'No Excuses' Is Not Just for Teachers

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When asked to identify the qualities that lead to success in life, experts often list the ability to overcome obstacles. Pushing past adversity, through determination and persistence, is the hallmark of the greatest leaders, the most successful parents, the most prized employees, we are told. Those who make no excuses, who do whatever it takes to get something done, are the ones who have the capacity to achieve greatness.

In education, we focus a lot on accommodating our student’s needs. We have English Language Learners (E.L.L.s) and special education students. We have kids with emotional disturbances and anger issues. We have kids who are acting out, and kids who are uninterested or bored.

It’s our job to teach them no matter what. We are often the adults that children see with the most consistency and frequency, and we are responsible for their educations, in the broadest sense of that word. But to truly help them be successful, we ourselves have to embody the "no excuses" attitude.

The problem is that by allowing ourselves no excuses, and doing whatever it takes to make students successful, we often find ourselves accepting excuses from them.

Students don’t complete an assignment, and we give them a second chance. A parent comes to school, upset to hear that his or her child is failing math, and we say, time and again, "they can make up the work." A test is failed and we provide a chance to retake it, or do test corrections for extra credit.

We want to be understanding, and we don’t want to be the one who cuts off their opportunities. But do excuses really provide support? At what point do these crutches become crippling?

There’s always a reason for a child’s behavior. It’s important to understand the reason, but it’s equally important to remember that a reason is not an excuse.

There’s a girl in my class with atrocious handwriting. "Illegible" is a gentle word to describe her work. We joke about it, and tease her, and ask her to take her time and write carefully.

“Maybe if I had a mother who had taught me that, I would have better handwriting!” she exclaims. She has been in and out of foster care for years. She has an explanation for her bad handwriting -- but when does it become an excuse that inhibits her ability to communicate for the rest of her life?

“Being a jerk is not a disability,” one teacher said to me about a boy who was cursing, bullying and harassing students during class. He was a special education student, and often this status was used as an excuse for his behavior. But what type of future are we setting him up for if we allow him to act in a way that will not be accepted once the training wheels of middle school have been removed?

Sometimes it feels as though our responsibilities as teachers overlap and cancel one another out. We must understand the kids, and work to find ways for them to succeed, to overcome their demons. Simultaneously, we must draw lines, set limits, show them the difference between right and wrong.

The real work is in figuring out where exactly to draw the line between accommodation and empowerment. At what point is it just too late to make up your work, or retake a test you should have studied for in the first place? When do we stop letting reasons be excuses, and start to teach kids about taking responsibility for themselves?

It feels like we have succeeded only when they succeed. But maybe there is failure on the path to success. Sometimes a child has to fail in order to discover the line that he cannot cross.

“That other girl got me angry! She was telling me to be quiet when I was just asking a question, and I was gonna get in a fight. I was gonna fight her! So I left instead! I left so I wouldn’t fight her.” A girl was proudly explaining to me why she was in the hall instead of science class.

She had a reason to be upset. But she let it be an excuse to stay out of class. She would miss the lesson that day rather than learn to suck up her anger, or deal with it later, or express it healthily. So she missed a day that she won’t get back.

Finding the measure of an angle is of the utmost importance only until the day after the big test. Really educating a child involves preparing them to be successful in life. Really educating a child means teaching them to overcome.

When it comes to this, maybe we need to lead by example.