Alec Fanaroff's memories of fifth-grade math class in Potomac, Md., have nothing to do with long division. What he remembers most is that his teacher handed out candy to students who participated in class as a daily reward, but never gave him a piece — even though he raised his hand and gave correct answers.
"Day after day, I never got a piece of candy. To the best of my memory, every student in the room got candy, some even multiple times, but I never got the loot," Fanaroff wrote in an editorial for his school newspaper, the Churchill Review. The story later made its way into an article about teacher favoritism for CNN Living that poses questions about whether teachers really do have favorites, and what parents should do if their child says a teacher is playing favorites.
Parents might not admit it, but they sometimes play a role in the favoritism game, the story said. "There may be a small part of them that wants their child to be a teacher favorite or, at least, not 'that kid' who always seems to be in trouble."
Scholastic magazine writer Eric Butterman quotes several psychologists and educators in a story on favoritism at school. His research shows that teachers are as human as the rest of us, even though most try to avoid favoritism. They can be influenced by good or bad first impressions; are more likely to favor compliant, participative girls than rowdy, disruptive boys; and tend to feel most comfortable around students with whom they have much in common.
The National Education Association website lists ideas for teachers to help them include all students — tricks Fanaroff's math teacher could have used to good effect.
"One popular approach to making sure every child gets called upon involves drawing Popsicle sticks (with a name on each one) or clothespins from one of two cans," NEA blogger Greg Salt wrote. "Once a name is called, the stick goes in the second can until everyone in the class has had a turn."
One teacher uses 3x5 cards to make sure she speaks with or rewards each student every day, and "stacks the deck" with multiple cards for those who need a little extra attention. Some teachers even use iPhone apps, such as "Who's Next?" to ensure that everyone gets called on.
The CNN article offers guidance for parents who are concerned that their child is becoming a classroom unfavorite at school, but also cautions parents to exercise reason:
Think of the larger picture. Is this an isolated incident or part of a pattern?
Don't automatically be reactive. Take into account the teacher's perspective as well. There are more mandates being placed on teachers, larger class sizes and fewer resources. Teachers are human, too.
Try to get a complete picture of what is going on. Your 8-year-old child may have a different take on a situation than a 42-year-old teacher.
If a child remains chronically unhappy about school, though, the parent should have a non-aggressive discussion with the teacher, aimed at teaming up to get at the root of the problem, the CNN story said.