So, what do you do when you discover your child’s teacher plays favorites? My wife and I are torn about it. On the one hand, our daughter is going to encounter favoritism at some point in her life, and so she might as well get used to it and learn not to let it get to you. On the other hand, she’s only eight years old, and, dammit, at five figures a year for tuition, we think we should have some expectations of a level playing field at the very least.
I want to put aside all other concerns I have had with my daughter’s school and think a minute about the nature of favoritism, and the kind of effect it can have on an organization.
First, let me establish that we have seen it. The first time we witnessed it was in a public outing when her teacher had, quite nicely, turned up to see our daughter and her friend perform in a play. The two families were standing with the two kids out in the lobby after the performance, and the two kids were ecstatic to see their teacher, who greeted and congratulated both of them and then proceeded to turn and hold an entire conversation only with our daughter’s friend. It could not have been more rude. The look on our daughter’s face was as if someone had slapped her, and so we rushed her out of the lobby and home.
We reported the incident, trying to put the most generous spin on it that we could, to our the principal of our daughter’s school, with whom we were trying to figure out why our daughter was slipping both in her grades and in her attitude towards school. We understood the principal’s loyalty to her teacher, we were frustrated by it as parents, but as teachers ourselves we also knew the folly of being sorry for having rushed to judgement. But it put me off, and so later when the school counselor chided me for not being part of the team, I got with the program and once again assured my daughter that her teacher was really trying to teach her and that she would just have to deal with the teacher’s performance expectations.
And then it happened again. I was at school to pick my daughter up from school, and I was hanging out with my daughter, her friend, and her friend’s family, and the teacher came up and talked only to my daughter’s friend. Again, my daughter turned and smiled at the approach of her teacher, and again it was as if she had been slapped in the face. It was so awful, and obvious, that her friend’s father proceeded to get goofier and goofier as we walked away in an attempt to distract my daughter. (Later, a few days later, I asked her how she felt about what had happened, and she told me that she was okay, that she simply started singing a song in her head. Does that happen a lot? I asked. Not that often, she said. Besides, she said, it’s not just me. It’s everybody but my friend.)
I got confirmation later in the week when I watched the teacher, after a choir performance, station herself by my daughter’s friend’s family, and ignore the stream of kids also in her class as they walked out past her. (I think she patted one kid on the head.) The next day I was hanging out at a birthday party for a boy in my daughter’s class — a nice mix of girls and boys which was great to see — and I got to talking with one of the boy’s mom. How’s your daughter doing, she asked. Okay, I said. It’s been a tough year: she and her teacher just don’t seem to have made a connection. Oh, the mother said, you mean her favoritism? And then poured forth a litany of complaints drawn from a host of third grade boys: incidents where my daughter’s friend kind of holds everyone else hostage because he can do things to them, they feel, and they cannot, even accidentally, do anything to him.
This is school yard stuff, right? And I can see why the teacher feels protective of my daughter’s friend: he had a rough start to the year. He’s not a naturally very social kid, but, and this is where it gets important, playing favorites isn’t making it better. In fact, it’s making it worse. (This is a sweet, sweet boy who spends recess playing around where other kids are playing. Not playing with them, but around them.)
I think the good news here is that this is an overwhelmingly good bunch of kids. Really good kids, with really good parents. (It’s why we keep our daughter at the school.) And so I don’t think any permanent damage has been done to the social fabric of the group, but some damage has been done. This group, in the hands of their second grade teacher, was an ebullient, high-performing bunch. A little too high energy at times, but that’s not a bad thing. In the current situation, if my daughter is any indication, there is a whole lot of energy being poured into extracurricular activities where they feel some emotional reward awaits.
Now part of the problem is that my daughter’s school is increasingly focused on academics at the loss of everything else — we, unfortunately chose it to get away from an academic-only focus and standardized tests, but it appears that that paradigm now also dominates the private school scene. That’s good for her friend, who is very academically focused, not so good for my daughter who is not. (And, hey, if two academics can be okay with that, then I think the school can be, too.) This particular teacher is very academically-oriented, and so I think there is a convergence of a number of things to make what appears to have happened happen.
But all of this is good for my daughter’s friend, right? Maybe he needed to feel special. I don’t know that I agree. What happens next year when he’s not a favorite? Or the year after that? At some point he’s not going to be a favorite? Will his response be to maneuver to be the favorite? Let’s say he gets good at that? Is that what you would want your child to learn? Wouldn’t you want your child to learn to be themselves and then bend when they need to, not to bend first and then figure out who they are?
Don’t get me wrong. I work at a place that is rife with favoritism, or it’s southern collective variant, good-old-boyism. And it has done a world of good to a number of people across the university and within my own department. But in the end that favoritism is only good for the favorites, it’s not really good for the organization. The favorites only do what it takes to remain a favorite, which is often not really in the long-term interest of an organization as future-oriented as a university. What’s worse is that favoritism not only encourages the wrong kinds of behaviors in favorites, it also encourages a wide variety of inappropriate behaviors in everyone else left out the spotlight. People begin to save their best ideas and energy for projects that benefit only themselves, and perhaps they begin to look elsewhere for things to do or places to work. Or, if they remain, they either check out or become negative in their response to practically everything.
And I don’t know that I blame them. Favoritism is personal, and people who aren’t favorites are going to take it personally. My wife and I have had a variety of reactions ourselves over the years, but mostly we have come the realization that favoritism is institutionalized where we work, part of the organizational culture. We can either play the game, and probably be unhappy with ourselves for doing it, or we can do what we love and hope it will make a difference some day.
But we’re adults. Some day is a hard thing for a kid.