If a teacher is to maintain control of a class it is important that she been seen as someone who is fair. In this month’s Ilm o Amal, we explore the concept of fairness in a classroom and share a few tips that teachers can use to ensure impartiality.

Seventh-grader Mariam* came home and told her mother about something that had happened that day in class. The teacher had been obviously favouring one particular child and another boy, irked by this, pointed it out to him. The teacher justified his favouritism by saying that the student was his favourite because he was from a ‘good’ family.

When Rida was in third grade, she recalls that her teacher had divided the class into three groups for Math. The Red group was the advanced group, the Blue group had those children that needed some help and finally the Green group had the weak students. In her mind, Rida, who is now in 10th grade and who was slotted in the Green group, interpreted the groups as ‘the smart group,’ ‘the middling group’ and ‘the laggards.’

In forming the groups the teacher was most likely trying to approach her teaching more systematically, however this attempt at classification backfired. Not only has Rida not forgotten the experience, she also felt that it was very unfair. “The Math teacher definitely treated the smart group differently. They were her favourites and she even laughed when teaching them. We were the ones she struggled with and you could tell from her frustration and her tone.”

As you can see in the examples above, in order to maintain her authority in a classroom, it is imperative that a teacher be seen as a fair person. She should come across as a person who assesses her students based on their performance, rather than on how much she likes them as a person.

It is natural to like certain students more than others. For instance, it may seem like the most natural thing for a teacher to pick a student who is clearly enjoying the novel that the class is reading for Literature, to initiate a discussion, rather than pick someone who isn’t enjoying the work being discussed. The teacher might also unconsciously ‘reward’ an interested student by letting them dominate the discussion.

Ensuring Fairness

To ensure that she is being fair, a teacher should make sure that she calls on each student at least once. This works well in a class that has a limited number of students. However, if you have a bigger class, you could try and reach every student over a couple of lessons. A simple way to do this would be by writing your students’ names on a stack of cards and calling the students whose name turns up at the top. Shuffle the cards often after you are through each time and use them regularly. This is a great solution for children who complain that you never call on them.

Instead of using the stack of name cards to call on each child just to answer a question, another thing you could do is to simply talk, reach out to or acknowledge every child as their name turns up. Again this is easier to do in a smaller classroom, and will go some way in ensuring that no one feels left out or ignored.

Another way to ensure that your students don’t feel sidelined by you is to make a conscious effort to spot your students’ talents and bring it to their notice. Every child has strengths and weaknesses, a quiet child may demonstrate strong writing skills, while a child who frequently disrupts the class, may do well if given some responsibility such as being tasked with collecting notebooks or helping the teacher hand out marked assignments.

Another area where you have to be mindful of the need to be fair, is when you are creating a class display of the students’ work. You can do this by mixing and displaying the weaker assignments with the stronger works, because everyone made an effort while creating their work.

How fair am I?

Even if you think that you are a fair teacher, it may be a good idea to enlist help from a colleague who can observe you in action in the classroom. Your colleague may be able to point out things that you may not have noticed about yourself. For instance, you may not be allowing a weak student enough time to answer a question or you may be overlooking students who sit in a certain part of the classroom, just because they happen to be sitting in the back or right at the front of the class. A colleague’s observation could prove valuable in helping you assess yourself whether you are veering close to partiality.

If you don’t want to bring an observer in the classroom, you could try and assess yourself by being more mindful of what you do in the classroom. You will need to be very honest with yourself when you do this. For example, we have all encountered students who push our buttons. To be seen as fair and impartial, you might want to be aware of how you feel towards a student. And regardless of whether you like them or not, make an effort to control your emotions and do not let that mar the learning experience.  Something as simple as taking an honest look at your interaction with your students at the end of each day, will go far in ensuring that you aren’t slipping down the slippery slope of partiality.

Grading is another area where teachers need to demonstrate fairness. Your students bring different cultures, backgrounds and learning styles to the classroom. In order to ensure that you grade fairly, try and incorporate different kinds of assessment methods in your classroom. This allows students to demonstrate their learning effectively and ensures that you too are grading fairly.

When teachers make mistakes

Like every other human being on the planet, teachers make plenty of mistakes. And our actions may seem unfair even if we think we are being careful or considerate. If you raised your voice at a child unfairly or meted out harsh consequences to someone who didn’t deserve it, the best thing to do would be to demonstrate to the child what you would want him or her to do in a similar situation: apologise. Dr. Dorothy Armstrong, professional advisor to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsmen, recommends a “regret, reason and remedy” formula.  If you unfairly meted out harsh consequences to a child, a regret, reason and remedy formula would sound like, “ I am sorry I made you stay behind with the others during break, I thought you were also involved and I will be more careful in future about finding out what happened and who was involved.”

Many teachers don’t realise when their actions are being seen as unfair or partial. Students however can easily pick up on seemingly subtle differences in how teachers interact with different children. Staying fair and coming across as being impartial is an important part of the effort that teachers have to make every day.

*names have been changed


Fairness Is Good Management

Top 10 Qualities of a Great Teacher

5 Tips for Being A Fair Boss

November 2015