The Teacher’s Pet

I recently received word that Mrs. Steensnes, my 1st-4th grade teacher, passed away at the age of 101. Her death has caused me to reflect on my time as her student. I remember how she often smiled at and complimented me. She asked me to be the piano accompanist for music class instead of asking two other students who could also play the piano. She trusted me to work one-on-one with the younger students who needed tutoring and extra attention. She placed me in other leadership roles in the classroom. I was the one she expected to always have the answer to a question when no one else did.

She counted on me. She trusted me. She believed in me. I was her “teacher’s pet.”

I didn’t strive to be or necessarily want to be. I don’t recall what grade I was in when I learned I had earned the title of being the teacher’s pet, but I do remember how it was declared. Another student accused me of being a “brown noser” to Mrs. Steensnes during recess and exclaimed to everyone on the playground that I was the teacher’s pet.

I can still recall what she said, “You are Mrs. Steensnes’ favorite! She likes you more than the rest of us!” The announcement was made loud and clear for all to hear.

I was in tears. In that moment, I wanted to be anything other than the teacher’s pet.

Reliving the memories of being Mrs. Steensnes’ student has made me wonder. Was I really her favorite student and if so, why? Do teachers choose who will be the “teacher’s pet”? How do teachers pick their favorites?

I can’t imagine teachers sit down with a spreadsheet comparing the class roster with the grade book and the number of behavior referrals and circle the names of students that will then become their favorite pets for the rest of the year. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way. I know it isn’t what I have done in all my work with kids.

Some of us would argue that we don’t prefer one student over another and that we treat all our students the same. Yet, at the same time, we are human beings with opinions, feelings, likes and dislikes and we would naturally be drawn to some students more than others. I don’t think we should deny this or see it as something wrong or unprofessional. It’s a dynamic that is present in all our human interactions – even with the kids we work with.

So, what are those qualities or characteristics you might tend to favor with kids?

For me, it varies.

I love kids who respect my knowledge and authority, but who also know how to engage me as a human being that likes to laugh and have a good time. I love the kids who can joke with me, but then respect my requests to focus when it’s necessary.

I love being able to trust a student. I want to know that when I give a task to them, it will be completed without my constant supervision and without complaint or laziness. A student who does this will shoot pretty quickly to the top of my list.

I also like the kids with genuine personality – whether it be loud or quiet, outgoing or reserved, quirky or conventional. I appreciate kids who are real and don’t try to be someone else other than who they really are.

I love students who can look me in the eye and hold a conversation with me. I know that sometimes it’s a tactic to stall what we might need to be doing instead, but I still enjoy and appreciate it.

I’ve also noticed that I tend to be drawn to the kids who know what it means to struggle. I have a heart for the kids carrying emotional strain and who don’t beg for sympathy or even demand special treatment. We might talk about whatever they are going through, or we might never discuss it, but I know to leave them alone when they’re moody instead of insisting they cheer up. I know how to let them know I care without calling attention to them and they find little, subtle ways to let me know they appreciate it. I have a deep respect for what they are going through and they reciprocate by behaving well and working hard for me – even if they do act out for other teachers or adults in their life.

I really appreciate a dedicated work ethic. A student doesn’t have to be a straight-A student or the best at anything to capture my heart. I just like to know they are passionate and care about what they are doing and are giving it their best effort.

And, sometimes, the students who get good grades or who are on the honor roll are my favorites, too. However, it seems it’s always the personality that earns my affection more than the number in a grade book.

You and I will be drawn to different favorite students within the same group or class and it won’t be because of any unifying themes. We want the sweet kids we can trust and that thrive in our belief in them. We appreciate the uniquely quirky kids that show confidence. We love the witty cleverness of the kid who makes us laugh. We value the kid who works hard even when the outcome doesn’t always show it. We embrace the child whose struggles we want to take on as our own.

I’m not for sure what Mrs. Steensnes’ was looking for in her favorite students, but whatever it was, she found it in me. My aim wasn’t to be a teacher’s pet, but nonetheless, it was a label I found myself with. As much as I hated it at the time, I thrived from it just as much. Mrs. Steensnes’ validation built my confidence, taught me tenacity, established the benefits of showing mutual respect, encouraged me to always do my best, and most of all, made me feel appreciated and valued.

Looking back now, I believe Mrs. Steensnes appreciated and valued each one of her students during her 55 years of teaching. She was a brilliant teacher who modeled fairness in the classroom while also recognizing and meeting the unique needs of each of her students. This meant not always treating her students the same. The treatment some of us received may have been perceived as favoritism from her, when the reality was she was actually favoring all of her students, but for different reasons. What I know is that Mrs. Steensnes’ favor towards me had a positive impact on my life, and if it meant having to bear the title of “teacher’s pet” during those years, then so be it. It was worth it.

Thank you, Mrs. Steensnes, for being one of my favored teachers. Rest in peace.

P.S. What about you? What do you think about teachers’ pets? What characteristics are you naturally drawn to with your students?