A Day In the Life

"No one gets preferential treatment."

I was engaged in a conversation the other day* with a group of colleagues. As you do. Two coworkers were recounting a meeting they had with a parent. Nothing surprising there. During the meeting, the parent had essentially mentioned that the “good” kids always get the short end of the stick. They never get called on, and the “bad” kids, or the “problem” students get preferential treatment. My colleagues, including myself, responded as you would have expected… “What?”, “That’s ridiculous”, “No one gets preferential treatment”, “We’re always fair”, “Parents are ridiculous”, blah blah blah. We all left the table, some of us laughing, some of us shaking our heads, all of us in a state of disbelief. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t.  

When I returned to my classroom, I was still thinking about the conversation. It slowly dawned on me that the parents were right! I reflected back on my own behavior when dealing with “problem” students. I was shocked to realize that I do give special treatment to those students. You have to, lest you want to set them off, right? You’re taking preemptive measures to prevent any blowups. Any storms. It’s for the good of the class. When I reflect further back into my career and training, I realize that this is, in fact, the trend.

I recall being in job interviews and speaking proudly of how I “manage” difficult students by giving them special jobs and calling on them frequently when they know an answer. Principals have always loved that! After all, it means less work for them, but how many “good” students did I purposely overlook or cause to feel excluded because of my behavior?

The thing is, you try to be fair, and we’ve heard it time and time again, fair doesn’t always mean equal, but how can we justify giving one group special treatment when it alienates another group? I get how this trend emerged. The misbehaving, “stupid” kids felt ignored, overlooked, excluded, not good enough, while the “smart,” “good” students received all the praise and attention. So, we tried to compensate for that by including the “bad” kids more, calling on them more, asking them to help more, meanwhile, we are now, inadvertently, but partially purposefully, overlooking and excluding the “good” kids. Is it okay to do this to any group? To make one group of students feel ignored in order to build up the self-worth of another?

I know what you’re thinking, “well, the solution is to stop labeling and stop categorizing students into groups and just treat everyone as equals, blah, blah, blah.” Sure, okay. Tell me how well that works out for you. The truth is, it’s hard not to categorize students. It happens everyday, in every school setting. The moment a fellow teacher or administration gives you a “heads up” about a student, they’ve labeled him or her. As soon as you get that list of IEPs at the beginning of the school year, you’ve already grouped your students. This is the group that requires more help, more hands on interaction. I don’t give equal attention to my students. The “artistic” students rarely see me during class. How many times have I dismissed the requests for help from the quiet, studious student because my back was turned on Johnny for too long and all hell is about to break lose? How many times have I walked away from a “talented” young artist because Suzie, who produces mediocre work at best, has needs that require me to give her step-by-step instruction?

So how do we find the balance? How do we build up the self esteem of those students who are lacking in talent or lacking in affection at home without dismissing the needs of the other students? “They’re strong and more confident, they can handle it.” Maybe, but aren’t they then no longer getting an equal and fair education? The dichotomy of classroom learners is a difficult phenomenon to navigate. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer, no clear cut solution to ensuring that every individual student in your classroom receives a fair and equal education.

What are your thoughts? How do you handle “problem” students in your room? Do you give special treatment? Do you ignore “good” kids?

(For the record, and it saddens me that I feel I must add this disclaimer, I would never, ever categorize, group or think of students as “bad” or “stupid”. “Difficult”? Yes. “Challenging”? Yes. When I use the words “bad” and “stupid” in this conversation, I am alluding back to a time when these words were actually used, so please don’t hate on me about it. Thanks.)

*This conversation took place quite some time ago, but I am just now getting around to finishing this post.


10 thoughts on “"No one gets preferential treatment."

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sad to say, but this has probably always happened. I was one of the “good” students. I actually had teachers tell me all through school that even though I had earned an award someone else needed it worse so they were giving it to them. I can't tell you how many times I was told that. I even lost a scholarship that I desperately needed because of that kind of treatment, and was told so to my face. Don't overlook those quiet, well behaved students. Please.


  2. I think we are all guilty of pouring our energies into maintaining the more needy students in our class. Yes, we do anything we can think of to work that miracle control so the class will run more smoothly. In our school we have a behavior program where they earn “bucks” (green $1.00 pieces of paper not real money) that can be used to purchase things in the school store. I try to be ever thoughtful and reward those hard working, never a problem students with a buck at the end of class. So even though they really didn't get enough of my attention during class time, they are acknowledged with knowing that I really did notice how well they worked and the positive choices they made during class time.


  3. This is a problem that has plagued me all my years of teaching – I know all the names of the disruptive students and am always interacting with them, and I barely get a chance to get to know those who are always focused and on task. I have tried a number of things to remedy this, but nothing has been the real fix. What I do now is keep a list by my door that I call the “good choices list” and when I notice someone working intently, I call their name to sign the list, just to hopefully let them know that I notice their hard work. I also let kids sign the list that can answer questions for me at the end of class, so there are usually between 4-8 names per class. I give the list to the teacher at the end of class and that usually results in praise back in their classroom as well. It's still not enough, but there is only so much we can do with 700 students a week.


  4. Very well put. I was actually one of the “bad” kids as a child and had very little art in school, when I did it was where I shone. Now that I am a new art teacher in a new school, it is a challenge I will have to face head on as the school grows (only up till 1st grade now). I already see the kids that have so much potential and the ones that clearly have issues. I try to give activities though, that they all can do according to their levels but the results show whos who.


  5. Anonymous says:

    I teach 30 or more students in some classes and it is really hard to “know” the “good” kids who succeed in academics and artistic ability, because I am constantly working with discipline of four to five students, special needs students who need my undivided attention all the time, and trying to get everyone cleaned up before the bell rings. It makes one feel bad that you don't have time to talk to other students about their art and how great they are doing in class…you just hope they know that they are setting great examples!


  6. I try to acknowledge the well-behaved students by letting them know how proud of them I was, and I also send apologies to them when behavior is difficult to manage and they wait patiently. It's a constant struggle, and I feel for the students who actually listen and work in class because of how much time I spend “managing” the challenging students. It's totally not fair to the class, and not one single classroom management trick works 100% of the time. I am constantly changing up the behavior plan to keep the students' attention.


  7. Anonymous says:

    This issue really bothers me too. Its so frustrating. I feel like the student who follows directions and sits there quietly working gets overlooked way too often. They have to do something amazing to get the same attention another student gets for doing ANYTHING positive.


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