It had been a long, hot and muggy Chicago summer. I was the principal of a private school that had decided to move to a new building, and I had spent countless hours...
Second Thoughts on Second Chances
Student: “Oh, Mrs. Smith, I wanted to hand in my report on the Solar System”.
Teacher: “I can’t accept that report”.
Student: “Why not?”
Teacher: “That report was due yesterday. You can’t turn it in late!”
Student: “Why, did the Solar System change that much since yesterday?”
Teacher: “No, but it is my job to teach you responsibility! And also, you have to learn that in life you do not get second chances!”
I never quite understood the logic of what just happened. (You probably guessed that I was one of those students who frequently handed things in, well let’s just say, in expanded time frames.)
Unfortunately, I had to wait until I became a school principal to challenge the teacher’s thinking. I clearly remember the first time I spoke at a teachers’ meeting and argued for teachers to accept work handed in after deadlines had passed. They looked at me as if I had just killed the school mascot. A collective gasp could be heard in the room, as generations of hallowed tradition had just been challenged. Of course, I heard the exact two arguments stated above:
- We have to teach the students responsibility.
- In life you don’t get second chances.
They were rather surprised by my response. First of all, I told them, who told you to teach them responsibility? Who made that your job? I heard of the three R’s, did someone add a fourth, Responsibility, when I wasn’t looking? And, while I certainly appreciate your valiant attempt to teach that fourth R, who gave you the right to decide that it is of higher value than the subject matter you are supposed to be covering? Grade the report on the Solar System, deal with responsibility afterwards!
I wasn’t finished.
In life you don’t get second chances. I just love that one. “OK”, I asked the group, “do you all remember when trimester grades were due?” “I believe it was last Monday”, was the response. “How many of you handed in your grades on time” I asked? A few raised their hands. “Oh, were the rest of you fired? I guess many of you actually got a second chance (and some a third and fourth).” Silence. Point, game, match.
I am not arguing for the suspension of deadlines, or for ignoring opportunities to teach student responsibility. Obviously these are important skills that will be of value when students enter the ‘real world’. I am arguing that the ‘responsibility lessons’ must be kept in perspective and not used as a club to impair scholastic achievement. The ‘real world’ truth is that if an employee has superlative skills, he is given a wide berth regarding his work habits. The responsible worker with weak skills is sent to the mail room. I guess in the mail room they’ll have plenty of time to learn about the Solar System.