In my classroom, I play favorites, and you should too

In my classroom, I play favorites, and you should too

(As seen in the Huffington Post)

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.

classroom, classroom management, at risk teens, at risk teenagers, problem students, teaching, teachers, lesson plans, free

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 ok. 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.

Debra

I'm a fast-talking high school English teacher, mother of two boys (the 2nd due in March), wife to an Army Lt., and photo-journalist for the Army Reserves. I'm slightly addicted to office supplies and I easily get carried away with projects and ideas; especially for the playroom and my classroom.

32 thoughts on “In my classroom, I play favorites, and you should too

  • January 27, 2016 at 11:56 am
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    Great post. It is nice to hear some insight from the mind of a teacher! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  • January 27, 2016 at 6:22 pm
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    I loved all this information, I am not a teacher and don’t even have kids, but I can imagine how difficult it may be to have these disadvantaged kids in your class, and constantly try to push them towards being better. You sound like a great teacher, the world needs more you!

    http://www.purejackie.com

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  • January 27, 2016 at 6:50 pm
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    What a great post, hun, thanks for sharing.

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  • January 27, 2016 at 10:04 pm
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    This is an amazing post! I work with the littles K-4, and I too have favored some of my roughest children because they need love the most! 🙂 So great to see someone who feels and does a lot of similar things as myself! This really resonated with me! Excellent post!! 🙂

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    • January 28, 2016 at 11:43 am
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      Thanks Kayla, I’m so glad you took the time to leave me an encouraging comment. Sometimes I ask myself why I didn’t teach the younger kids but there’s something about teenagers that compels me to work with them.

      Reply
  • January 28, 2016 at 3:06 am
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    Having been both the active parent, but also the parent who had a foster child (now our sweet daughter for nearly 10 years) this post means so much. We are still VERY active parents, but I know so many who aren’t and its heartbreaking. But I love seeing that there are teachers out there who notice this and to know that they are getting the attention that they need somewhere!

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    • January 28, 2016 at 11:42 am
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      Thanks for stopping by Renee. I know many teachers who do similar programs in their classrooms and really try to reach out to their students. It can be hard in some schools but I do believe that most teachers are still truly invested in the students.

      Reply
  • February 9, 2016 at 12:11 am
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    I love it when teachers understand that kids don’t all learn the same way. My son is a classic case of that.

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    • February 9, 2016 at 4:36 pm
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      My husband and I are complete opposites for how we learn. I can tell already my son is going to be a hands-on learner like his father, whereas I prefer to read and write in order to memorize and learn different things. Differentiation in the classroom is so incredibly important but I don’t think enough professors in college elaborate or really teach this skill. I had to figure it out as I went.

      Reply
  • February 9, 2016 at 12:30 am
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    I love this post! Each student is different and should thus be treated differently based on needs. I hate this “treat everyone the same” nonsense, which does not work and cannot work.
    Heather Johnson recently posted…Torn Paper Valentine CraftMy Profile

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    • February 9, 2016 at 4:34 pm
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      Heather, I agree. That was a major issue with the No Child Left Behind Act. It was good in theory but teachers have to individually determine where each student is academically and what they need in order to be successfully.

      Reply
  • February 9, 2016 at 1:56 am
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    This is a great post. I am not a teacher, but I have a niece who’s going to be a teacher, soon. Shell love this post.

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    • February 9, 2016 at 4:32 pm
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      Wonderful, please share with your niece!

      Reply
  • February 9, 2016 at 5:48 am
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    This is such a great post! We have a close family friend who is a teacher and she is the same way. It’s so interesting seeing the way different teachers teach!

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    • February 9, 2016 at 4:31 pm
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      Yes it is! A good teacher knows to mimic other successful teachers.

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  • February 9, 2016 at 1:02 pm
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    Thank you for being a teacher who cares. You don’t always see engagement like this in the classroom.

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  • February 10, 2016 at 1:32 am
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    As an educator for over 16 years, I can totally relate to any post about being in the classroom. We certainly are a tough breed.

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    • February 10, 2016 at 9:14 pm
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      Absolutely Maria! I don’t think teachers get enough credit (nor enough pay).

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  • February 10, 2016 at 5:04 am
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    I really enjoyed your post and I completely understand what you are saying. I am not a teacher but I worked in a professional capacity for the second largest school district in the US for 25 years. It is so important to treat students individually and to maintain a positive attitude.

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    • February 10, 2016 at 9:13 pm
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      I’m sure you have so much you could share with new teachers Pam! You should think about writing a few posts 🙂

      Reply
  • February 11, 2016 at 3:17 am
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    You sound like a truly amazing teacher. Those kids that you are playing favorites with will always remember you as that person that went above and beyond for them. Amazing! Kudos to you!
    Marielle Altenor recently posted…Baked Vs Fried: Churros RecipeMy Profile

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    • February 11, 2016 at 12:34 pm
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      Thank you Marielle! I had many amazing teachers like this when I was in school. So many great role models out there!

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  • February 11, 2016 at 4:25 am
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    awwww fantastic post!!! always nice to know how a teacher actually thinks!

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  • February 24, 2016 at 2:42 pm
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    I just read your blog, Debra. I love what you wrote and wholeheartedly agree. You are an inspiration to our profession. It reflects my entire teaching career and my relationships with students. I am at the end of my career this year as I will be retiring. I hope I am remembered for encouraging my students, for being kind and also that they have learned something in class which will improve their lives.
    I hope you keep on with your encouraging and loving ways with students. We live in a culture that is becoming more and more dysfunctional. There is a greater need for teachers such as yourself.

    Reply
  • April 18, 2016 at 11:40 am
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