We Need to Be More Flexible Than Ever in Our Expectations of Students

The case for “must dos” and “may dos.”

A young boy using laptop while drawing a sketch on book at home.
Front view of African american boy using laptop while drawing a sketch on book at home

I don’t know about you, but I worry that we are asking too much of ourselves and our kids right now. As we get ready to go back to school, the decision fatigue, multi-tasking, and worry is keeping me up at night. I wonder: how much longer can we keep this up?

I would argue that we can’t do it all (and neither can our kids). When schools closed down last spring I appreciated how my kids’ teachers went above and beyond to provide sample schedules, activities, and online lessons. But here’s the thing: we couldn’t get through it all. It was too much. That’s why I am making a case for something I call “must dos” and “may dos.” Here’s why. 

Am I Asking Too Much of My Students? 

One of the teachers I coach came to a meeting with the question, “am I asking too much of my students?” She shared a choice board with nine assignments on it. She assigned it to her middle schoolers on Monday, and it was due on Friday.

Here’s what I asked her:

  • How much time do you think each activity takes vs. how much time it actually takes students?
  • When you designed the activities who or what did you have in mind? (A particular student? A group of students? Yourself? The standards?)
  • Do students have the ability to access the resources and do the activities at home? 
  • Have you asked your students for feedback? What has their experience with the choice board been like?


What Happens When You Ask Students To Do It All


We decided her next steps were to survey her students. She was shocked to find that an activity she thought would take fifteen minutes took many students over an hour. This teacher was surprised that not all students could access the online tools the activities required at home. And not all of her students had a family member or a caretaker that could give them feedback or partner with them on an activity.

This teacher had good intentions. She wanted her students to have opportunities for choice, and she was eager to provide them with different ways to learn and show what they learned. Here was the problem: she wasn’t taking into account that this choice board was just one of many items on students’ to do lists.

She was asking her students to do it all. Her students were doing what they could.

How To Use “Must Dos” and “May Dos” 

We began to re-design the activities with equity and accessibility in mind. Then, we looked at the list together, and decided that three of the activities were “essential” or “must dos” and the rest were “nice to haves” or “may dos.” We decided what was required based on standards, the curriculum, and grade level core academic skills. Our ideas for optional assignments were based on activities students loved in the past, what technology was available, and opportunities for creativity. 

Students now have flexibility. While they are required to complete three activities each week, the rest are optional. Some students only do the “must dos” while others complete a “may do” as well. A few do all nine assignments. It varies each week. She no longer worries that she is asking her students to do too much.

We All Need Flexibility Right Now

Like her, I wonder, “Are we asking too much of our students?” “Are we asking too much of ourselves?” We all need flexibility right now. We are trying to teach and parent and work and learn during an unprecedented global pandemic. So instead of asking ourselves and our kids to “do it all,” how about we break it down using “must dos” and “may dos”? 

I would argue that our “must dos” right now are making sure kids are safe, fed, and cared for. What if every teacher and every family was given a list of “must dos” and “may dos” instead of a set of unrealistic expectations that sets us all up to fail? When you provide your students with “must dos” and “may dos” you are teaching them an important life-skill: you can’t always do it all. Sometimes, just do what you can.

What are your thoughts on Must Dos and May Dos? Share on our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group.

Plus, Are Children Really That Resilient?

We Need to Be More Flexible Than Ever in Our Expectations of Students