Why Teachers Should NOT Treat All Students the Same Way

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.

–Lynne Diligent

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4 Responses to “Why Teachers Should NOT Treat All Students the Same Way”

  1. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Bruce Stewart: “There is a very important life lesson here, and Ministries of Education, School Board Trustees, Teachers’ Federations and the like would be very well advised to take it in and stop trying to mould the system into a one-size-fits-all, one-approach-and-no-other approach. You only hurt the students.”

  2. sofia Says:

    I would be interested to find out if you have any views on adult learning? I found some difficulty in the past when trying to recruit professional tutors for adult music learners. The teachers who were reluctant to fill the positions said that they felt that adults were too demanding and generally didn’t follow instructions in the same way as children. Perhaps teachers dealing with adults have to come up with another form of relationship, distinct from their skills with children?

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Having taught all the way from the university level down to the kindergarten level, and adult education courses as well, yes, I do have some views on this question. Your question is a good one.

      I have found that good teaching procedures are the same regardless of the age of the student. In other words, the material has to be presented, then practiced with help or guidance, then practiced alone to see if the student can master it. If not, it needs to be retaught, re-practiced with guidance from the instructor, and then attempted again on one’s own in individual practice.

      Where the teachers you have mentioned above run into difficulty is with the method they are teaching adult learners. First of all, adult learners are there by choice (in most cases) and the music tutor’s goals may not be the same as the learner’s goals. This issue has to be addressed between the two before the first lesson can commence successfully. Otherwise, it becomes a case of the tutor attempting to force learning down the throat of the adult learner, and it might be learning that is not satisfying the desires or needs of the adult learner.

      Any teacher needs to ask why the adult learner is there and what the adult learner hopes to accomplish by taking lessons. If the teacher then feels that a different goal is more appropriate, then it is up to the teacher to present the BENEFITS of those alternate goals in a positive light, and SELL the learner on the desirability of those goals. Otherwise, the learner will never buy in or be cooperative toward achieving those goals. If the learner does not agree to those goals, the tutor should go with what the client desires–after all, it is the client who is paying!

      The music tutors you describe above sound like they have very rigid personalities, and have no doubt been trained themselves by others with very rigid personalities in order to behave this way with their adult learners. Any time there is a conflict between what the teacher feels is important and what the adult learner feels is important, the lessons are likely to fall apart within two or three sessions. Clarification of goals is really important. If the tutor cannot convince the learner of what he can do for his client, then he needs to tell the client to find a more suitable tutor.

      –Lynne Diligent

  3. Leanne Strong Says:

    I’m not a a teacher, nor have I ever noticed my teachers treating anybody unfairly. But I did hear of my peers saying stuff about it. I also saw an article in my school newspaper where some students had submitted essays about how unfairly they felt students were treated. If they’re complaining that you’re letting the guys on the football team (or hockey team if you’re in Canada) come in late, or not finish their homework, you can say something like, “I do that with them because they already get a lot of discipline from the team coach, so I figured that if I held them to the same standards as the rest of you, they might actually end up getting more discipline than you, and it might be too much.”

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