Accountability: The Greatest Gift

Written by: Guest Blogger Sylvia Denice

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Tim refuses to follow directions during the entirety of my reading block.  He hates reading.  In fact, he would rather pick pencils up off my floor, take out my trash, or scrub the bathroom sinks than tackle any challenge I present to him in reading.  I know the assignment is what he needs to help him grow, but he resists with gusto.  I am at my wit’s end with Tim when I begin, “If you do not complete your work during reading time, then you will complete the work with me after school, but it will get done...”

There it is.  The dooming statement.  And not just for Tim, but for me.  Now, not only is Tim risking his after school free time, but also mine.  He continues every task avoidant trick in the book.  He’ll believe the consequence when he sees it.

Pack-up and dismissal roll around, and I give Tim’s mom a call to let her know he will be staying after school to make up work he did not accomplish during the reading block.  Tim's lip protrudes.  The tears stream, the feet stamp, the fists pump, and the insults fly (along with a book or two).  Nonetheless, here we are after contract hours with that text analysis assignment taunting the both of us.

Among my students (and probably some colleagues, too) I am infamous for making statements like:

  • “If you use your work time as free time, then you will spend your free time as work time.”

  • “If you cannot handle the transition from activity, then you will not handle the activity.”

  • “If you do not earn the celebration, then you will not participate.”

I seem to be dooming myself often.  Sometimes this means I am making extra copies of make-up work for students who were hopeful that placing their work in the trash can would exempt them from completing an assignment.  Sometimes it means I give up a prep period to ensure a student is supervised when unable to participate in an activity.  Sometimes it means spending a celebratory classroom activity reflecting with a student who has been struggling to use kind words with peers.  It is not always easy, for me or for the nine-year-old.

At times like these, I am reminded of an invaluable lesson from a video that I watched repeatedly during my first year of teaching.  The video was published by SoulPancake in May of 2014 and is entitled “If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on My First Day Teaching.” The video is a series of teachers reading letters they have written to their first year teacher selves, and it served as a reminder to me of everything I had learned, hadn’t learned, was actively learning, and would continue to learn on my journey as an educator.  I have never forgotten one particular teacher’s statement from the video:

“Holding your kids accountable is the greatest act of love you can give them.”

I didn’t understand the weight of this statement then, but I do now.  It can be difficult.  Sometimes, my humanity starts to kick in and I second guess my statement or consequence.  I feel badly for students and consider changing my mind.  There are even times that, in my weakness, I do change my own mind!  However, in my experience, the times when it has been most difficult to follow through with students are the times when it has mattered the most.  So I sacrifice the prep. I cut the lunch short.  I give up the fun to reflect or at least I do my best.  I still falter and I still feel.  Ultimately, though, I know that the greatest gift I can give my students is not always what they want, but is indefinitely what they need: accountability and responsibility.  This lesson will take them farther than even that analyze the text assignment can.