Playing Favorites

It happens to every teacher: When Eliza Panzella began teaching at Westview High School in San Diego, California, she found herself singling out star pupils and suggesting that others imitate them. “I often called on the same students to demonstrate movement, and those students became embarrassed by the attention,” she recalls. “The other students in the class began to resent the idea that only certain ones could execute the movement correctly.”

Favoritism is a perpetual issue in any classroom, whether you’re teaching your first class or your 500th. To make sure every student is getting the most out of your instruction, we’ve gathered tactics for monitoring favoritism in yourself and your staff.

Defining Favoritism

“Favoritism is a word that gets a bad rap,” says Julie Petry, a theater arts faculty member at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. “What favoritism often means is that we connect with someone’s spirit in a special way, or we are drawn to what they bring to the studio, piece or classroom.” Christopher Rutt, who coordinates the dance department at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, IL, agrees. “It’s common to feel more goodwill towards certain students and reward those who arrive to class early, have a smile and a hello, turn work in on time and generally are eager to learn,” he says. “I tell my students that impressions are very important in class and in life and that making good ones will help with relationships and lead to success.”

The problem comes, though, when a special connection with a student “impair[s] our grading, casting or ability to see the strengths and gifts of others,” says Petry. “As teachers, it is important to always consider that each person is there to progress. Making sure that you give each student equal attention and care is the bottom line.”

Check Your Own Actions

Prior to stepping into the studio, remind yourself of the responsibility you have for each student’s training, “not only the ‘good’ ones or the ones paying attention,” says Misty RasconSmith of Fusion Dance Studio in Torrance, California. “Monitoring favoritism starts before class even begins.”

Get to know your entire class. Panzella avoids playing favorites by setting aside time to get to know each one of her students, even if it’s just a few minutes a day.

It’s good to make an extra effort, particularly with shy students, but take care not to become too personal with any one dancer. This can be especially challenging for higher education instructors: “[College students] are at an age where they are legally adults, and begin to crave more personal stories from their instructors,” says Petry. “They want to know more details about your performance background and personal life, and often try to initiate deeper relationships through birthday party invitations and the like.” Petry works with her colleagues to mutually decide on guidelines for what’s acceptable. “Boundaries are important in teaching, and we often use each other as sounding boards if we have any question on what is appropriate,” she says.

Set goals with students. Panzella has each of her dancers complete a goal worksheet at the start of each school year as a tool to aid her teaching. The worksheets are doubly effective in that they help her focus on students as individuals rather than as members of a group, making it easier for her to give them equal attention. “This allows each student to work toward his or her own goals rather than trying to meet another student’s expectations,” she explains. “It also allows me to stay focused on what each student is trying to accomplish. [This keeps me from setting] one expectation level for the class while brushing aside those students who do not meet those expectations.”

Create objective evaluations when applicable. Creating and utilizing objective measuring tools to assess all students come grading time can reduce tendencies to single out certain dancers. Petry maps out specific grading terms before the semester begins. “Attendance, preparedness, energy in class, self-improvement, attitude and grasping of concepts and material are fairly easy to monitor without too much favoritism,” she says.

To grade performance-based assignments, Rutt creates a rubric with clear categories and then videotapes each student’s work so that he can rewatch it later. “I find it very difficult to give a thorough evaluation seeing a dance study only once while trying to be attentive to the performer,” he explains. When grading written assignments, Rutt covers students’ names to approach each paper without bias.

Team up with others. In auditions for placement or casting in which judgments can be subjective, invite another teacher to adjudicate alongside you. Having another set of eyes may help make your evaluations more fair—and give students double the feedback. “For level placement auditions, I frequently have another dance teacher come in and evaluate with me,” says Rutt. “Afterwards, we can discuss any glaring discrepancies in our scores.”

Monitor your staff. “The best thing staff members can do is to discuss how they deal with favoritism at the beginning of the year,” says Panzella. “Each teacher will realize or be reminded that it is an important issue to deal with and will continue to make it a priority in the classroom.”

Share strategies and make plans to work together. Panzella advises teachers to align the strategies they use when handling favoritism in the classroom. “The more consistent they are about the issue, the less it becomes a problem,” she says. Consider setting a school-wide policy that requires teachers to alternate students when leading progressions, answering questions, demonstrating and standing front and center, adds Cricket Keller, who teaches at Fusion Dance Studio along with RasconSmith.

Communicate openly with both students and parents. Keeping the lines of communication open with your students and parents can encourage them to speak with you if they feel a teacher’s favoritism is impacting their classroom experience. “If I sense a possible problem with a teacher-student relationship, I might poll a student or two from the class to get informal feedback on classroom dynamics,” says Rutt. “Student-written teacher evaluations given at the end of the semester can be very helpful, albeit humbling, tools for gauging favoritism.”

Address issues with faculty members directly and tactfully. “If a teacher notices an issue with another teacher, the best solution is to calmly explain to him or her how important each student’s emotional and physical well-being is to the program,” says Panzella. “One student’s unhappiness can cause many different problems in a classroom setting.”

During your discussion, revisit the tactics you reviewed as a group at the start of the year. If you’re bothered by an overt display of favoritism in a piece of choreography or formation placement, mention it specifically and suggest an alternate approach. “I always have my dancers stand in a height line in order to determine their placement in their first formations,” says Keller. “I have fun with changing formations so that no one is standing in the same place twice.”

It can be difficult to treat all your students equally and objectively when they all display such a range of personalities, skill levels and strengths. However, with conscious effort and open lines of communication, you can create a classroom environment in which they can all grow as artists. DT

Lisa Arnett is a Chicago-based arts and entertainment writer.
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