Saturday, December 10, 2011

The gravest sin : favouritism

"You're a great teacher, but you have one problem - you have favourites"

When I read this feedback in the anonymous survey forms from five students I was shocked and disturbed - favouritism is one of the worst things a teacher can do - it distorts and poisons the classroom. What surprised me was that a teacher could have favourites without really being conscious of it. But I knew it must be true when so many students had written this in their feedback. 

It didn't take me long to realise the root cause : as a new teacher with a great class, I've made the mistake of not imposing a strict 'hands-up' rule during whole class discussion - with the consequences that a group of (well intentioned) students have dominated these sessions by calling out. And so week after week, the quieter students at the back of the class have been watching silently, building up the idea I preferred the ones in the front. Did I have favourites? I may not have thought so, but it surely worked out that way.

There's nothing for it when you get feedback like this - an immediate apology is required. I shared with the class my distress at having made this teaching mistake and apologised.  I thanked them for their trust and openness with me - and how grateful I was that they helped me be aware of this problem with my teaching. I was careful to put the blame where it rested - on me - and not on those students thought to be the favourites. I made a committment on their behalf to do better with my classes next year.  By small way of recompense - and as a test for myself to see if I could do it -  I made up a set of thirty "Thank You" cards and wrote a personalised comment to each student, taking care to demonstrate through the comments that I had indeed noticed what they had contributed to the class during the year. 

I'm so grateful my students gave me this feedback, and I really do believe the only reason they told me was because I collected anonymous feedback from them several times throughout the year. Without this framework and trust, students would never have dared tell a teacher about this until it was too late. Without the feedback, I could have blissfully continued unaware making the same mistake for years - building up a reservoir of hurt and misunderstanding along the way.

Was it all bad feedback from this class? Not at all :-)  Overall, the students really enjoyed the year and gave lots of positive feedback and encouragement. But as always - the most valuable feedback is the one that helps you see what didn't see before - appreciate the positive feedback, but it's the uncomfortable feedback that pays the biggest dividend.

Reaching the end of term for 2011? Try some anonymous student feedback - you will be amazed what you discover! Take the plunge - you will never regret it. Every time something special  happens - for the teacher and for the students. See my post on getting student feedback for templates and some suggestions. 

So what can I do better next time to avoid favouritism?
  • Use the "hands-down/paddle-pop stick" system for asking questions. I had actually done this for the first month with this class but as we got more comfortable dropped it. Bad decision.
  • Enforce "hands-up" for when students want to ask questions. How silly I feel writing this down - it's Teaching 101. I thought I didn't need to do this for this class - they were such enthusiastic students and it felt too authoritarian. Wow did that idealism bite me back!
  • Split up or move dominant groups to a less prominent position in the classroom.
  • Ask myself : have I visited each group table during this period? Have I asked them questions? Have I given them some of my time today?


  1. Thanks for the post and the reminder about making sure we spread our time and attention across all our students. You're exactly right, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of just "working with the workers" and showing less attention to the quiet kids. I'm sure it's something we've all done at one time or another (I know I have!)

    Your post is a good reminder for all of us. Thanks for taking the bullet on our behalf! :-)


  2. This is a great reminder and demonstrates how meaningful feedback from students can be.
    When I was young, I was very shy and hated to be called on in class. So as a teacher, I am sensitive to the quiet students who maybe want nothing more than to listen and not be the center of attention. However, I don't want to ignore their voices or make them think I'm not interested in them. What do you think are good ways to draw out the voices of the quiet ones without scaring them back into their turtle shells?

  3. Michal: That's a hard one. Thoughts from a very new teacher : I would rather risk a small amount of discomfort than let them remain silent. So I will ask those students questions in whole class mode - but I try to lessen the stress by selecting my question carefully, or giving them the option to "phone a friend". It's also about building a class environment that it's OK not to know, that a 'wrong' answer is a great answer because it helps everyone (including the teacher) learn. I also slap down pretty hard (verbally) if anyone laughs at a 'wrong' answer. One other idea: I made red cards students can wave at me - discretely or otherwise - that ask me to slow down or explain again/differently. It's become a litle joke in my class - reassuring students it's safe and welcomed to say you don't get something.

  4. Another good strategy for this situation is having every student write down an answer to a question you're going to ask. Give them 20 seconds, say. Now, when you call on a student who's been quiet a lot, at least they can read their answer instead of having to come up with it on the spot.

  5. Thank you for the tip on using surveys, a strategy I will be keen to try.

    A teacher I know would use the roll and tick off a student's name whenever he would talk to that student with the goal being to have every student's name ticked off by the end of the day.

    Another strategy to have everyone contribute is to use poker chips. Handout 2 poker chips to each student and whenever someone answers a question or makes a comment it costs them a chip. So only those with chips left are able to comment. It is probably not something you would do every lesson but more to demonstrate that everyone deserves an equal say.