On Compliance [Part 2: Students Deserve Answers]

As teachers, reflecting on our why is commonplace. We often refer back to why we choose to spend our days surrounded by children, why we exhaust our resources and ourselves day in and day out, and why it is so worth it to help shape the educational experiences of our students. Lately, the push in our world has been to reflect on why we choose the instructional models we teach in, why we assign the activities we assign, and why we assess students in the manner we assess them. Everything is beginning to come back to the rationale behind our profession, behind what we do.

If all this is true, don’t our students deserve to hear it?

During my career, I have often been told that, as a teacher, I must have heard many stupid questions in my classroom. I’ve experienced those who believe that the only people who truly know what a stupid question is are teachers.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

If anyone knows that there is no question that can be thought of as stupid, or worthless, or a waste of time, it is a teacher. A teacher who is focused on student growth and learning, rather than one focused on a compliant group of robots.

Any time that a student asks a question, they are showing interest in what’s happening. Yes, even the student who asks the smart-aleck question to throw us off. Even that student has listened to what is going on and has something to say. And rather than shut down the question and use our position of authority to force that student into compliance, what if we encouraged the dialogue and took time to thoughtfully respond?

I don’t advocate here for disrespect; rather, I am suggesting just the opposite. That we take a moment, consider the motivation behind the question, and respond in a way that encourages a mutual respect. A way that welcomes our students to not be disrespectful, but to gain a better understanding of the work they are doing.

If you choose to openly address and answer the question, you haven’t just alienated one of your students. You haven’t just fractured the relationship, or potential relationship, that is so vital for students to learn from you. You’ve shown them that they matter, their voice matters, and that even when they are trying to misbehave, you see them. You value them.

You’re also taking a moment to reflect on the purpose of a particular assignment, guideline, or activity. You’re actively thinking about your why and communicating it to a pretty important stakeholder–the person who is going to be doing it. Even that student who is trying to knock you off your game is a meaningful participant in the room. The kid who asks why you’re giving homework has just offered you a soapbox on which to stand and passionately deliver the meaning behind a given task. You were just given an open mic to change the opinion of a room full of kids. Use it. Own it.

Finally, and most important, this time to reflect may help you realize that you could be wrong. This is a tough one because of the power dynamic that has persisted in schools for so long. A student cannot call you out for a potentially outdated or unnecessary requirement because they are not allowed. But why not? Why can’t those who are directly involved ask those questions in an inquiring, respectful way? Maybe something we’re doing, or my favorite, something we’ve always done, isn’t the best way to do it. It might not even be what’s best for kids. And maybe you needed to be called out to realize this hard truth and make an important change.

Our students deserve to hear the why. They deserve to understand why we show up every day just as much as they deserve our showing up. It shouldn’t be expected that they blindly follow whatever it is we prescribe. If they want to know the reason they’re required to type their papers in a certain font, show their work on a math problem, or meet a set of objectives on a project, we should be ready and willing to tell them why. If we’re not willing, maybe it’s time to reconsider the why behind that decision. Maybe it’s time to recalibrate the way our classrooms are run. Who knows, maybe we’ll learn something from the students in our classroom and become even better educators.

So let them ask questions. Let them be heard. Let them be valued.

They deserve it.

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