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.