stacks of similar level work (per rubric) and then assigned grades,” she wrote.

It’s also a good idea to use different kinds of assessments to accommodate different learning styles in your classroom. According to NEA’s C.A.R.E. guide, which includes strategies for closing achievement gaps, “students from different cultures may have varying levels of success on certain types of assessments. For example, English language learners may struggle with multiple-choice tests…so the best strategy is to use a variety of valid assessment practices that will allow individual students to demonstrate their learning.”

Remember, You’re In Control

In part, treating all students fairly and equitably involves teachers being able to control their emotions, Babad says. A good example, he adds, are actors who can express their emotions in a very controlled way. Educators need to be aware of their emotions toward various students and not let those emotions interfere with the learning experience.

For Solano, being mindful of her performance and conducting a self-assessment at the end of each day helped her make sure she wasn’t veering down the path of partiality.

“Teacher’s pets or favoritism in the classroom is really the teacher’s responsibility. We need to do some looking in the mirror,” Solano says. “The bottom line is it’s what’s best for the kids.”

Illustration by Dave Clark

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