Sunday, 14 July 2013

'Classroom Capital' - Because teachers have favourites

Key idea - I don't think that children are the passive recipients of their teachers' favouritisms any more than they are passive recipients of the teachers' lessons. Children can be actively involved in the pursuit of their own self-favouritism

Reading @sparklyfran 's sweet and authentic blog titled 'A Labour of Love: My Favourite Pupil', seeing how she wrote about Raj left me thinking about favourites. Right from the offset on this topic, there is a slight unease. You can feel as though you're about to wade into a moral quagmire. I get the feeling this is some guilt-overspill from the misguided and unrealistic perception that good teachers are those who remain completely neutral, in order to be professional.

The fact is, kids' needs are not neutral, nor are their personalities, and nor are ours. It may not seem like it six weeks into an eight week term, but we are first and foremost human beings (second, teachers), and part of that ontological burden is our instinctive judgement.

I'll not deviate into any mock evolutionary theories, but just at a core and basic level, we make our minds up quickly about people. Sometimes they break that first impression, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they might not ever get the chance to dissuade us from that first impression.

The ramifications of this in the class are pretty clear to see.

Before giving my glowing account of my own favourite in a separate blog post, I'll say that I think being 'a favourite' to a teacher is one of the most useful currencies a pupil can own. This might seem common sense, when put like that, but when we think about the factors which lead to a child becoming a favourite - which could include practically any subjective bias - it becomes much more thorny. If a teacher was raised only with sisters and a mother, this might alter her perception of male pupils. If a teacher feels that they get on better with pupils who have experienced similar life events to them, then the 'pool of likely favourites' might end up being stratified by race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, whatever.

I'm putting forward a patchy theory of classroom capital - the currency of monopolising a teacher's positive attention. A child wealthy in classroom capital can enjoy certain advantages over his or her peers - perhaps more teacher-time during and outside of lessons, perhaps he or she will be given the benefit of the doubt more often if suspected of wrongdoing and, perhaps, 'the favourite' is the first name on the tip of a teacher's tongue if asked to select a child for extra opportunities.

I don't think that children are the passive recipients of their teachers' favouritisms any more than they are passive recipients of the teachers' lessons. Children can be actively involved in the pursuit of their own self-favouritism - for some it may become a driving force in their schoolday, for others, they might go out of their way to distance themselves from a teacher, or to be as invisible as possible.

In what I think is my favourite of all the amazing TED talks, Rita Pierson aruges passionately, from a lifetime of classroom experience, that relationships are at the heart of learning, and that the relationships between teachers and their children must be strong in order for optimal learning to occur. She summed it up as 'kids don't learn from people they don't like'.

Favouritism is to some degree reciprocal - the example of Raj from the Teaching Caesura blog is a great one, with the teacher's care for the pupil clearly mirrored by the pupils eagerness to spend time with and learn from the teacher.

Raj has asked me to adopt him, he dad has sent me in home-made curries and when I visited school he stood up and shouted “I f**king missed you!” with a big grin on his face. If he comes in in a bad mood more often or not I can change it and, to be honest, vice versa. 

 Maybe favouritism can be seen not as a teacher's inability to treat all pupils fairly but as an example of what tangible difference that one teacher is capable of making, at peak potential.

I know that with my favourite pupils, I have spent more time with them, experienced more shared learning with them, had more laughs, given more advice, had more deep conversations, visited more places (they get selected for more visits!), taught them more anecdotal facts about the world, taken more time to share and learn about each others lives, made more effort to support their family's involvement in the school... Perhaps seeing the benefit of this enables you to see how elements of your favouritist relationship can be channelled back into the teaching of a whole class.

The deeply interesting part of this, to me at least, is to question how much of a role is played by children's perceptions. How can an individual child work out how to improve the impression they are making on a teacher, when teachers all have different things that make them tic? Are children aware that they are a teacher's favourite pupil, and if so, how does that change the way they think about themselves? How does it change the way they learn?

 I have spoken broadly positively about the impact of having a favourite pupil (which I feel to be unavoidable, given how much time you spend with them) but still, if I knew that other children perceived me to treat one child better than another just because I liked them more, then that would make me feel uncomfortable. It reeks of wrongness.

For some teachers, it needn't make them uncomfortable, and in fact they might be able to justify their positive bias on grounds which are logical and fair to the non-favourites. A teacher can justifiably explain that they prefer the children who put in the effort in lessons. They can legitimately sing the praises of the pupils whose solid work ethic secures them the top grades, and those kids whose contributions to class are reliably strong.

The murky waters are that the rules of favourites do not always follow the rules of the class, this is certainly the case with me and my propensity to like the kids that other teachers think are rude, cocky, cloying, arrogant or annoying. What I see as my valid siding with the most needy kid could easily be perceived by those diligent children in class as me rewarding his laziness, or bad manners. Likewise, it could be perceived as me being 'overly soft' on a pupil who another teacher might treat with extra discipline rather than extra lenience.

See, although the kid who shouts out over me in class is breaking one of my rules, and this might genuinely piss me off or ruin my lesson, subversively it might actually be part of what I like about that child.

The child who follows every rule the teacher sets, who might act in complete loyal accordance with their teachers every whim, might actually be pushing themselves further and further away from their teacher's attention and affection.

I'm going to think more on this theory of classroom capital I've part-invented in my head, and I'm going to reflect on it whilst I'm teaching tomorrow. I'll report back, and also, I'll share the meandering 'Oscar acceptance style narrative of my own favourite pupil.

Read on about Syed, a pupil who monopolises the classroom capital.

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