In a recent staff meeting, my colleagues and I discussed ways to alleviate the current stress our 11th-grade students were feeling. I offered a successful strategy that I use for organizing work in the classroom—negotiating due dates. The facilitator replied, “Yes, a good idea, being flexible with due dates.” Flexible? That was not the word I used, and to me, those two words are not interchangeable; flexibility and negotiation are not the same thing.
Being flexible can help decrease stress and anxiety in the classroom. It shows willingness on the part of the teacher to listen, engage in conversation with students, and shift and adapt when possible. But the power dynamic has not really shifted. The student still needs to ask for permission, which may or may not be granted. In a week when my work seems manageable, I may be feeling generous, but in a week when my workload is high, I may be less likely to lean toward flexibility. So flexibility might mean an extra hour, half a day, or a few days.
In either case the student has no power. In many ways, by the time students reach the stage of having to ask, it’s too late. The stress has already increased, and students are placed in a position where they may make poor decisions, like skipping classes, to get some extra time.
Negotiating Due Dates
Negotiation is different. It happens at the beginning of the process and is a proactive approach that encourages shared ownership, an acceptance of equal responsibility, and accountability. Negotiating brings the teacher and students together to address the issue non-hierarchically. The date by which work will be done is a question for all, but the student does need to do the work, and the teacher needs to assess it. There are competing needs and schedules and workloads. Everyone is invited to offer their own date and suggest a reasonable timeframe for the task. Asking students questions like “What does the rest of your workload look like this week?,” “When do you think you can manage this by?,” or “ How long do you need to make sure you can do your best work?” is a simple and effective way to start these conversations.
The model I use is based on a view of the classroom as a collaborative learning community. It takes time to build that, but doing so reaps tangible rewards. My students and I negotiate timelines and due dates together, and it’s important that the process happens at the same time for all. I give class time to that conversation, which can be complex given the range of needs in the room.
As part of the conversation, students need to negotiate with each other, and the whole class has to reach consensus about a timeline that everyone can work with—I don’t negotiate with each student individually. I find that this helps to further build the collective feel of the group. This approach assumes that individual needs are folded into the single need of the group, and it is one of our regular classroom routines. We reach agreement through compromise and empathetic, active listening, and we identify as active members of a decision-making team.
Sharing Power in the Classroom
To help reduce students’ stress and encourage them to manage their workloads effectively, I place them at the center of many decision-making processes. In my experience, stress can be caused by feelings of disempowerment and a limited sense of control. I find that giving students authentic ways in which they can feel in control goes a long way to shifting the dynamic in the room. How due dates are agreed upon can be a starting point. I find that when I model authentic negotiation, students don’t abuse the system—their ownership of the timeline places them at the center, and negates any need to dodge a due date, or panic over their work.
When I ask my students to suggest and agree to a date, it seems to instill in them a sense of responsibility and commitment to the agreement. The starting point is always a genuine invitation, and input from all is a basic expectation and facilitated by design. Their input at the beginning of the process most often replaces pushback at the end of the process. If students feel that the ideas are theirs, there is nothing to push back on. This is key to the idea of student ownership, and in the process of negotiation, critical relationship development happens.
I’ve found a resource from the nonprofit Search Institute called the Developmental Relationships Framework to be helpful (it’s free, but you have to provide your email address to download it). It includes five ways teachers can strengthen positive relationships with students. One of these is the direction to “share power,” which means respecting students, taking them seriously as learners and young adults, and involving them in decision-making. The process I outline above is based on this—I intentionally share power by negotiating due dates.
In my classroom this approach has consistently led to higher quality work, fewer missed due dates, and increased motivation. Students want to share their work and seek out conversations and feedback opportunities, and the atmosphere in the room is that of a group of serious and motivated individuals all learning as part of a collaborative team.
Sometimes it is the smallest things that are worth pausing over. A casual turn of phrase in a staff meeting can lead us to self-reflect, examine our practice, and consolidate our practice. After years of teaching I’m still finding that examining a difference such as this one, perhaps a seemingly small and unimportant one, can lead to a significant paradigm shift.