Why Are We Unfair?


Simon Jeynes, IAP-L
ISM Senior Consultant


I’m sure you hate being treated unfairly.  I know I do. But I’m an adult so I have the ability to make choices in a pretty profound way. That’s not true for the children in our schools.

Let’s think about ‘fairness’ from the student’s point of view. I interview a lot of students in any given year – over 200 face to face.  The questions I ask are always the same and, interestingly enough, there are many patterns amongst the answers. As part of a research organization isminc.com, such patterns are of enormous value.  Consistent answers to consistent questions produce a variable that can help us question and/or affirm our practices.

One of those questions I (and my colleagues) ask is: is there anything unfair at your school? I make sure to qualify the question noting that I am not interested in whether they like the rules or not. Rules just are. But I am interested in relationships that place the student in the middle, give the student a sense that they can’t win, or make the student feel less in some way.

Students give a lot of different responses and there is an occasional (and wonderful) school where they truly cannot think of anything significant. Usually, though, it doesn’t take more than a few moments for incidents to spring to mind. Here are the unedited responses from one group of high school students at just one school from my interviews in 2015:

One teacher really cares about your grade and another teacher doesn’t care about your quiz; one teacher will let you retake or do corrections and another teacher is like you should have done better; one teacher realizes that if a student does bad it is because the teacher is not teaching well; some stick to the textbook and others try to do stuff that is more fun; some just take notes; I have a teacher I’m not sure he knows my name; believe that there’s teachers I can go to being very active in a class to being asleep because it’s so boring; his version of an A is like a B;

Now I don’t prod for answers. I’m not looking for ‘dirt’, so to speak.  These responses and many like them come as a response to an open-ended question.

And the answers provide great insight into what motivates and demotivates students:

  • Teachers need to be consistent
  • Teachers have to take personal/professional responsibility for what happens in their own classrooms
  • Teachers must be personally interested in the individual student
  • Teachers have to communicate at a sophisticated level with each other to align practice
  • Teachers have to be accountable and held accountable for their own attitudes and assumptions

There’s an interesting website dedicated to this topic fairness in education. Here is one comment currently on its home page:

When asked, urban students have described six prevailing characteristics of great teachers: “Good teachers push students, maintain order, [are] willing to help, explain until everyone understands, vary classroom activities and try to understand students” (Corbett & Wilson 2002).  When orchestrated by great teachers, these qualities manifest themselves in an experience for students which confirms that they have powerful agency in their own learning outcomes (Ferguson, Phillips, Rowley & Friedlander 2015).

Unfairness is an insidious virus that takes away agency! The research is very consistent in this area. Fairness means safety; it means the ability to take risks; it means that effort has merited reward.

Teaching is a profoundly human vocation. Is it too much to ask that we teach humbly, placing the student at the center of the conversation and providing an environment that is fair? This is not the responsibility of each teacher – it is the responsibility of every faculty culture. It is not an I statement but a we statement. It is not enough for me to do – WE have to do it.

Fairness is a key attribute. Let’s commit to it in our own classrooms, in our professional learning communities, and in our faculty lounges.

And why wouldn’t we? The outcome is much happier students and better student academic performance.

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