I want to start by thanking my colleague and Elementary Math Curriculum Coordinator for Round Rock ISD, Brian Bushart for publishing a post challenging our teams to think about two words we should remove from vocabularies and ethoses going into 2020. Check it out here and then come back.
Several words or ideas come to mind looking back over my career as a special education teacher, assistant principal, and central office leader. For these purposes though we are going to focus on…”Late/Missing Work.” I may be bending the rules using a hyphenated/slashed first word so I appreciate your grace.
It’s been almost seven years since I was an assistant principal and roughly 12 years since I was in the classroom. Looking back at my students though – especially one whose self-portrait I’ve kept framed on my wall since the early 2000s – I believe they would agree that a never-ending cycle of late/missing work clouded everything.
It usually went something like this:
The group of students I was responsible for – I’m hoping someone else chooses “Caseload” as one of their words to remove – would usually have one or two days at the beginning of a grading period where we were on a level playing field with everyone else. Birds were chirping, everyone was smiling, we all stood a little taller without the weight of “owing” something to a teacher.
I could see a physical difference in my students during these sweet times free of burden. I felt it too. My interactions with the other teachers on my team were progressive and optimistic during this narrow window. We talked about learning, and ways to better meet the overall needs of our students.
Inevitably though, my students would soon miss a deadline for an assignment. This would usually happen by the end of the first week of a grading period. Then, for five weeks we were caught in a growing maelstrom of missing assignments from 4-5 different classes. Our focus quickly shifted to managing time, negotiating with teachers, and valuing the completion of tasks above all else. My students would miss Tier 1 instruction from their classroom teacher, electives, and opportunities to learn from their peers as I guided them through their piles of missing work. Being behind became our culture.
And we would stumble our way to the end of a grading period not really sure what anyone learned, yet usually with passing grades.
My students were learning what it feels like to “owe” someone though. That feeling you get when you’re struggling financially and move debt from one credit card to another, or when you move apartments when the rent comes due must feel similar to how our students feel when they get stuck drowning in the cycle of being perpetually behind. You can’t escape that feeling. That weight. It may lessen until someone reminds you that you are in debt, but it doesn’t go away. It’s a low-level constant stream of anxiety.
I remember using the word “owe” often when I and everyone else reminded my students daily that they had missing/late work. I’m pretty sure I even wrote it up on the board.
But they didn’t really “owe” me or their classroom teacher anything. It’s not like I loaned them a sum of money with the agreement they would repay. If anything, I “owed” them for showing up every day. I “owed” their families for giving me their trust and the taxpayers who support public education. I’m adding the use of the word “owe” to my long list of things I’ll do differently if ever find myself in the classroom again.
That word has such power and assumptions behind it. To tell someone they “owe” you is heavy. If I tell someone I care for that they “owe” me something, and then repeatedly remind them about it, that fundamentally changes our relationship.
Maybe our students “owe” themselves or their families, but they don’t “owe” us anything.
I’m not recommending you stop assigning homework – that’s up to you. I am recommending that you take this spring semester and become more aware and mindful of the language you use and decision you make regarding your students who struggle to keep up with your assignment due dates. How does their daily experience change once they get behind? At the end of the grading period, what did they learn from you? What did they learn about you? What did they learn about themselves?
Take the answers to those questions and decide if you want to do anything differently. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Either way, you will be much more aware of your practice and the impact of your decisions. You will be more intentional about your use of terms such as “Late/Missing Work” and “owe.” If you continue to use them at all.
Thanks again Brian for pushing us in this direction and I hope others will share their thoughts and take the Two-Word Challenge in the comments here or on the RRISD Elementary Math blog.