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I Don’t Have a Favorite Student

A few weeks before I started teaching, someone told me I would have favorites: one student, maybe two, that I loved teaching more than any other. Those students would be the reason I stuck around, because the rest of the class would be such a huge drain on me. This person, with their infinite wisdom, also informed me that I would, inevitably, have least favorites: some students that, if I were given the choice, would be sick every day, just so that I never had to teach them.

According to this person, it was just going to happen. That’s just how teaching is. You have your favored few and then “the rest of them.”

I was, to put it lightly, startled.

“I don’t think I’ll have favorites. That seems bad.”

“You say that now, but you’ve never taught before. Every teacher has favorites.”

Many teachers do have favorites. It’s not a hard thing to witness. I’ve taken classes where the teacher handpicked their inner circle, and I’ve been in and out of that circle.

The fact of the matter is that it sucks. It sucks to be one of “the other students.” Your work isn’t as good as the favorites’, even if it’s better. Your time isn’t as valuable, or well spent. If you struggle with something, it’s because you need to model your life a bit more like whatever “the good students” are doing. The teacher looks at you as the downside to a teaching job, or the biggest chore that they face every week, and looks at their favorites as the shining light in a dark, dark room.

When you’re sitting on the outside, watching the beloved students be showered in praise, it sucks. And I’ve seen what happens when you stop being just “the other student” and start being “the bad student.” The class stops being a class and, for you at least, starts becoming a punishment, as if each week is a new chance to wonder whether this class is worth it. If you’re the right kind of student, you might even start wondering whether learning in general is worth it.

Eventually, you would probably stop trying. It makes sense. You could put hours into your work and the professor will still give you a low grade, just because it’s the wrong name at the top of the page. Spend fifteen minutes on something and you get the same response. At some point, it makes sense to stop wasting your time and start investing that time where it will actually be valued, even at the detriment of your grades.

I was even more startled by this claim, because I’m not teaching college students.

This is a second grade classroom, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to show up and inform me that they know more than me or that I’m not worth their time. Second graders don’t work like that. Even if they did, or if I was teaching older students who might actually think that way, I wouldn’t wonder first whether this was just “a bad student.”

There could be more reason than just an inflated ego to explain why they think that’s an appropriate thing to say to their teacher—something going on at home, something going on in the classroom, or even just the struggle of being a human being in the world. There’s no reason to assume that this is one student who is just going to be a chore.

“Yeah, you think that now, but you haven’t taught yet.”

My would-be advisor might tell you that this is just how things are—that a classroom and a teacher are the exact factors needed to illuminate a necessary divide between those who deserve to be taught well and those who act as a punishment to the teacher. This person, confident as they were, didn’t see a problem with what they were saying. As far as they were concerned, having a favorite wouldn’t hurt anybody, and certainly couldn’t hurt the favorite.

I almost laughed.

The favorite students I’ve seen faced a unique sort of struggle. Instead of being punished for being present, they were being dragged along, no matter what quality work they were turning in. I’ve read papers from people who should’ve been getting C’s or lower, who would brag about their latest A. I’ve met artists and poets who only praised the work created by students that the professor liked. In one case, a student stole their work from someone else, and then was given a literal reward—a plaque that I’m sure is displayed in their home—because they “worked so hard.”

These students start to believe that mediocrity is excellence, but only in themselves.

And they’re basing this off the evidence given to them by teachers who pick favorites. The teacher is an authority figure, and is supposed to show students how to identify what is good and bad. Any student who looks around the classroom and sees the favorites, the other students, and the bad students, is going to start finding reasons for that division. The favorites must be so loved for a reason. The bad students must have rejected an opportunity to be beloved, to be intuitively skilled.

There’s the problem, and I’m fairly certain that the solution is just to not pick favorites.

In my second grade classroom, we have a rule. We celebrate success. If someone does well, we acknowledge it. Sometimes that’s just saying, “good job.” Other times, my students take it upon themselves to turn congratulations into a five minute endeavor, complete with a musical number. They sing, “Celebrate success, come on,” to the tune of Celebration by Kool & The Gang.

They clap and cheer and have to be reminded that we can’t be too loud, we want to respect the other classes. They demand that a student be given a better reward – “No! You should give her a house point!” We spend a lot of time talking about what is kind and then acknowledging when we practice that. All of this is in addition to adding, subtracting, and doing science experiments.

Because every student is doing their best. They all get loud, or forgetful, or come in from recess feeling upset and distracted. They all earn the applause they receive for their brilliance—and they are, all of them, brilliant. If I had to pick a favorite, I genuinely couldn’t. Which makes sense, since they are all seven or eight years old. Picking favorites among seven and eight years old seems, for lack of a better word, bad.

And yet, for some reason, it still surprised that person—the one who informed me that every teacher has favorites—when I informed them, after a few weeks of teaching, that I didn’t have a favorite student.

“I don’t have favorite students. That seems bad.”

Featured Art: Dans l’ecole (circa 1900) by Jean Geoffroy