Fairness in the Classroom: It May Not Be What You Think

It is my job as a teacher to create the conditions such that each student learns all they can from the English language arts to survive and thrive in the future. That mandate, which is entirely about student learning, is the only thing that does or should guide me as a teacher. Within reason, of course. (I’m not suggesting breaking laws or justifying clearly unethical behavior.)

What Does Fairness Mean for Teaching?

All students are different. They have different backgrounds, abilities, motivations, moods, coping mechanisms, support structures, habits, responses to stress of different kinds, knowledge, and so on. Making things even more complicated, each student is a different student at different times. Students have changing schedules, feel different kinds of stress at different times, having various degrees of sleep, are well or sick, and so on. Just as one can’t step in the same river twice, we can’t teach the same student twice.

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As a result of all these changes, our methods for achieving our goal as teachers–providing the maximum possible learning for each student–also must change. There is no one-methods-works-for-all in teaching. This means, fairness isn’t the same as fairness in other places.

What is Fair is Different for Each Student and at Different Times

Some students will learn more if they are under the stress of a strict deadline. Others learn more if they are given more flexibility. Some students learn a great deal when they revise an assignment they’ve already received feedback or a grade on. Other students learn much more when their first grade is pretty low and they must work harder on later assignments to get their average up. Some students learn better when they are required to speak in class; others learn better when they are encouraged but not required to speak.

All this means students are treated differently. Some may point out that this is the very definition of unfairness. And in many places it is. But not in the classroom.

Fairness is in the Eye of the Teacher and Is Evidenced by the Learners’ Learning

What this all boils down to is that teaching is an extremely difficult job. Every teacher must figure out what is most likely to result in the maximum learning for each student and then make that happen. That teacher must also be able to explain those decisions to the students, to their parents, and to their administrators. And, teachers’ decisions must be borne out by the evidence, which can be extremely tricky and is often

not conclusive.

How Can Teachers Fairly Negotiate Such Flexible Notions of Fairness?

In a way, my description of fairness requires teachers to make big decisions. In a way, I suppose it makes teachers behave as benevolent dictators (within a larger set of legal and ethical rules). There are ways around that:

  • Teachers should ask students what would be best for their learning? Ask your students at the beginning of class about how they learn/grow best. When students are struggling with grades or assignments, ask them what will help them, and offer some suggestions: Would it help if I gave you two more days? Would it help if I required you to show me drafts next time? Would you learn better if you worked with someone else in the class? Would an alternative assignment be appropriate? I have great success with this when I work with college students. It is extremely rare for a student to ask for more than an accommodation or two during a semester. And I swear they work harder because they don’t want to have to ask me for help, even though they know I’ll help them.

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  • Teachers can give students choices about various forms of accommodation: more time, more help, some hints, advice from other students, the ability to complete the assignment in an alternate genre or medium.
  • Teachers should be honest and open about their methods–but not too much. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give a student something extra and ask the student not to say anything to others. If others find out and complain, the teacher should ask them, “What kind of accommodation would help you learn more?” That is, turn the conversation to the student who’s questioning.
  • Teachers must be ready to explain all their decisions to students, parents, and administrators as appropriate. As long as the students really are all learning as well and as much as possible, that should be the ultimate protection for a teacher. Tenure, a strong union, and a longstanding professional reputation also helps.

Guess What. This Actually Is a Form of Fairness

In the end, of course, this is a form of fairness. It’s just not absolute consistency. Each student gets what they need to survive and thrive in the future. Yes, they need to learn that part of surviving in the future is learning to cope with firm deadlines and minimal support. But, they experience plenty of that without us treating classrooms like factories producing widgets. In the meantime, we can help students learn the most, mature into more rigid structures as appropriate, and help them learn to build the skills they will need to meet those rigid structures.

To be excellent educators, teachers need autonomy, authority, evidence, and time to think and talk with colleagues. Negotiating fairness is just another reason why that is so.

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2 thoughts on “Fairness in the Classroom: It May Not Be What You Think”

  1. Yes! Applying the principle of fairness in the classroom is ideal and challenging, making teaching very individualized and labor-intensive. Teaching twenty students can be like teaching twenty different classes at the same time.

    This is why one-on-one pedagogy is so desirable and effective, if one’s department permits regular individual conferencing in lieu of whole class meetings.

    Your reflection on fairness also aptly demonstrates why fairness or equity is preferable to equality. These same considerations ought to apply to employment practices as well. Different teachers need different kinds of support depending upon their circumstances.

    We cannot forget that the majority of college faculty work off the tenure-track and are treated far from equitably, so it’s really not fair to make equal demands of them, just as it’s not fair to require every student to meet the same criteria without providing them with the resources they need in order to meet them. Remarkably, most contingent faculty steadfastly overcome this resource gap via personal sacrifice in order to perform optimally, just as many disadvantaged or nontraditional students do.

    Fairness should be a guiding principle we all keep in mind continually with our students and our colleagues.

    1. Ken – I've been a high school English teacher and then a college English professor since 1988. I'm a former teacher education program director and former dean. I blog on teaching writing and English and on educational policy and academic culture. If you like my blog, please check out my 5 books! Grammar Rants (Heinemann, 2011) Making the Journey (Heinemann, 2016) The Continuing the Journey Series (NCTE): Literary & Informational Texts (2017) Authentic Writing Instruction (2018) Language, Speaking, & Listening (2019) The opinions expressed in my blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook University, NCTE, UUP, or any other group of which I am a member. Please follow me @Klind2013

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Anne. Can a department really prohibit teachers from using class time for one-on-one meetings? It annoys the hell out of me when I hear about teachers’ tools being taken from them. But, I can see clever teachers still building one-on-one time into classes even if the other students must be in the room at the same time.

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