Doing Responsibility Responsibly

Schools should teach students how to be responsible and accountable. However, some of the lessons that practitioners come up with aren’t very good. I remember during my last year teaching how the administration changed up the detention model. Originally, if a student received a detention, they had to sit for at least one hour. Depending on the infraction, or number of infractions, it could be two to three hours of sitting. In my opinion, two to three hours of sitting, whether productive or not, is excessive, but I digress. My school agreed that the time spent sitting wasn’t productive so they decided to change it up. The school leaders decided to have detention students clean the school. I thought it was a good idea. Students could gain an understanding for what it takes to keep a school clean and the hard work the custodians put in every day. But after really thinking about it, I began thinking that it was stupid idea. I get the desire to teach responsibility to students but that isn’t what that did. It was a transferred punishment; instead of sitting, now you’re cleaning. The desired effect wasn’t to teach responsibility, but rather to curb bad behavior and make good use of child labor if bad behavior continued to happened; calling it teaching students to be responsible for their actions and for the upkeep of their building in the name of “benefiting the school community”.

Much of what we create as lessons of responsibility are deficiency based. We teach lessons on responsibility when children don’t exhibit the proper behavior. Our lessons are reactionary; since you guys forget to do this, I’ll do this; since you don’t have anything to write with, I’ll do this. Those methods for stressing and teaching responsibility leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of kids and young adults. If you feed me cooked Brussel sprouts and they have no taste, no matter how good it is for me, I’m not eating them. Now, if you season those Brussel sprouts with salt, pepper, some garlic and some Old Bay, I’ll dive in. Teach responsibility with some positivity attached and students may internalize those lessons better than requiring them to do something due to a past mistake. Rather than using a deficiency basis for teaching responsibility, practitioners should use positive associations to teach students how to be more responsible individuals. Here are some ways NOT to teach responsibility (with explanation) followed by ways TO teach responsibility (without explanation):

How NOT To Teach Responsibility:

  1. Item/money exchange for pen or pencil usage or classroom store for supplies to sell to students – I recognize that students are forgetful and that teachers spend a lot of their own money for supplies that their schools may or may not reimburse them for. However, what are you going to do when a kid has nothing to trade with you or no money to pay you for something that they need? There is nothing better than a kid who will call the bluff of a teacher who has an exchange or item purchase policy in their classroom and just sits there and does no work. They may get in trouble at the end of the day, but the trouble just may be worth proving a point. In an act of capitalist rebellion, I saw a student sell pencils and pens to students for ten cents because a teacher sold them for twenty-five cents (that was a smart kid). Just have enough pencils and pens for students who need them. You can go to your local bank and get pens for days. You can also go get free pencils from local business willing to donate. Purchase loose leaf paper for students to use who are without their notebook. Be compassionate and recognize that there may be a kid or two who is without a pen everyday (probably because they pass the pens around to friends to use)… be available, not a vender… and I know kids throw pencils and pens at each other sometimes – think of another consequence.
  2. Enforcing retrieval policies for students without student lockers – One of the more annoying things are when adults tell students that they cannot retrieve items they need for a class. I once worked at a middle school with no lockers; students kept the bulk of their items in their homerooms. Unfortunately, they interrupted classes when retrieving an item from their homeroom. The school didn’t want to add lockers to the hallways because it would “ruin” hallway walk space. However, locker trips to retrieve forgotten items will not interrupt classrooms and there will be no need for policies that penalize kids for something kids do regularly… forget stuff.
  3. Locking bathrooms – this is one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever had to contend with. What the hell is locking a bathroom going to do other than create a log jam at the only available bathroom(s)? Schools lock bathrooms because a child vandalizes it, trashes it or smokes in it. Rather than hire a hall/bathroom monitor to prevent the desire to lock up bathrooms, those schools will lock up bathrooms, force students to use designated bathrooms and have teachers monitor the bathrooms during a prep period. This is called hustling backwards. Just designate a hall monitor(s) to monitor the bathrooms and keep it moving. I am unsure if this only happens in schools with only Black and Brown kids, but it shouldn’t happen in any school. This does not teach children responsibility; it teaches them that they are animals. If you treat children like animals, that’s what they will become. If you believe children are animals, get the hell out of education!
  4. Substituting detention with janitorial work – again, I get the intention behind this but children do not attend school to be laborers. If a child makes a mess, they can clean it up. If a child sees a crumpled up piece of paper on the floor, they should pick it up and throw it away. Those things are true. If you want a child to clean the chalkboard, be my guest (do schools even have chalkboards anymore?). However, it is not a child’s responsibility to clean a classroom or clean walls or do anything you pay a custodian to do. If you work in an older building that has hazardous areas, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit if a child gets sick or hurt while “cleaning” something. If you want to do something more substantive than detention, consider yoga[1] or meditation.[2]
  5. Taking away recess – here is another stupid idea… let’s get kids to stop misbehaving by preventing them from exerting pinned up energy that will help them to not misbehave any further in the afternoon.[3] Do you want to know why students misbehave? Because they sit for two hours of math and two hours of literacy with little time for history and science and piecemeal amounts of time for gym and the arts. The benefits of recess are proven.[4] Taking away recess may work to “teach” responsibility for a day or so, but what do you do when kids get use to no longer having recess? That is not how you teach kids to be responsible and accountable for their own behavior and their classmates’. It teaches kids how to adapt to changing conditions. I foolishly tried it and I realized that it doesn’t work.

Here is how you should teach responsibility to your students: (1) Student Fundraisers, (2) Student Competitions, (3) Student Government/Counsel (4) Student/Peer Counseling and (5) Student Volunteering. Notice the theme here – the students; student led and student driven activities. Students are at the focus of these things and all of these activities are positive. They require that students take an active role in the planning and execution of any and all activities for the benefit of the school. All an adult has to say to a student is if they do not plan and execute, it will not get done. Young people love being treated like adults. Teach them responsibility by challenging them to be the adults they wish to be or think that they are. Some will meet the challenge and others will fall. Those who fall will allow you to teach them how not to fall again. Those who meet challenges are meant for more challenges. Meeting project challenges are how you should measure growth; a child’s ability to translate and transfer skills to practice. Let’s incorporate responsibility into the curriculum, but the right way.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!







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