Second Thoughts on Second Chances

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iStock 000016778565XSmall 150x150 Second Thoughts on Second ChancesWhat is it with elementary and high school teachers? Here’s a scenario that, unfortunately, is all too common:

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:

  1. We have to teach the students responsibility.
  2. 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.

4 Responses to Second Thoughts on Second Chances

  1. Buffy Burger says:

    To adapt an old adage: Those who can, do. Those who can and want to share their knowledge with others, teach. Those who can’t , but would like to tell others what to do anyway administrate. I have been a teacher for over 30 years. I do not recall ever having told a student that s/he could not turn in a project or assignment because it was late. I will admit that when many weeks pass, I may stop asking for the assignment and only remind them once more before I prepare grades, which I always turn in on time. I am not sure where you have been an administrator, but in the schools in which I have taught, my colleagues have had the same attitude. I find the problem is that all too often the students don’t really care, or the assignment was just busy work anyway and they know it. Students need to be given meaningful work to do that stimulates their curiosity and allows them to grow as people, then they will be excited to share their work with us.

    • Karmi says:

      Buffy, it is always a pleasure to hear about schools where teachers are dedicated and professional. Your students and their parents are very lucky to have you. that I am thrilled to hear that you intuitively agree with my basic premise, that students should be allowed to hand in assignments late. I couldn’t agree more that meaningful assignments are the key to true learning.

  2. Helen Counterman says:

    I am now livid with my daughters’ 5th grade teacher. She keeps harping on “learning responsibility”. Her homework policy is if you don’t do it the night it is assigned, you receive a zero grade on it even though she has the student do it in class next day. She even sends home a paper for the parent to sign acknowleding this. I am working on changing this policy but it is a long road. This is the only teacher she has had that has a homework policy. All her previous teachers would have her do it during recess.

    • Karmi says:

      That is a difficult situation to be in. I think that parents need to be supportive of their schools but the teacher’s policy needs to be changed. Perhaps you could send the teacher a link to this blog post. I hope that the school principal or department head will be of help to you. Good Luck!

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