In June I attended the FIRST Educational Resources conference, and it was seriously awesome. I enjoyed all of the sessions I went to, and definitely had a lot of great takeaways. It was a great kickstart to the 2017-2018 school year. There were some fantastic conversations, sessions, and resources about learning-based assessment and grading, the real purpose of homework, and how to incorporate this change of mindset meaningfully into our schools and classrooms. Among all of the things I took away, the idea that has stuck with me most was a small comment made by a couple of presenters.
When many teachers have a rigid homework system, there are typically consequences for those students who fail to complete their assignments. While it is true that being held accountable for our actions is necessary, much of the research out there shows that homework in elementary and middle school does not have many learning benefits. When we ask ourselves as teachers, myself included, why we place so much value on this concept of homework getting done on time, the answer often has something to do with preparing our students for the real world. We share this reasoning with our students, frequently telling them that in the real world they will be expected to do this and that and there won’t be a safety net. They will have deadlines and expectations, and their bosses at their jobs will not be lenient or forgiving. Again, this is (sometimes) true. It is a huge and important aspect of the teaching profession to prepare students for whatever lies ahead, and adults do have many rigid standards set for them within their careers. But that’s just the thing–they are adults. We do not teach adults. We have a classroom full of children who need to be encouraged, supported, guided, and loved.
A couple presenters at the FIRST conference were discussing this notion of rigid homework standards. They mentioned how many teachers believe that by setting these standards and upholding them strictly, we are helping prepare our students for the real world. As soon as they said this, my ears perked up. I held this belief. I shared this belief with my students… frequently. Especially those students who did not get their homework done. What could possibly be wrong with telling my kids that I was helping prepare them for the real world? The problem with this is the language that’s being used to tell our students about the importance of accountability. Our students’ worlds are real. The problems they are facing in school, at home, within themselves are real. The joys and successes they experience are real. Their worlds are just as real as any of our adult ones. Yes, they are different, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Sitting in a high school classroom during this conference, I heard this for the first time and was shocked that I had never considered the implications of my words. I can remember back to when I was in seventh grade, dealing with problems that are still to this day some of the most difficult I have faced. Had a teacher told me that I was going to be punished for being unable to complete something because I was being readied for the “real world”, I would have immediately shut down. I would have lost respect for that teacher and would’ve been less likely to listen to him or her in the future. It would have been difficult for me to engage because I would have felt that this person who had no idea what was happening with me was judging my experience as less real because I was just a kid. Is this how we want our students to feel in our classrooms? I can confidently say that none of us has that goal in mind when we interact with our students.
When we consistently tell our students we are preparing them for the real world, we are discounting the current experiences they are having. We are telling them, in not so many words, that what they are going through is not as meaningful because they are not living in the “real world”. After hearing this idea from a presenter and reflecting on it for quite awhile, it seems so obvious to me. We are preparing them for their futures. We are preparing them for the challenges and obstacles that lie ahead of them. The nature of our job is to give them the resources and tools necessary to face these challenges and come out the other side stronger and successful. By continually reinforcing this idea of getting homework done on time and communicating to them that it will help them in the real world, we are disengaging our students and alienating them from us.
In addition to the language being used, the expectation of our students to behave as adults is unfair. They are kids and they need to be treated as such! Rather than explain to them that the real world is unforgiving, we must show them to be empathetic and considerate individuals who accept responsibility for their choices and actions. This is not to say that students should not be held accountable–they absolutely should. But we need to redefine accountability. Rather than consequences and punishments, start a conversation. Open the door to discuss the motivation for the missing work or the reasoning for it not being done. What came up? Did they not manage their time well? Do they not understand the work? Did it become an argument with mom or dad? Ask questions, discover the meaning behind the action, and provide support, guidance, or advice. Develop a system of support and a new way of doing things so this student is successful in the future and feels valued in the classroom.
Our students come to us each and every day a sum of their experiences. Some of them are more hardened than others, some are more innocent and sweet, some are difficult to reach. But all of them have experiences outside of our walls. Real experiences. Meaningful experiences. Experiences that have shaped who they are. Experiences that may stay with them for the rest of their lives. It is up to us educators to help shape who they will become, and it starts by reconsidering how we hold them accountable for their choices.