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When a teacher plays favorites

By Lisa Sylvester, CNN
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
Teachers may naturally like some students more than others, but what happens when favoritism results?
Teachers may naturally like some students more than others, but what happens when favoritism results?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Teachers sometimes have favorites, which can cause classroom conflict
  • A teacher says it's natural to have many favorite students, but not at others' expense
  • Parents who suspect unfairness should address it calmly with student and teacher
  • The key, says a doctor and mother, is giving each student the attention he or she needs

(CNN) -- When Alec Fanaroff of Potomac, Maryland, looks back at his fifth-grade school year, one memory stands out. His math teacher routinely handed out candy at the end of class to students who answered questions correctly. Fanaroff says he raised his hand and gave out the correct answers numerous times. But he never got a piece of candy. It may be a little thing, but for Fanaroff, now a freshman at the University of Maryland, it was something that stuck.

"It can be demoralizing to other students not on the receiving side of said favoritism," Fanaroff said.

Fanaroff wrote an editorial on the subject in his school newspaper, the Churchill Observer. Some of the examples he saw during his elementary and secondary years were benign, like the candy incident. Others were more significant, like an extension of a homework assignment.

As many students start the new school year, they might not see eye-to-eye with the teacher. Or, alternately, they might be adored by their teachers.

The topic recently came up in a discussion I had with my husband. After my daughter's preschool orientation, I remarked to my husband how well she did and how I thought she would be one of her teachers' favorites.

That sparked a lively discussion between us. Do teachers indeed have favorites? If a teacher has a favorite student, does that lead to blatant favoritism? Does it start in preschool? Later? Is it harmful? Should I not want my daughter to be a favorite? What can be done about it if a child either is or is not a favorite?

Why students skip school

Finding answers

"I would say, first off, that teachers do their best to treat all kids fairly," said Dryw Freed, who has taught for 16 years in public schools in North Carolina and Virginia. "With that said, we are only human and do respond differently to different children."

But it's not as simple as having one favorite. In a class of 27 students, Freed says, the majority of the children would all rotate and have "moments of being one of (her) favorites."

"With very few exceptions, each kid has something that endears her to a teacher, so there don't tend to be dramatic, clear-cut favorites," says Freed. "It's not a case of a few favorites and a bunch of goats. It's more like a collection of beautiful, funny, endearing little people, a couple of whom happen to stand out slightly at one end of the spectrum or another."

Parents may not readily admit this, but there may be a small part of them that wants their child to be a teacher favorite or, at least, not "that kid" who always seems to be in trouble.

"We hope that our child reminds them of one of their own and they have a soft spot for them, so to speak," explains Dr. Melissa Arca, a pediatrician and mother of two who writes the blog Confessions of a Dr. Mom.

But Arca says parents don't want their children to be let off the hook either.

"I think we also want our children to be held accountable and not be given any favors, and I think most parents are sensitive to that as well," Arca says.

What if your child is not a favorite?

Marie Hartwell-Walker is a licensed therapist, parenting expert and author at PsychCentral. She says if your child finds himself on the outs with a teacher, here are some points to consider:

• Think of the larger picture. Is this an isolated incident or part of a pattern?

• Don't automatically be reactive. Take into account the teacher's perspective as well. There are more mandates being placed on teachers, larger class sizes and fewer resources. Teachers are human, too.

• Try to get a complete picture of what is going on. Your 8-year-old child may have a different take on a situation than a 42-year-old teacher.

One-on-one education

But that said, if your child is chronically upset, Hartwell-Walker says, you should absolutely talk to the teacher.

"Your child is in school 180 days out of the year. You wouldn't want to work for a boss that didn't like you for 180 days."

Do it in a nonaggressive way. "Parent-teacher cooperation is important. ... Get on the same page against whatever is the problem," says Hartwell-Walker.

Arca agrees that the parent-teacher relationship is a partnership that can only work with open and honest communication and with the child's best interest at heart.

She says teachers will interact with each individual child based on the student's temperament and unique personality.

"Not every child will need extra time or help with reading. Not every child will need that extra coaxing or gentleness when being asked to join a group. So perhaps it may seem at one time or another that a particular child is being favored in some way. ... Well, perhaps that child needs those extras," says Arca.

At her second grader's back-to-school-night, Arca's child's teacher shared a quote with the families. Arca says it's applicable to parents and teachers alike when it comes to the topic of favorites.

"Fairness is not giving everyone the same thing. Fairness is giving everyone what they need."

Read more on CNN's Schools of Thought blog

Were you the beneficiary or victim of teacher favoritism? What about your kids? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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