Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No Excuses, No way

Here is a comment I wrote in response to 'No Excuses' Is Not Just for Teachers:  http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/posts/1182-do-we-make-too-many-excuses-for-our-children  I am sick of hearing the words "no excuses", whether for teachers or in this post's case for the students.  As many have said before, what we real reformers are talking about are not excuses, but reality.  I'm convinced that the only people who can even utter the words "no excuses" are people who have not worked directly with students and families living in poverty.  They are just too out of touch.

There is a huge difference between the "no excuses" crowd and setting limits. A great teacher knows the difference between a student who is making an excuse and one who genuinely cannot meet the expectation.  As a Special Ed teacher, I work hard at getting to know my students well enough to be able to discern whether firm limits are needed or empathy and accommodation.

But there is an even darker side to the "no excuses" philosophy.  I currently work on an inpatient psychiatry unit and I have seen the damage the hardliner "no excuses" schools and teachers have done to children.  I have seen the hopelessness in their faces and the scars on their wrists. They hate school, they fear school, they run away from school, and then they drop out of school.

And there are things that happen in their lives where they simply cannot focus on school.  And that's ok.  There will be time for the schoolwork, I always tell them.  "You need to get well first."  Suicide attempts, abuse, PTSD, living in foster homes, gangs, violence, hunger, homelessness are real traumas.  

Certainly, students do not benefit from a pushover teacher.  But they also are hurt by the rigid, unyielding "no excuses" types.  The art of teaching is finding the balance between the extremes. We must know our students well-enough to read the motivations behind the behaviors (is it avoidance? boredom? attention-seeking?) in order to respond to it appropriately. One student may honestly have had to walk out of the room to calm down while another may truly be avoiding work and getting away with it.  Even the SAME student may use the same behavior with different intentions. 

Still, in order to know our kids this well, teachers need the time and resources to really "get" the young people in their care.  With today's push for standardization, it is hard to truly treat kids as individuals. 

"No excuses" is no way to run a school.  Or a classroom.  And saying "no excuses" is no excuse to ignore the very real circumstances of our kids' lives.

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