How I Became an Unfair Teacher

It's easy to forget how tiny, arbitrary, everyday decisions can shape a kid's school experience.
Warner Bros.

In third grade, I got back a spelling quiz with red ink next to the word kitchen. I asked the teacher what my mistake was, and she pointed to my sloppy handwriting: “That r should be a c.”

“That is a c!” I said. “Why would I spell ‘kitchen’ with an r?”

“You tell me,” the teacher said. She strolled off.

That episode stands out among my memories of the year. More than sculpting dragons and writing Halloween stories, more than field trips, math games, and girls I had crushes on, what I remember most vividly is this unfairness. Never mind how trivial and meaningless it was.

It was a c, darn it.

When I became a teacher, I became preoccupied with the enduring legacies of school. I began wondering why we forget so much (quick—what’s a logarithm?) and why we remember what we do. I thought back to my own strongest recollections and quizzed my friends about theirs. A few themes emerged: teachers’ rambling anecdotes, cute lab partners, getting away with mischief.

But most of all, people remember injustices. False accusations of cheating. Getting singled out randomly for scolding. Points deducted on a cheap technicality. As a teacher myself, I vowed I’d do better, that I’d run a fair classroom where every student got a voice and a straight deal.

In October of my second year teaching, the principal called me into his office to meet with a tenth grader. Eyes averted, in a low and quivering voice, the student told me, “I feel like you always get on my case.”

“I’m sorry if you feel singled out,” I said. “When a group is distracted, I tell everyone to get to work.”

“No,” she said forcefully, straining for words. “If there’s like four people talking, you always call my name, and then tell us to get back to work.”

To my surprise, I realized it was true: The same morning, I’d done exactly that. And two days earlier, too. I’d been experimenting with group work in her class, and I hadn’t yet calibrated my mental detector for “noisy and productive” versus “noisy and distracted.” I knew it was a problem. For weeks, I’d been spinning like a weather vane, letting the class slide out of control and then snapping at them. Or so I thought. It now seemed that I wasn’t snapping at them—too often, I was snapping at her.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said at last. “I’m sorry about that. I guess I notice you more than others because I know you’re a strong math student, and you’re struggling in the class. So I worry.”

“But I’m trying,” she said, close to tears, and I realized I’d made a deeper mistake. I’d chalked up her lack of success to apathy, distractions, low effort—anything that would put the ball in her court rather than mine. With my attention split a hundred ways—the seniors flailing in calculus, the bio class I lacked the expertise to teach, the logistical tangles of running a homeroom—I’d been marking F’s on her quizzes without really considering the name at the top or how my class must look through her eyes.

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Ben Orlin is a high school teacher and tutor in Oakland, California. He contributes regularly to Math with Bad Drawings.

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