Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tips for the Tricky Teacher

It’s “Back to School” time, and soon you will be getting clever excuses from some of your students.  Whether you are a teacher, parent, or manager, the following principles apply.

Handling excuses
It used to be “my dog ate the homework”; now it’s “my computer ate the homework” (a hard drive crash) or “my printer’s not working.” One excuse has not changed over the years, and that’s the famous “I forgot.” 

As a college instructor with three decades of experience, my empathetic response is generally, “That’s sad. You can still get the homework in with a late penalty.” And then I might ask, “What can you learn from this experience so that it doesn’t happen again?”  After the student says “I don’t know,” I might make some suggestions such as backing up files or, in the case of a broken printer, downloading your homework to a thumb drive and printing it somewhere else. If you can get a student to say this himself or herself, it will be much more powerful.

“But I had an opportunity to go to a One Direction concert last night.”  Your tricky response to that could be “I understand completely, and you can still get your assignment in with a late penalty.”  It doesn’t matter what the student says next; your response is this:  “I guess you had to make a choice. If I were you, I would have chosen the One Direction concert, too. I understand. Of course, our choices in life bring consequences.”  And then the follow-up: “What can you learn from this experience?”  After the student says “I don’t know,” you can point out that waiting to the last moment to do an assignment is risky, but that’s a choice, too.

My favorite excuse while teaching college was “my grandmother died.”  After checking with other instructors, I discovered that this woman’s grandmother had died five times over the past few years.  She just used the excuse over and over with different teachers and at different times.  I sat down with the student and asked her for the secret of life. She looked puzzled. “How do you get your grandmother to come back to life every class?  How many times has she died now?”  We had a good laugh, but she still faced the unexcused absence and the late homework penalty.

The great secret of education
We teachers teach students, not subjects, and that includes helping students understand certain things about life. The most important, from an educational standpoint is this:  You are responsible for you.  You are in charge of your life and your education.  My responsibility is to teach; your responsibility is to learn.

I often hear, “You gave me a bad grade.”  My response: “I don’t give grades.  You earn them.”  A person grows by accepting responsibility for their life without blaming others and circumstances.  If my own child gets a “crummy teacher,” my response is, “Good. You’ll have a crummy boss someday and this will teach you how to deal with that. 

One of my favorite questions came from a very capable young man, “What’s the minimum I have to do to get an A?”  Did he just say “minimum”?  Well, you earn an A by providing superior work, not by doing the minimum.  That’s an erroneous perception. 

I’ve seen students put great effort into trying to do as little as possible, creating excuses, and getting out of stuff (such as the dead grandma story).  I often congratulate them on their creativity, but also reason with them: “Well, you can always just do the work and learn something.”

Whether you are a teacher, parent, or manager, it’s important to think through your pre-emptive strike; that is, provide a clear explanation of expectations beforehand. Good luck in the new school year!

Keep teaching, keep learning, and keep living.