Q: Is it possible for a teacher to hate a student, or pick a favorite?
A: Sure, it’s possible. As a student, I noticed this happening with certain teachers. In fact, sometimes I was even the favorite—and sometimes the exact opposite. I didn’t necessarily campaign for either status, but hey, genius is divisive. And while I have never seen a teacher flat-out “hate” a student— “hate” is a pretty strong word, after all—I have seen less intense iterations of it, which suggests that sadly but surely, these things are happening somewhere.
However, overt bias is more the exception to the rule. And moreover, it doesn’t mean that teachers will actively exhibit favoritism, or its inverse. Most teachers don’t engage with or even think in such terms. But since professionalism isn’t as memorable as big-time bias, it tends not to be the subject of conversation (“Oh my god, did you hear the Professor today? She was being so fair and parsimonious to everyone, it made me sick.”)
But, as stated, the potential for bias is always there, and teachers know it. I thought it might be interesting to detail some of the techniques we use to short-circuit the possibility of dislike or favoritism. These techniques are particularly important in my work, because I teach writing, and grading essays is considered a bit more subjective than grading, say, math quizzes, and therefore more open to bias. As a result, I use the grading system itself as a corrective.
For grading, I rely on rubrics and anonymity. Rubrics dictate the point values for each assignment, and outline the criteria by which points are assigned. I go through these rubrics and award points for each category in isolation from each other. The sum of these points is the grade for the paper, period. These rubrics are issued with each assignment, and returned with the graded papers. This is about as transparent as I can get, short of having students sit in the corner of my dining room, stare at me, and politely cough at critical moments while I make my marks. If there is a question about bias on my part, they have the same information as I do, and they are able to argue their case on specific points under specific items. In addition, I try and keep essays anonymous when grading. This isn’t always possible, especially if a student has told me their topic in advance, but it is a gesture that helps me get on with the process.
In-class behavior is trickier, however, and grading systems won’t help here. Systems in general are hard to envision in face-to-face conversations that require instant reactions. How does anyone control bias? At work, or elsewhere? Is there a general solution that applies to people across the board? I suspect not. Of course, acknowledging your own possible biases is the first and biggest step. I think most teachers do a good job at this, but again, I’m sure some of you can provide examples to the contrary. If I suspect I might harbor some bias, I might call on someone less or more, depending, but that’s about the extent of my in-class system. How, if you were in a teaching position, or any position of authority, would you safeguard yourself against bias?
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
Got a question for a high school or college teacher? Leave it in the comments!