Teaching Personal Responsibility

Watching the football game http://barnimages.com/

But thinking about what she said, it occurred to me that my contribution might be more nuanced than I realized. I help students structure their efforts and find the points of maximum leverage. I also help define their problems and lay out the process to solving them.

These are difficult tasks to perform when you are in the midst of the work, so having someone to do that for you is actually extremely valuable.

But when it comes down to it, it's the student who wins or loses based on how well they prepared and how hard they worked. Not us teachers. We are somewhat insulated from the fallout of the student's failures. I get to go home the night before the big test and relax. They have to get ready for a morning that could determine if they get into the school they want or their safety.

And as much as I'd like to take the test for them, as much as I want them to do well, nothing I can do will make them do the work. I inspire, I reason, I persuade, I incentivize, I push, sometimes I even trick. But in the end, it's the student's choice to ask questions, to do the work, and to pay attention.

At first, this was scary to me. I wanted to have control: "If I could just control these kids' minds, I could make sure they do everything right and get the score they want."

But it didn't work, of course. I just stressed myself out and didn't help the students at all.

I learned that they are wholly responsible for their success. So that's how I treated them.

"Sorry I didn't do my homework."

"Don't be. It makes no difference to me. You're the one taking the test."

I don't actually say that, because it does make a difference to me, because I DO CARE.

However, as a recovering-straight-A student, I know the difference between feeling a personal investment in my learning (I didn't) and doing the homework to maintain my GPA/work the system/please my teachers.

Now, I make it as clear as possible to every kid that the homework itself doesn't matter; it's what they learn that matters.

This is not something many kids are comfortable with, but they get the message pretty quick.

I think it's important that a teacher has this attitude and conveys it to his or her students for several reasons.

It protects you

If you're not careful, coaching and teaching can be an emotional rollercoaster. If you are personally invested in every student and sympathize (rather than empathize) with them, you will be taken for a ride.

Some are going to do well, and some aren't. If you base your personal well-being and emotional stability on that, you will be up and down as many times as you meet a new student during a day. That makes it difficult (not impossible) to do your job well.

It holds the student accountable

As a kid, I had the attitude that others were responsible for my success. If I failed, it was my teachers' faults. When I failed my private pilot oral exam, at first I was angry at my instructors for not telling me what to expect or preparing me adequately. I was an excellent student (aka, I was great at following directions). I would have studied as hard as necessary and memorized the material, if only I'd been told what to do.

Of course, I had access to all the rulebooks specifying what the oral exam would cover, but it never occurred to me to do the research myself. I had teachers for a reason, right?

Then I realized it didn't matter because they weren't going to be denied their dream of learning to fly if I failed the exam a second time. I had better make sure I knew what I needed to, not rely on my teachers to do the legwork.

In the plane, in the real world, on the test, the teacher won't be there to help the student.

It gives the student the chance to feel real pride in their accomplishments

Just as a teacher can remind the student they might fail, and it's in their hands, they should remind the student that they might succeed, and the fruits of that success will be theirs to enjoy.

Our world is very well-outlined: society has done a lot to make the directions easy to find and easy to understand. And we're taught that if we follow the directions, we'll get what we deserve. This is safe, but just as it minimizes the possibility of falling through the cracks, it also robs us of the feeling of rising above the dust.

(It has other pitfalls too, like undermining everyone's ability to think for themselves, define their own problems, and come up with their own unique answers).

I didn't understand this for a long time. I didn't understand how I could have so many credentials to my name and yet feel no sense of pride or accomplishment.

The reason was that I hadn't learned to feel responsible for my life. As I said above, I felt my teachers were responsible for preparing me for college, and my professors were responsible for preparing me for jobs, and my parents were responsible for preparing me for my relationships.

I had never had any experience in defining my own problems and planning my own solutions to them. All the problems I'd solved were given to me by school, college, professors, and eventually jobs.

That's mostly my own fault, but I'll venture that the educational system I was in provided plenty of places for me to hide from my responsibility to myself. The message I got was, "Play by the rules and you'll be fine," not, "Learn what matters to you and how to accomplish it."

It's probably not surprising that becoming a pilot was the first accomplishment I felt proud of.

You can't have joy without sorrow. You can't be proud of yourself until you felt like you could have let yourself down.


The student who had succeeded always came to me with questions. She was actively engaged in defining her problems and finding solutions to them. Then, she would utilize me as a teacher ought to be utilized: as a guide to accomplishing her own goals, not as a source of directions for what those goals should be.

After I responded to my student's mom, I caught a glance of my student's face. She was beaming. Her success was her own. She did it. I was just there to help. That's enough for me.