Fair isn’t always equal

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Yesterday, when I visited Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose.*  This is notable.

I always notice Jose.  Jose is a student who normally disrupts classes, or wanders the hallways to avoid class.  We have spent countless hours trying to support Jose in behaving and learning.

Yet in Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose.  Why?  Because Jose was sitting at a table, quietly annotating a text.  He worked throughout the period, causing no disruption.

When my assistant principal Shira and I debriefed with Mr. D after the lesson, we asked him how he had gotten Jose to be so productive.  He said, “I’m not sure if this is OK because it’s not exactly equal for the other students.  Every class I have with Jose, I sit with him and make sure he does something, even if I just sit with him for a minute. Maybe he just reads a sentence, or I get him to write something. I know I can’t do this with every kid, but he seems to be responding well, and he’s starting to see he can do more than he thinks.”

Shira was nodding as Mr. D spoke.  “That reminds me of something they told me in Teach for America training,” said Shira.  “They said, ‘Fair isn’t always equal.’  Some kids may need more attention or support than others, and that’s actually more fair than treating everyone equally.”

We encouraged Mr. D to continue on this route with Jose, and to share the idea with other teachers as well.

Giving Jose extra support is fair for everyone.  When Jose is on-task and productive, the rest of the students can learn, and no one suffers by having negative attention pulled towards Jose.  Even better, as Jose becomes productive, other students can benefit from his contributions to the class.

*Not the student’s real name.

Photo credit Michael Coghlan, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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