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One of the persistent questions students ask themselves is whether they are in a class wherein they are treated fairly and equitably. They watch for signals that we notice and care about them, and they monitor our interactions with other students to see if they detect a special relationship and treatment.  

We may believe students should not worry about such things in our class, as we know that we are committed to fairness and the avoidance of favoritism. Yet, what matters more than that is what our students perceive and think. For many students, how they perceive us determines whether they will invest in their learning with us, follow our leadership, and respond to our expectations. A climate of value, respect, and fairness will influence how successful and satisfying this year will be. 

So, how can we avoid the reality and dispel the perceptions of favoritism with our students? A good place to start is by recognizing when and where favoritism can surface—and what we can do to counter it. Here are eight of these counteractions to consider. 

#1: Address the issue of favoritism openly and directly. Sharing our intentions to have everyone feel valued and supported will dispel many concerns and provide reassurance. This action also sets expectations for a climate of fairness and even-handedness. We might also explain that there will be times when not everyone will be treated the exact same, and when that happens, there will be a good reason for it; to borrow a medical analogy, we would not treat a bruise the same as a break, or a minor scrape the same as a deeper cut. This could then lend itself to a conversation about equality versus equitability.  

#2: Pay attention to seating assignments and arrangements. If we assign seats, we need to avoid having some students, such as those who are quick to volunteer and show enthusiasm, consistently placed in the “magic T” (the seats across the front of the room and down the middle). Multiple research studies show that students placed in these seats tend to receive more of the teacher’s attention and interactions. Meanwhile, students along the sides and in the rear corners are more likely to be overlooked and ignored.  

#3: Monitor participation in discussions. We need to be careful to avoid relying on certain students for participation, such as those who are quick to raise their hands and respond. Some students simply need more time to think before they are ready to offer a response. We also need to be aware of how we react when students give incorrect or weak answers. Showing impatience, frustration, or disinterest and quickly moving on to another student can easily be read as lack of value and respect.  

#4: Distribute special activities, assignments, and duties equitably. Students, especially in the early grades, enjoy opportunities to lead and serve in the classroom. They appreciate the attention and recognition that goes along with distributing materials, greeting guests, leading the class to lunch, and performing other daily activities and routines. While there are times when certain students need extra attention and responsibility, we need to be careful to distribute these assignments beyond a select group of students.  

#5: Be consistent in expectations. Students can be quick to pick up on any inconsistencies in the behaviors we accept and address. Do some students seem to “get away” with behaviors that are called out for other students? Students also notice if some of their classmates seem to receive higher grades for work that is similar in depth and quality to that of their peers. Of course, there are times and circumstances when we may need to, even temporarily, adjust our expectations and be especially flexible in how we treat behaviors and assignments. However, we need to guard against practices and patterns that send a message that some students matter more than others.  

#6: Monitor nonverbal behaviors and signals. Students are especially attuned to our nonverbal communication. Tone of voice can be just as important and powerful as the actual words we choose. Additionally, facial expressions can communicate much about our thinking and intentions. Even the hand signals we use to encourage, discourage, and reinforce behaviors are read as expressions of our feelings and intentions. 

#7: Work to develop a relationship with each student. Brief personal conversations, encouraging reminders, questions about life outside of class, and other similar expressions of interest and value can make a world of difference. Of course, it is easier to form strong relationships with some students than with others, but every student deserves our attention, interest, and support. We might even keep a log of our interactions with individual students to monitor whether we are giving all students the time and focus we intend.  

#8: Practice self-reflection. We may assume that we are treating all students equitably, but unless we take the time to truly examine our behavior, we risk being perceived differently than we intend. We might invite a colleague to observe us as we teach and watch for signs of favoritism or preference. We could give students opportunities for feedback through confidential, anonymous surveys. Of course, we can also monitor student comments and behaviors; if students feel that our treatment is unfair, they are likely to communicate their thoughts and perceptions to each other—and sometimes even to us. 

Our goal should be to have every student believe they are our favorite. When all students experience our interest, concern, and empathy, and when they feel our commitment to and belief in them, that goal is within reach.  

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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