Striving to avoid favouritism BY Goolbai Gunasekara

Teachers have children; and those children are often students in the schools where their parents teach. Obviously, this is convenient for everyone. Transport is much easier when parent and child have the same destination.

Generally speaking, teaching allows parents comparatively more free time than do most other careers. Though their day starts early, it also ends around lunchtime, allowing them the luxury of being at home when their children get back after sports etc.

Readers will note that I’m dealing mainly with teachers in international schools where they mostly tend to be women. The personal problems they face would be the same for male teachers too except that for some reason, men are looked upon as being more impersonal.

The first thought that springs to mind is ‘favouritism.’ It’s always suspected by other parents that a teacher will favour her own child. Of course, this happens often enough I’m told but it’s far less common in international schools as controls are personal and far stricter.

As a school principal, my mother was very much aware of this favouritism angle. She put me into her own school most reluctantly, after telling the teachers of the baby class that I was to receive no special attention. Being American, her views were a little rigid for such a tiny child and what actually happened was that the reverse situation was even worse.

In their desire to please their American principal, the teachers often simply ignored me. After a little puddle had been found under my chair one day, Mother wanted to know why I didn’t ask to use the bathroom.

“No one heard me when I asked!” I wailed and Mother realised that striking a happy balance was not going to be easy. She took the sensible decision never to send me to the school she was running. Mother was the principal of only two of the nine schools I attended.

One incident springs to mind when discussing favouritism…

When I was still a young teacher, I happened to meet a friend at a Rotary conference one evening. She was in a state of anticipatory jitters because her daughter, who was studying at a large and prestigious government girls’ school, was in the running to be head girl.

The staff of the school was voting that weekend. The child’s aunt was the vice principal of the school and it was no surprise to anyone but me when she was chosen.

I happened to be tutoring a prefect at that school for the SAT exam and she told me later that no one else had a chance.

“Surely, the best should have been selected?” I asked.

“Oh the teachers will all vote for Mimi. They won’t dare do otherwise. It is not a secret ballot.”

“Do you not mind?”

“Not really. Mimi’s mom will do a lot for the school and it’s a good lesson for life,” she told me, laughing.

When I was principal of an international school, I discouraged secret ballots. Prefects were chosen after interviews and voting had to be justified.

Fortunately, teachers’ children were often very bright though not always. Sometimes they had ‘prefect personalities’ and could be appointed to various school offices because of other talents. But such a child rarely reached the office of head boy or girl, which should (and did) go to the all-rounder.

The trouble often arises if a teacher’s child is in the class she teaches. It’s better for all concerned if her child can be placed in a parallel class, which may have another teacher for the same subject.

One unfortunate case must be mentioned. No one was to blame for the atmosphere of suspicion that hung over the head of a teacher even though she was blameless.

Her brilliant son Channa won every prize possible and eventually ended up in her A-Level biology class. The parents of two contestants for the prize queried the marks and poor Mrs. P. went over the corrections with the parents breathing down her neck. Finding nothing wrong, they then alleged that Channa must have had prior knowledge of the paper.

It was a most unpleasant occasion and Mrs. P offered to resign but I had no intention of losing a fine teacher because of unfounded parental suspicions. A compromise was reached and the promotion test paper was reset by a total outsider, after which I photocopied it myself and handed it out to the quarrelling candidates.

Mrs. P’s son got 92 marks while his rivals scored 85, 80 and 79. It was a landmark result. The gentleman who set and also corrected the papers told me that he had never seen such perfect answers. Channa went on to having a choice of two university scholarships, to Melbourne or Adelaide, and now holds a PhD after winning scholarships throughout his university education in Australia.

The parents of the others were gracious about the test results and accepted that Mrs. P. was blameless. Nonetheless, it was a lesson for us all.