I Tried Giving My Students the Benefit of the Doubt. Here’s What Happened

We all need to give ourselves a break.

I decided to try something new as a teacher this year. I decided to believe that my kids are doing the best they can. Any suspicion or, hell, evidence to the contrary, I’d just remain firm in my conviction that the kids want to be successful and are working toward that the best way they know how with the tools they’ve got.

I mean, sometimes if you walked into my classroom, it would look like I was the worst teacher ever. I scream at my kids. Two-thirds of the class fails a test. A really great lesson falls flat because I can’t carry it off. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing my best. My best might be limited on any given day by a new school policy or the beginnings of a cold or a rough night with my own kid at home, but my intentions are still good. I’ve gotten better at not berating myself for my many failures. So I decided I’d extend that same generosity toward the kids this year, and it’s really revolutionized how we interact.

Before:

Guys, I don’t get it. We’ve gone over types of clauses three times this week and you’re still not getting it! I need you to take a minute and focus, actually focus, on what I’m saying, because if we don’t get this figured out, there’s no way you’re going to pass the standardized test. I can’t learn this for you. You have to actually try.

Now:

Okay. So we’ve been over this a bunch of times, and it’s not clicking. I need you to tell me what will help you learn this, because I know you’re trying and I think we’re all getting frustrated with it. Do we need to find a way to focus better, do we need to try learning it a different way, or do we need to take a break and come back to it? Take a minute and write down in your journals what you need in order to learn independent and dependent clauses.

Before:

Dude, this is the second time you’ve fallen asleep in class today. I’m so sorry that I’m apparently not worthy of your attention. I guess you can learn it next year when you’re back in my class, because apparently you don’t care enough about it to even attempt to pass. I’m tired of busting my butt trying to help you understand this stuff when you don’t even care enough to stay awake.

Now:

So, you’re really tired. What’s going on? You can talk to me or write about it, but I need to understand why you’re struggling so much in my class. Also, I need you to stand up for the rest of this class period so I don’t lose you again.

Before:

Wow, guys. You totally blew off the benchmark test, and now we get to back over everything we’ve learned about grammar, since you made it look like you remember nothing! Way to go! Won’t this be fun?

Now:

Okay. Looking at these benchmark scores, I don’t feel like they accurately reflect what you guys can do. It looks to me like you blew it off. I need to understand if you really don’t get this stuff, or if you just had an off day and need to take the test again to show me that you understand it.

 

The responses I get have been enlightening, to say the least. The kids don’t understand clauses because I was moving too quickly.  The kid who kept falling asleep? Working nights with his dad cleaning restaurant kitchens until 3:00 am. As for the benchmark test (which they completely blew off), they’d had two tests earlier that day and had accurately surmised that this benchmark, which didn’t affect their grades, required the least effort from them. They weren’t being lazy; they were prioritizing, just like adults.

Sometimes the kids really aren’t giving me their best. That happens a lot, just like anywhere else. But now I confront that situation with the attitude that if I’m not getting their best, it’s because their resources are depleted in some way, not because they don’t care about being successful. I’m still holding them accountable; I still expect them to help find a way to remove whatever obstacles stand between them and their true best effort.

This system isn’t perfect; I screw up all the time. I deliver impassioned whole-class lectures about how I can’t want success for them; they have to want it themselves…you know the drill. I forget about this commitment I’ve made to give them the benefit of the doubt. But when I drop the ball, they’re usually very forgiving.  After all, they know we’re all doing the best we can.

Give students benefit of doubt

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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