Marta is an AP Calculus teacher who attended one of my Rigor Workshops over the summer. She wanted to learn strategies for increasing the level of rigor of her course and how to deal with students who struggled with the rigor of AP level work. Throughout the morning, Marta seemed to enjoy learning how to build student’s capacity for rigorous thinking. She took copious notes, asked several questions, and commented on her way to lunch how much she was enjoying the day. In the afternoon however, she grew increasingly agitated as I suggested strategies for supporting students who struggled with rigorous coursework. By the time I began sharing strategies for managing reteaching and retesting, Marta was bright red. Finally, when she couldn’t take it any more, she raised her hand.
“I am so tired of hearing how we have to coddle these students. There is no way I am giving a retake. When are we going to start expecting them to study and work hard and do well the first time??? If they can’t do that, maybe they don’t belong in AP.”
I was surprised by the vehemence of her remarks. My first impulse was to launch into a sermon about how important supporting students was even in AP, but before I stepped up on my soapbox, I paused. It seemed that there was something else going on. So instead of preaching, I asked softly, “You seem really upset.”
She nodded. “I am. I am so tired of being asked to give the students two and three and four chances. When are we going to ask them to do the work the first time?”
“Why does that bother you?”
“Because it makes students lazy. They know that they don’t have to study or work hard because we are going to give them chance after chance after chance after chance.”
“You sound really angry about that,” I observed.
“I am. I am so sick and tired of being told that I have to keep giving chances to kids. When I was in school, I had to get it right the first time. I had to work hard and turn in my work on time. I didn’t have any second chances or retakes or opportunities to re-submit work. I had to get it in on time.”
“Is that what makes you so angry about offering retakes?”
Marta thought for a second. “I guess it’s the sense of entitlement. These kids treat my class with disrespect. They act like they deserve a second chance when they haven’t done anything to earn it.”
Ahhh. I thought to myself. Now we’re getting to the real issue. I was quiet for a moment. The other workshop participants waited expectantly. Many of them nodded in agreement.
“What is the point of retakes?” I asked the room.
“To give students another chance to learn and show that they have learned the material,” a few people recited from the handouts.
“Yes, that’s what’s written on the handouts,” I began. “But why is that important?”
“So that you can make sure that kids have learned the material?” one participant offered.
“So that you can give help to the kids who are struggling?” offered another.
“But how does that address Marta’s concern?” I asked. The room got silent as the participants waited for me to answer my own question. I waited a few seconds and then answered, “Retakes hold students accountable for learning. If a student blows off a quiz for instance, making him take the retake sends the message that he is accountable for learning the material. It forces him to go back, relearn what he didn’t learn and demonstrate that he has learned it. It doesn’t let him off the hook. Just the opposite. It puts his feet to the fire.”
I continued. “Marta, your issue isn’t retakes, or the other support strategies I have shared today. You resent the sense of entitlement your students seem to have towards you and your class. That’s a separate issue.”
She thought for a moment. “I think you’re right,” she said quietly.
“So let’s deal with that,” I said, and we did. It wasn’t part of our agenda but so many people shared Marta’s concern that we spent part of the workshop talking about the root of students’ sense of entitlement and strategies for helping them develop better work, study, and learning habits. We talked about how teachers could leverage certain support strategies and rigorous instructional strategies to wean students off their need for supports. And, we talked about how by offering a truly rigorous learning experience, we could ultimately help our students develop the habits of mind that make them not only good learners, but hard workers, critical thinkers, conscientious students, and well-rounded people.
Marta stayed after the workshop to talk to me. “I guess I am taking things too personally.”
“I get it,” I smiled. “It’s tough when you’re working so hard and students’ don’t seem to appreciate it.”
Marta nodded. “But I really do care about my students,” she insisted.
“Of course you do. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be so passionate about this.” I shut off the LCD projector. “The thing is, you can’t punish students when they frustrate you.”
“I know. I just didn’t realize until today that that’s what I was doing.”
We chatted for a few more minutes and she left. I’ve thought about Marta a lot over the past few months as I’ve worked with similar teachers. We all experience her frustration at some time or another. I experience it myself when I am working with teachers who resist or resent my help. But, no matter how frustrated we get, it’s important to keep our focus on our role – we’re there to help. We cannot determine whether we will help students based on their attitudes; we must use our support strategies to help them develop better attitudes along the way.