When I first began my teaching career, I made a great effort to be fair with all students by treating them the same way under the same circumstances. We all want to be fair with students if we are decent human beings as teachers.
However, over many years of teaching (and parenting) I discovered that treating all the same way was not producing the best results. Over time, my focus changed from concentrating on being “fair” to doing whatever was necessary to bring each student to his highest and best performance in my class. Furthermore, each student’s best performance was not at the same level as any other student. This is where teaching becomes an “art” rather than a procedure, or a delivery.
Let’s look at some specific examples. If students don’t do their homework (math, for example), they arrive in class unprepared to learn from their mistakes in that day’s lesson. It is not important if they got the right answer in their homework; what is important is whether they attempted the problems and knew at which points they encountered difficulty. Then they were ready for that day’s work and explanations.
So, how can teachers get students to do their homework (each student’s highest and best effort)? In my early teaching days, in attempting to be “fair,” I would have given an identical penalty to every student who did not do their homework. After two decades in the classroom, my approach had changed. In Grade Three, I put A’s on every paper where the homework was completed (correct or not, although grades were not counted–unknown to the students, but known by their parents) and F’s on any homework undone or uncompleted (again, not counted, as above). Other than that, I used different incentives for each student.
One student might need a threat–threat of a phone call to a parent, threat of staying in from recess, threat of extra homework. Another student might need a reward–verbal praise, positive note home from the teacher, getting to be first in line all day long, reading a book while others continue to work. Still another student might need extra help in class, extra time with the teacher, help from a classmate arranged with the teacher’s blessing, help speaking to a parent.
This is where teaching becomes an art. In order to know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick, and how much carrot or stick, or which carrot or stick to use, a teacher must know all of his or her students individually, and know them well. In a normal class of 25-30 students, it takes about two months to know the students this well.
Some teachers don’t want to know their students, and put up a wall. It’s also harder for younger teachers who are closer in age to the students they teach. The older one is, the easier it is to get to know students individually without compromising privacy or classroom discipline. Sometimes older students assume that younger teachers want to be their “friend,” whereas younger students with an older teacher don’t make this assumption even if they do become actual friends at some point. So the older the teacher is, the easier this is. Sometimes younger teachers need to erect more of a barrier.
So, how to get to know one’s students? The first way is through grading their papers, reading their opinions, and by commenting on their papers regarding what they have said. The second way is through classroom discussions, and by being open and honest with students in classroom discussions, which encourages them to be open and honest with teachers in return. You both learn about each other. It’s always easier to do this in primary school than in secondary school.
Regardless, any effort expended in knowing students individually will pay dividends both in personal rewards as well as for knowing what to use to motivate that particular student. Students who know and respect a teacher will work hard for that teacher as a person.
The reason students must not be treated the same is that some are motivated by carrots, some by sticks, and most by alternate use of various carrots and sticks at different times, and under different circumstances.