That’s Not Fair

My mother-in-law told me once that when her children were young, she discovered how to divide the last piece of cake fairly between two children—one cut the piece in half and the other chose the first piece.

“I’d never seen such preciseness,” she told me. “And neither child could complain that the division wasn’t fair.”

Toward the beginning of my teaching career, I taught two populations: inmates and middle school kids. And in both places I heard the word fair many times a day.

The mantra for staff members at the prison was firm, fair, and consistent. We heard these words at in-service trainings and in our performance reviews. And students in the prison school often used the word fair, many times with the word not in front of it.

Middle school kids also have an obsession with fairness. And when they protest unfairness, teachers have a quick response.

“Life’s not fair,” teachers say, as reflexively as they take their next breaths.

But what is fair?

For too long, I treated the words fair and equal as synonyms. To avoid favoritism, I parsed out equal amounts of attention, resources, and rewards. But the classroom soon taught me that treating everyone exactly the same is actually not fair—that equality works only if students begin at the same place and need the same help.

If equality is treating all students the same, equity is giving each student what she or he needs to be successful. And some students need more.

Students who are furthest behind, students with challenges at home, and students who are on the edges of the bell-curve—cognitively, emotionally, or physically—all need greater resources, more involved help.

And what happens when students notice that others get more?

I’ve found it doesn’t take much to help students see that fairness is more than equal treatment, that not everyone starts at the same place and not everyone has the same needs, that although equity may at first appear unfair, it really levels the playing field.

When I was a kid, I’d tell students, my parents didn’t have much money. A pair of shoes or a broken window was a big deal. And we watched how our parents spread their pennies around—who got what and who got the most.

One month my parents spent more money on me than on anyone else, way more. They bought a pair of glasses for me.

Then I asked my students, “Was this fair?”

And then we talked about the differences between equality and equity. They almost always got it.

They started seeing why one student used an audio book and another extended time on a test. And they accepted that, even though they would like to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, another student needed it more.

Being fair, they began to realize, was more complicated than they thought.

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