Having favourites just shows we are human

16th January 2015 at 00:00
All children are equal in the eyes of the teacher but some are more equal than others. Admitting it could be to everyone's benefit

Favourites. I'm not talking colours (mine's yellow), foods (cheese every time) or ice cream flavours (anyone turning their nose up at mint choc chip is no friend of mine, frankly). I'm talking about having favourites among the children you teach.

I know, I know. We don't have favourites, do we? Because good teachers don't. We love all the children in our care in an equally professional way, regardless of their personalities, interests or manners. Or, for that matter, our own.

This is the party line at least, but it can be a dangerous one. Teachers are not educating machines - we are human beings and subject to all the quirks and foibles that go with that. If I discover that little Rebecca shares my predilection for Bulgarian opera - just for instance - then a thrill of shared sympathy and understanding will inevitably pass between us (Bulgarian opera is not to everyone's taste). If Martin tells a joke that makes me giggle on a stormy Wednesday afternoon when I'm battling a cold and the joys of outdoor PE, then my affection for him is liable to increase.

Remember The Sims? If two of your virtual people were getting on, little plus signs would appear above their heads to show their increased mutual regard. It's an apt visual metaphor and it happens everywhere, including in classrooms. We all have favourites. It's OK and it's inevitable.

But before anyone starts demanding my resignation, there's an important addendum to this. It may be OK to have favourites and to like some of the children you teach more than others, but it's not OK to treat them differently because of this.

In fact, this is where a state of denial can be really problematic. Teaching is a job where a certain degree of self-awareness is pretty much essential. You can only close your eyes and count to three before speaking calmly if you realise in the first place that you're about to lose your temper. You can only legitimately encourage the children to be tidy if you're making the effort to combat your own tendency towards (dis)organised chaos. And you can only treat all your pupils fairly and equally if you recognise and account for your own feelings and opinions about them.

Even more than this, being honest with yourself about the way you feel about the children you teach can actually help you to relate to them better. When I realised that nobody else much liked the little boy I had struggled to bond with, I felt a sudden flood of compassion towards him that I couldn't otherwise have forced. Recognising that you are struggling to connect with a child can enable you to take extra steps to ensure they feel valued and respected.

Because - and this is the part where being the adult is hard - as teachers we can't take things personally. If my husband forgets to buy cheese, snaps at me over breakfast or beats me at Scrabble, I can sulk to my heart's content and throw Scrabble tiles with impunity (although clearly this has never happened). If, however, a child shouts or answers back, is sullen or defiant, as an adult it is my duty and responsibility to rise above it, to seek out the root of the behaviour and to remember that it's about them and not me.

Grin and bear it

These are also circumstances where "fake it until you make it" can be a surprisingly useful maxim. If you can manage to act in a positive, caring fashion towards a child - despite any teeth-gritting - you have a better chance of bringing out the best in them. And when they start showing you their better side, you might find the "act" has become reality.

Of course, the truth is that even in a classroom full of angelic, funny and well-behaved little darlings, you can expect to gel with some better than others. Is this a bad thing? I don't know. We expect our teachers to inspire where possible but often this requires some common ground to be truly effective.

To this day, I remember the English teacher who gave me the confidence to pursue my love of writing despite my inability to speak above a whisper in class. She was a fantastic teacher, but the truth is that she meant something to me in particular because we shared a love of words. Does this mean I somehow received preferential treatment? And if it does, would we really wish things to be any different? The idea of a classroom run by perfectly objective, dispassionate educators has something of a dystopian uniformity about it. It's our uniqueness that also gives us warmth and relatability.

Perhaps, then, the important thing is to recognise the limits and strengths of our own humanity and settle simply for doing the best we can for each and every child that passes through our care, favourites and non-favourites alike. Because sometimes it's the children who are the hardest to like who need us most.

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance journalist based in south-west England

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