Overwhelmed by exceptions

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Cartoon from http://theprocessconsultant.com/ 

If you’re not a teacher, it’s easy to think a teacher’s job is three things:

  • Design and deliver effective lessons
  • Check students’ understanding through daily work, and
  • Evaluate tests and various sort of papers, like essays and lab reports.

But that’s just the easy part.

Our job is really about managing ambiguity, trying to address the dozens of small and large requests that come at us every day, the stuff that no one else ever sees.

Our job requires striking a balance between what society expects of our schools (rigorous standards, high achievement, instilling a good work ethic, etc.) and what parents and students ask of us (exceptions, accommodations, forgiveness, etc.)

For example:

Student A suffered a serious concussion and cannot access online materials, watch videos, read the textbook, or come to class. Can you help him catch up on his work?

Student B isn’t comfortable speaking up in class. Please do not call on her or expect her to participate in discussion. If a speech is required, please give her an alternate assignment.

Student C is anxious about writing free-response questions in a school setting. Can he do them all at home?

Student D does not do well with group work. Please assign her only individual work.

Student E cannot manage calendars or timelines. Can you talk to him individually each time an assignment is due?

I don’t mean to sound negative — it is what it is. Our students are, in fact, individuals with different needs, capacities and concerns. And while some of these requests are unreasonable, some are perfectly reasonable. No one with a concussion should be watching videos.

What I want non-teachers to understand is that the exceptions themselves command the bulk of our attention many days, and they often drive our decision-making.

Any teacher reading this is thinking, “duh” or “I’ve got better examples than that.”

But non-teachers are often surprised by this. They see the other side — the workplace side — and think it’s obvious we should hold firm and just say no. Won’t our students need to be able to write under pressure, work in groups, manage calendars, etc. in the real world? Aren’t we concerned that our graduates will need remediation when they go to college or work? How can we make so many exceptions?

They don’t realize that when the pressure is on, and no one is supporting you, the easiest response to an exception request is yes, yes, yes.

I’ve been thinking about this balancing act all week, after reading the thought-provoking New York Times article about rising anxiety in teens. Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and expert on anxiety, is quoted explaining that sometimes our willingness to accommodate makes things worse for our teens.

She said: “Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs.”

She’s talking specifically about anxiety, but this could be true for many of our parent/student requests. When a student is struggling, it’s tempting just to make things easier or more accessible for them. The problem is — we may be doing them a disservice in the long run.

If I exempt a student from speaking in class because speaking is too much for him, how will he ever master this skill? If I don’t expect a student to work with classmates, how will they function in a workplace with teams? How will they navigate in college without these supports? 

Unfortunately, many parents and students are in crisis mode, and these concerns are just not on the table for discussion. And as mere teachers — not psychologists, not psychics — how can we be sure there is any long-term harm?

I know we are not going to turn the tide on this issue right now, but I would like to see us start focusing on long-term issues of student learning and mastery of critical skills, rather than on short-term fixes that help students “pass” a class. We need to help students overcome their barriers and develop their skills, not just be accommodated.

If we are serious about educating students to be responsible citizens, thoughtful problem-solvers, and well-prepared workers, we have to keep that as our True North. And every time we are asked to make exceptions and exemptions, we have to stop and ask how these are serving our students for life — not just for now.

 

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