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Student Engagement

Teachers Opt for More Leniency, and Get Better Work

Extending understanding in subtle ways can lead to more student ownership, and unleash unexpected possibilities in the classroom.

April 30, 2021
FG Trade / iStock

Knowing that hybrid school would be demanding and stressful for her students, high school math teacher Michelle Russell committed last fall to an important mindset shift: “I decided that I would say ‘yes’ to any reasonable request this year—obviously while keeping the students safe and learning and following school policies,” Russell writes for MiddleWeb. “That’s a big deal for me, because for some reason my default answer in the past has been ‘no’.”

As the school year progressed, when students requested extensions on assignments, Russell said yes; when they asked to use their notes on a test, she agreed; and when kids asked for extra review days, she responded affirmatively. “If I am being honest, several of the concessions made me feel like a bad teacher—like I wasn’t being rigorous enough,” Russell writes. “It has also tested my patience many, many times.”

The outcome of routinely turning her no into a yes, however, was surprising. It didn’t noticeably lower the bar on rigor: most students still turned in their work on time, but they also began to show a startling degree of goodwill. “I have been touched to see how much effort they have given in my class,” Russell notes. When she allowed for leniency in certain areas, quietly signaling to students that she could be both reasonable and flexible, she found that it strengthened her relationship with students and encouraged them to work hard and ask for help when they needed it. “It’s made me wonder why I said no to some of these things in the past,” Russell muses.

Shifting the Power Dynamic

Similar results surfaced in Siobhan Buckman’s classroom when she decided to include her students in something as simple as setting timelines and due dates for projects and assignments. “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,” writes Buckman, a middle and high school drama and theater teacher. “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.”

To reinforce the collaborative nature of this type of negotiation, Buckman uses dedicated class time to discuss the topic, asking students questions like “What does the rest of your workload look like this week?” and “How long do you need to make sure you can do your best work?” As part of the conversation, students also negotiate with each other and must agree together on a timeline that works for the whole group. “We reach agreement through compromise and empathetic, active listening, and we identify as active members of a decision-making team,” Buckman writes. “In my classroom, this approach has consistently led to higher quality work, fewer missed due dates, and increased motivation.”

Acknowledging Students’ Humanity

Though he might not have done so as a young teacher, high school history, government, and journalism teacher David Cutler often allows his students to redo tests and assignments, and even hand them in late on occasion. “Retakes let students know that I acknowledge their humanity, that we all have bad days,” Cutler writes, noting that he clearly spells out the details of his retake policy during the first week of school. “I can’t recall the number of times I’ve come to school with a headache or a personal matter that impacted the quality of my instruction. In each instance, my students forgave my oversights, and I feel it’s only fair that I return the favor.”

And while teaching students to meet deadlines is clearly important, a conversation with Rick Wormeli, a National Board-certified teacher and the author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, profoundly shaped Cutler’s thinking on the topic. “A kid doesn’t do an assignment, no matter how large, and I just give him a zero? He doesn’t get competent. He remains incompetent. Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward?,” Wormeli told Cutler. “I’d be able to tell my colleagues: ‘Oh, I caught him. He couldn’t get past me.’ Or should it be: ‘Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and wisdom that come from doing something a second and third time around’.”

It’s not an easy shift to make, Cutler notes. “I still sometimes struggle whether to dock students points for late submissions. I want students, especially upperclassmen, to be responsible learners. At the same time, I don’t want to let their occasional irresponsibility get in the way of their learning.”

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  • Classroom Management
  • 9-12 High School

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