How Do We Hold Students Accountable?
Over the years of teaching I have met many parents who used a variety of methods to hold their children accountable. Some of the parents were successful, and some were not. Two parents stand out in my mind were the Gunderson and the Martinez families. Mrs. Gunderson had a set of twin boys who were caught A.W.O.L. (absent without leave or as we say in the education business: sluffing.) The two were given a week of out of school suspension by the administration. Mrs. Gunderson insisted that school provide her sons with all of their textbooks, missing assignments and assignments that they would be missing during their forced absence. The school complied. The first day, she locked the two boys in their room with their books and assignment. As hour later, she went into the room to check on them. They were both gone. They had climbed out their bedroom window and were gone A.W. O. L. again. When they returned home later that day, Mrs. Gunderson was waiting for them. She had removed every article of clothing, and every piece of furniture from their bedroom except a small table and two crates. The two boys were confined to their room in only their underwear and instructed that as they successfully completed each assignment they could earn back their furniture and when it was all completed, they could earn back their clothing. The next day the boys did not climb out the window. They completed all of their assignments: both missing and newly assigned and they never were missing from school again.
A second memorable parent, Mrs. Martinez, required that her son, Aaron, to make his bed before leaving for school every day. Aaron was in my first period class and he had forgotten to make his bed that day. His mother arrived at the school and took her son home. She had disassembled his bed and put it on the front yard, so Aaron had to reassemble his bed and make it before he could return to school. It seems a bit harsh and irresponsible to require a son to miss instruction time to make a bed, but this was a life lesson. Her lesson was that even if he found making his bed distasteful, he should never shirk his responsibility. Since I still know Aaron, I can assure you that he grew to be a responsible husband, father, grandfather and executive in a company. His mother’s lesson of holding her son accountable for a meaningless task was an important lesson.
I have heard parents (especially single mothers) tell me that it is just easier to do the task yourself than to fight with a teenager to make sure he or she does it. As I was a divorced parent when my daughter was growing up, I know that it is easier, but is really what is best for the child? I don’t think so. I wanted my daughter to be responsible, but as a full-time teacher keeping track of everything she did and didn’t do became difficult. When she was in middle school I learned she was doing poorly in her religion class at the parochial school that she was attending. Her excuse was she wasn’t Catholic so it didn’t matter how she did in that class. Regardless of her excuses, she was enrolled in that school so it was her responsibility to do her best in each her classes. I gave her two weeks to raise the grade and during that time she could not leave our apartment to socialize with her friends. After two weeks I called her teacher and the problem was solved. I realized that this was not only grounding her, but grounding me too, but as an adult I could accept that consequence to teach my daughter to be responsible.
As teachers, we require our students to do many trivial tasks every day. We ask them to bring their books, their pencils, and their papers. We have due dates for assignments and specific dates for tests and projects to be completed. I have heard parents complain that these are trivial and students should be able to complete assignments on their own time schedule. If we are preparing students to be responsible for the real world, they will need to learn to make deadlines. I have heard parents complain that their child should not be required to write essays or read books because they don’t like to do that. In the real world, people have to complete many tasks that seem unpleasant to them. I tell my students I don’t like to clean up after my dogs, but what would my yard look like if I didn’t.
How do we help our students become more responsible? As a teacher when we receive a substandard paper, we should return it and require them to do it over. It is more work for the teacher because the teacher will have to grade some papers three or four times, but the holding the student to more rigorous standard may help the student develop high standards for himself. Maintaining rigorous standards can be difficult if the entire staff is requiring the same rigor. Students and their parents will often shop for the easiest teacher, because they are often more focused on the student’s grade point average, instead of the learning. Your school is only as strong as the weakest link, so please try to get everyone on board.
All of us should learn a lesson from Mrs. Gunderson and Mrs. Martinez. Making students accountable for their actions is a shared responsibility between the parents and the teachers. To teach students to be responsible, teachers need to act responsibly themselves. Teachers need to be available before school and after school to help students and meet with parents. Teacher need to grade assignments in a timely manner to give students quality feedback on their work. Teachers need to communicate effectively and often with parents so all groups can help the child become a responsible person. Parents need to make certain students have a quiet place to study and that they are actually completing their assigned works and turning it in. Parents need to check grades regularly and contact the child’s teacher regularly.
The truth is it is easier to let rules become slack and not hold students accountable, but it is in not what students need. Students need rules. If you hold students accountable for the small tasks, the big tasks will take care of themselves. Parents and educators need to be work together to help students learn to be responsible.