3 Ways to Play Favorites

Often as a leader (just like a teacher), I am concerned about making sure everyone is treated fairly.  Keep that in mind while you remember that saying about fair not always being equal…

This is true in any realm of leadership, but is even applicable to our daily lives.  Unfortunately, when we hear the term playing favorites we automatically believe it is something negative.  When, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we admit that most people play favorites many times during the course of a day, month, or year…but that is not always a bad thing.



1. Making decisions about what is important to accomplish and then treat everything else as a less valuable option.

The goal is to simplify in an effort to focus.  It is a game of yes and no.  Say yes to the items that are most important based on immediate need of the whole or what lines up with your core values. Then say no to everything else.  This is easier said than done. Two personal examples:

  • NEASC Self Assessment
    • I heard of a new pilot program that NEASC was starting.  Not a fan of the current accreditation process (overlap of accountability reporting, undue burden on staff, massive time and resources, little actionable results for improvement); I decided to check it out.  I found a new process that lightens the load for teachers, is more meaningful to my school, and acts as a consistent guide for improvement.  As a result, I made the decision to cut out the other noise and move forward as an engaged, involved leader for the next two years; rather than someone forced to accomplish this as well as other initiatives.
  • Classroom Time
    • The most important thing for me is visiting classrooms.  It allows me to interact with teachers and students on a daily, informal basis.  It also allows me to give teachers feedback in a non-evaluative manner.  Unfortunately, I am pulled in many directions during the course of a day.  The saying that if it is important we make time is pretty misleading.  I prefer to say if it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done.  Therefore, I favor classroom time by blocking out times in my schedule.  No matter what I am doing, I stop and stay true to my calendar.  If my calendar says go to classrooms; I play favorites and go.


2.  Understanding that individuals you lead, collaborate with, and follow are just that; individuals.

There is no such thing as a one size fits all approach. Aim for consistency and what is fair.  Remember that no matter how much they want to, people often do not have the capability to respond, react, or  perform in the same capacity.  This is where you need to adjust your approach to that person.  Many people see this as playing favorites.  These are often the same people that would complain if you didn’t tailor your approach to them.  The purpose is to realize that you want the person with whom you are dealing to leave your interaction understanding that you see them as an individual and care for their overall well being, not just what they can do to help.  Remember that whenever we are asked to not only accept change or criticism, but also participate in it, there is an uneasiness. Most react instead of responding due to an uncomfortableness with the situation or themselves. The best answer is to see them as the most important or favorite thing at that moment.  Another personal example:

  • I had a teacher who was upset about multiple changes being to some programs.  These changes were minor, but would have significant impact on how we treated students, ran ceremonies, and engaged parents.  I was informed that this staff member had become very negative about the events and was even criticizing me personally.  I had noticed that they seemed a little “off” recently, but did not realize to what extent.  Being who I am I approached them.  I decided to play favorites (by making a decision) and block off a large amount of time to meet with this person.  After listening, asking questions, and treating them as my favorite; I found out their anger was not with the situation at all.  Instead they felt left out of the process of change.  I would have never come to this realization had I not played favorites and moved other things to the side in an effort to dig into the issue. I decided to take it a step further by letting them suggest a few other changes and implementing them. People are individuals, important, and always want to be included.  It is always about people, not issues.


3.  Communicate like you are trying to order an item in a foreign land.

Be precise, clear, and assume that people will not understand what you truly mean. Explain it so that a vision is created.  Clearly communicate your intention to play favorites based on the decisions you are making and why.  An example in my (professional) life that will shed light on this:

  • I was asked for some direction concerning schedules, grading, and placement.  As always I replied to do what is best for the student.  Many people say this is the driver of their decision making in education, but in reality it is often too easy to become hazy on what that really looks like…myself included.  When I received push-back concerning the decision I was advocating; I responded with the following explanation.  If I am given the choice between creating a schedule, endorsing a grade, or placing a student I will always consider the best scenario for the student because that is for whom we are here. It is not about educators being completely comfortable with change, avoiding confrontation, or working less.  It is about students receiving the best education (socially, emotionally, and academically) possible. They are my favorites and it is because of that I will choose what is best for them every time.

It is important to point out that playing favorites does not always look that way.  I still expect students to work hard.  I believe that there is a need to fail if there is to be success.  Accountability and responsibility rule the day in my game of favorites.

So how do we make sure we are playing favorites in the good way? It is critical to:

  1. Make a decision.
  2. Understand the purpose of it and the the people it involves.
  3. Clearly communicate what it is you are doing and why.

If you have the option of being comfortable and not growing or doing something different to realize greater success; I urge you to choose success. I have personally found that the more uncomfortable I make myself, the more comfortable I become with my progress as an individual, father, husband, colleague, and leader.

Go ahead…play favorites.  Once you follow your core values, decide what is important, understand why, and then clearly communicate your intentions; you will be surprised by three things:

  1. Your individual growth
  2. People’s willingness to join you

Let me know how you play favorites…





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