There he is again. That student sitting in the back of the class, head down and eyes glazed over. He ignores my instructions, refuses to complete his work, insists he doesn't understand, but refuses my help when I try to assist him. Students like him are the reason I play favorites in my classroom.
Yes... I play favorites with my students. I teach Language Arts at a high school in the Appalachian region and according to the majority of my classes in college, I'm not doing it right. Teachers shouldn't be biased, they shouldn't value one student over another and they certainly shouldn't have favorites.
But I do.
I play favorites because in my line of work, some students benefit more from my attention and one-on-one assistance. I have students who excel in school, have active parents, and a consistent routine. I can give these students an assignment and let them work independently because I know they can handle the work or will ask questions if they're confused.
That's not the case with the majority of my students, however. I have students who are in foster care, transitioning through shelters because they don't have a placement, or come from highly dysfunctional homes. Many of my students tell me their parents abuse drugs or they, themselves abuse drugs. Sometimes my students aren't dressed warmly because they don't have warm clothes to wear. Sometimes they're obese and three or more grades behind in school because they lack a support system at home. These are my problem students... and these are the students I tend to favor.
I don't give them easier assignments, give unearned grades, or make excuses for bad behavior. I do, however, make accommodations based on their needs and the needs of my classroom.
First, I don't take no for an answer. My students will respond to my instruction, they will pay attention and they will attempt their homework. How do I make this happen? I build a personal connection with them. I don't allow them to fall through the cracks. I encourage them, motivate them and reassure them that I believe in their potential and their dreams.
Every week, I give my students a writing assignment, which you can view here. I write a letter to all my students on Monday and they have until Wednesday to return it. My letters ask open-ended questions and I use these to build rapport with them. When I return their letters, I don't just give them a grade based off their grammar. I use this as a platform to engage with them, learn their interests, respond to their statements and ask additional questions. Sometimes, I exchange letters back and forth on the same subject for several weeks. Yes, I'm like their pen pal.
Many students fail in public school because teachers are overloaded with these type of students. There are so many in their classrooms that they can't provide individualized attention or make modifications for disruptive behavior. And let's be honest, teenagers can be very disrespectful, argumentative, rude and obnoxious. By no means am I claiming to have the perfect formula to get these students back on track! I am, however, offering a few words of advice for new, exhausted or frustrated teachers who want to help these students but have found themselves without alternatives.
1. Start a conversation that doesn't begin with you berating them or discussing any behavior issues. "John, I really like that shirt you're wearing today. Is Cold Play your favorite band? What type of music interests you the most? Why? (Now use this information to your advantage and design an assignment (make-up work?) that revolves around that student's interest.
2. Leave them an inspiring note before they leave your class that day. Find out their birthday, or maybe it's a 'thinking of you' card for a deceased parent or it can even be a simple I'm glad I saw you in class today, we miss you when you're not here. Let them know they're not invisible. Let them know you care.
3. Leave LOTS of positive feedback on their homework and assignments. Yes, you're playing favorites, and in my book, it's okay. Some kids don't need extra attention and love from their teachers while other students may not be receiving it from anyone else. Even if the student bombed the assignment, find a few things they did right! Find something they improved on since the last assignment, even if it's just more legible handwriting or organizing their ideas into paragraphs. Offer to tutor them if you have time or just leave a ton of ways they can improve. This doesn't mean give them a higher grade than they deserve... they know if they didn't perform well but positive words can be so encouraging to struggling students.
4. Compliment the student in class. It doesn't have to be performance-related but just say something positive about them in front of others. This can really boost their self-esteem and increase their self-worth.
5. Try to engage them in conversations that will enable you to build a trustworthy relationship. No, you don't have to share your lunch or offer relationship advice. Most struggling teenagers are very private but if they feel like they can confide in you, their attitudes at school and in class can change for the better. Many of my students use their writing assignments as outlets and sometimes they approach me after class. I don't think they expect me to have all the answers but it's comforting for them to approach someone they trust. I always encourage them to speak with a counselor or seek help and advice from someone who has experience in that area. I offer to escort them to the proper person or office and the students are always so grateful for this!
When you're underpaid, undervalued and underrepresented, it can be difficult to remain positive and focus on the reasons you became a teacher. Don't be afraid to take a step back, reflect on your work, pat yourself on the back for those you have helped, and remind yourself that every small action has the possibility of creating an equal or bigger action in the lives of students who truly need you the most.
So get out there, play favorites and make a difference in the life of youth.