If there is one thing most teachers want in their relationship with students, it’s to be regarded as fair. They must, for being regarded as fair by students is vitally important to how students receive us as human beings as well as their teachers. It’s difficult to believe that the unfair teacher is either accepted, respected, or effective.
The question is: Can a teacher generate feelings of fairness with students? How can we be reasonably sure that the way we act or what we say will be regarded by our students as being fair? Though there may be no absolute guarantees, there are some safeguards. We need to use them.
First of all, we need to heed an old adage: “Haste makes waste.” Our triggered reaction to any situation can lock us into acting unfairly when we normally wouldn’t. That’s why we need not be afraid to proceed with caution. Time and time again we have heard that teachers need the ability to make decisions and act quickly, which is true. But, at the same time we need to act wisely more than we need to act hastily.
Acting too quickly may be our guarantee that we have not made a thoughtful and just decision. Hopefully we learn early in our careers that sometimes to do nothing is to do something. Just as words and sentences would be meaningless without pauses and silences to set them off and help arrange their meaning—our response in certain situations needs the same to be meaningful to students. If we want to be fair, we may not be able to act quickly. That’s why it is well to learn to consider before acting—or haste may be our downfall.
We can also test our fairness by using one of the most valid criteria of all: Putting ourselves in our students’ positions. This seems such an obvious thing to say. Yet we so often never think to do it at the time we should. If we can begin by saying, “How would I feel if. . .” our chances of offering a fair response are much more than if we act in a unilateral and untested way.
Likewise, there is another simple procedure we can use to help us maintain fairness. We can check with the student to see how he feels about what is being decided. Whether we believe it or not, this makes us neither weak nor indecisive. That is, it doesn’t unless we regard consideration as weakness.
It can’t be stressed enough that to make a decision is tremendously important. To include students in the decision-making process is to validate their abilities to contribute to the planning. Enough cannot be said about the positive aspects of this teacher action. To be trusted, whether you happen to be the teacher or the student, may mean the difference between good resolution of a problem or a breakdown. If we think students’ input suggests leniency or permissiveness, we are mistaken. In the case of punishment, I think you will usually find students’ suggestions far more severe than anything we might suggest.
To be able to consider suggestions from students indicates teacher maturity. This in itself is a positive thing, for it enables students to have a mature experience with an understanding teacher from whom they can learn. No matter how much time seems to be needed, a fair teacher will almost always set up linkage with students by inviting both contribution and response.
Another way of testing fairness has to do with a particular set of students. Sometimes what might seem fair to do with one class will not seem fair with another just on the basis of differences in ability or even in temperament. However, if students come away from a situation feeling that heavy pressure has been placed on them, this probably indicates an unfair burden. Teachers may not even intend to be unfair, but they certainly have to know their students as people before they place requirements or make particular assignments. This is important to remember.
The Master Teacher realized that there aren’t any of us who can guarantee fairness all the time. There will be those times that we may act unfairly even when we have thought that we have exercised care and consideration. What should we do then? We should do what we teach students to do—we should apologize and mend fences. Perhaps, we should keep in mind too that there are no more forgiving human beings than children. They can be wronged time after time and will still be willing to start again. It is a very touching thing about children that we adults don’t notice often enough. Unfortunately, something seems to happen in this respect once they enter adulthood. But when they are children, they usually respond graciously to apology. Our role is really very small. We need only recognize a need to apologize and then do it.
The Master Teacher realizes that standard procedure can work both for and against our fairness. That’s why we should never forget that no matter how big the group, we are always dealing with individuals. Privacy can affect our being fair. What we do with one student is not the business of another—and cannot be made public knowledge. Here’s when we are often the most unfair.
The Master Teacher knows that if we act out of consideration, we can usually assume that we have acted fairly. If this does not guarantee fairness, we can go one step further and make open repairs. That’s the most students can expect of us and the most we can expect of ourselves. The Master Teacher knows that when students have a teacher who is fair, they are more likely to be fair themselves. That’s the lesson we teach when we are fair.