A Standard for Responsibility
One of the things that really worries me about the preparation I'm providing my students is its lack of emphasis on being responsible. In fact, I'm not sure that I've ever really worked at a school that made a real collective effort to produce highly responsible students. I suspect that this can be a fairly difficult thing to do, especially in urban schools (which is the only environment I've ever worked in, although in three different states). Urban schools, especially those that are underperforming, are often so bogged down with attempting to raise test scores and graduation rates that holding students accountable for doing their work on time and well often falls to the bottom of their list of priorities, or even off the radar altogether. On top of that, when you work with a population of students, the majority of which come from home environments in which responsibility is largely lacking (and sometimes even frowned upon), attempting to cultivate that in a classroom is A LOT of work. Sometimes it doesn't even seem possible.
In my last district, I spent my first year (of two total) being fairly lax with due dates on assignments. I was still new to teaching and was still learning that in order to hold students accountable for doing their work well and on time, the teacher needs to be incredibly organized. I needed to tell students every day what work would be due the next, provide them with the details in writing, and then remind them again on the way out the door. All of this meant that I had to know exactly what I wanted them to turn in at least a week ahead of time, which, if you've ever taught a course for the first time with no support (i.e. no textbooks, no other teachers to give you advice, no course outline, and not even any specific standards), you know is a challenge in and of itself.
In my second year in this district, I was lucky enough to be scheduled for two of the same courses I taught the previous year. I had one other course added to my load, leaving me with a total of three preps, which most high school teachers will tell you is not ideal. However, I was able to significantly improve the degree to which I held students accountable. I was prepared with which I assignments I wanted them to complete and when I wanted them turned them. I began a policy of not accepting late papers. It was torture at first. My students would turn their papers in late and then scream and yell when I told them I wouldn't take them. I don't how many angry conversations I had to deal with over how I was being unfair and how a good teacher would at least give them some credit. But I'd decided to draw the line. Within a few weeks I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of assignments I was receiving on time. There were still some students who just didn't do the work, but I felt like the result of this decision was an increase in student achievement, and I hope maybe I taught them to be a tad more responsible.
Despite my success in my second year, I don't feel that the school as a whole did a very good job at holding students accountable. I worked with an incredible staff for the most part, but I know that many teachers (and I was guilty of this myself at times) would accept assignments whenever the student decided to turn them in, and many teachers chose not to give assignments/homework because they knew the students wouldn't do them. Although we managed to raise test scores, we certainly did the students no service by allowing them to get away with turning in late work consistently.
I feel the same sense of low expectations for responsibility at the school I took a job at in DC. While we hold high expectations for the students academically, we are generally expected to allow a student to make up their work whenever they want. We say that failure is not an option at our school, which, unfortunately means that there is a tremendous amount of pressure to pass students even when they consistently display appalling disrespect to their teachers on a daily basis, they've missed thirty-five days of class, come twenty minutes late to class every day, or don't turn in a major project until three months after it was due. We're afraid that failing a student will mean that they will give up on school and end up on the streets, so we're instructed to help a student pass at all costs.
I believe the very real danger here is that we're creating a legion of students who will have learned that deadlines, appropriate standards for behavior, and rules/laws don't apply to them; they will believe that the real world will give them every opportunity to succeed over and over again, sometimes even if someone else has to do their work for them. They're in for a harsh reality check.
I hear the other side's argument, however. I hear it on a daily basis, actually. That argument would stop short of explicitly acknowledging the reality and dangers I've mentioned in the last two paragraphs. The argument is often phrased in PR fashion to sound something like this:
"All students deserve every opportunity to succeed. Denying a student multiple opportunities to succeed is to deny them the chances in life they deserve. [I would agree that providing multiple opportunities to succeed is truly valuable, but students must show that they are willing to truly attempt the challenge in a timely manner before we allow them to try again.] We should hope that by constantly encouraging our students, we may instill in them a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy."
What I believe is really behind this argument, however, is the fact that districts like DCPS cannot afford to hold many of its students accountable for being responsible because that would likely mean an immediate drop in graduation rates (even if it meant a possible future increase). The public would be outraged and more calls for ousting the current administration would ensue. We're caught in a system that rarely allows educators (i.e. superintendents, administrators, and teachers) to always do what's best for children, which leads me to a conclusion that I've been wrestling with quite a bit lately.
Is it possible that being a truly good teacher means having the courage and strength to consistently deny the system its desire to please the powers that be? If I really want to do what's right for my kids, do I need to tell my administrators that I will not be doing a lot of what they ask of me because it's not in the best interest of my kids? And if I want to keep my job, does this mean that I need to become adept at making my administrators believe that I'm doing what they want, even though I'm working for my students?
I don't mean to make it sound like no administrator understands this contradiction. I believe many of them do, and, as a result, make it easier for teachers to do their jobs by not marking teachers down for (or ignoring) those things they do that are in the best interest of kids but not what the system asks for.
Clearly, there are more than a few things missing in the education we're providing our students. Maybe we'd be more attentive to them if we could create some standards for them (I know that would certainly get the attention of my administration). So before I end this post, I present you with:
Important Learning Standard In Responsibility That Will Help Our Kids But Maybe Not Our Short-Term Graduation Rates 1.1:
Students will understand the importance of responsibility (e.g. meeting deadlines, timely and honest communication, respect for others, etc.) and explain its importance to the life of a highly effective and accomplished individual.
You'll have to create the daily objectives and assessments for this one on your own.