March 30, 2021

Beware! Teacher’s Bias and Favoritism

by Mariah Cole, PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, Mississippi Department of Public Health

“Ugh, ____ is such a teacher’s pet.”

Does this ring a bell for you? The teacher’s pet was a title given to any student who had a “preferential” relationship with the teacher. What does the teacher’s pet relationship look like? The teacher's pet could be the child who was consistently picked to pass out papers or lead the lunch line. It wasn’t just the most helpful students but the “smart” students as well. The “smart” students seemed to know the answers to all the questions asked during class or were consistently recognized by the teacher for scoring the highest on quizzes or tests. Not every student called a “teacher’s pet” was actually given any form of favoritism. None-the-less, such preferential treatment can have a positive effect on students. But just as importantly, favoritism impacts the rest of the students in class.  Thus, teachers need to be mindful of how their relationships with students are perceived.

Teachers and students are human and subject to bias, whether intentional and/or unintentional.  This trickles into their interactions with and among each other.1 Bias arises from both positive and negative attitudes towards people based on their socio-cultural and economic background, gender, and many other factors. For example, students or teachers from differing geographical regions may experience bias due to beliefs about regional dialects or accents. And bias can lead to barriers to effectively working together.1 In addition, teachers and students may have interfering dynamics that arise during interactions such as approval seeking, competition, excessive dependency, and psychological withdrawal or reactance.1 Thus bias and interfering dynamics culminate in favoritism, neglect, or prejudicial actions towards others.

Teacher favoritism may be defined as “the act of giving preferential treatment to someone or something; the tendency to favor a person or group for factors “such as a characteristic they possess, or their personal contacts, or merely out of personal preferences”.1 Thus, the “teacher pet” relationship is a type of teacher favoritism. It may be noted that there are various definitions within the literature for the “teacher pet” relationship. One author defines it as, “a phenomenon of a special emotional relationship (often a love relationship) between the teacher and a particular student (or two) in the classroom.”1 Meanwhile, another author defines the concept as “student favored by teachers because they have actual and/or alleged characteristics that are highly valued by teachers but not necessarily by classmates.”1 Favoritism may also manifest from teachers’ affectionate ties to a student, which derive from the pleasure that the student brings to the teachers’ work.2 One study characterized teacher’s pets are more likely to be girls who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds but may not be considered the best academic students.2

While overt favoritism toward particular students may not be seen in the same way in college and professional degree programs, the mentoring relationship has the potential to be interpreted as a teacher’s pet or favoritism relationship. A few students, by virtue of their background or preferential characteristics, are given more access to the instructor or professor and are given opportunities not afforded to other students.  The development of a friendship may complicate or compromise the mentoring relationship. One author notes that a professional mentor is a position of power. Thus, a hierarchy should predominate and the mentor should not be considered equal to the mentee. For this reason, a friendship-type relationship should never be established during the mentorship period.3  This is not to say that mentors should not act in a friendly, helpful manner to mentees and that these relationships should not have a personal dimension.4 Befriending mentees increases the psychosocial support provided to students. However, befriending is not equivalent to friendship. Befriending is about building a positive relationship that is collegial.  Thus, the mentoring relationship can still be cordial, personal, and enjoyable.

As the mentoring relationship progresses, the relationship should evolve. Setting clear expectations of the relationship at the beginning may increase the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship. Heidrun Stoegar explains “effective mentoring relies on mentors and mentees having clear ideas about what mentoring entails, how it is distinct from other support measures, and what expectations for a given mentoring experience are realistic”.5 One method of setting expectations includes creating a mentoring contract which would include “defining relationship’s boundaries, reduce confusion about roles and expectations, clarifies commitments including time, and defines relationship’s objectives. However, making formal contracts may stifle informal support”.6,7 Thus, a conversation about expectations, rather than a written contract, is probably more appropriate.

Favoritism is cultivated by our conscious and unconscious biases. Bias may lead to positive and negative attitudes toward various groups of students and differences in the way they are treated. Favoritism may manifest within undergraduate, professional, and graduate education in the form of mentoring. If the boundaries of the mentoring relationship cross into friendship, students may interpret this relationship as favoritism. Setting boundaries and expectations can help prevent perceptions of favoritism and maintain a professional relationship with all learners.


  1. Cheng E. Teacher Bias and Its Impact on Teacher-Student Relationships: The Example of Favoritism [Internet]. [cited 2021Mar8].
  2. Tal Z, Babad E. The teacher’s pet phenomenon: Rate of occurrence, correlates, and psychological costs. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1990;82(4):637–45.
  3. Detsky AS, Baerlocher MO. Academic mentoring--how to give it and how to get it. JAMA. 2007;297(19):2134–6.
  4. Mullen CA, Klimaitis CC. Defining mentoring: a literature review of issues, types, and applications. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2021;1483(1):19–35.
  5. Stoeger H, Balestrini DP, Ziegler A. Key issues in professionalizing mentoring practices. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2021 Jan 1;1483(1):5–18.
  6. MacLeod S. The challenge of providing mentorship in primary care. Postgrad Med J. 2007 May;83(979):317-9.
  7. Burgess A, van Diggele C, Mellis C. Mentorship in the health professions: a review. Clin Teach. 2018 Jun;15(3):197-202.

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