Regardless of the age, location or demographic one teaches, the first principle of all educators should be: do no harm.
So, yes, I borrowed this from the Hippocratic Oath—the oath physicians take before beginning their practice—and, yes, I can imagine a world where we educators take a similar oath before commencing our classroom practices. This particular component of an educator’s oath—let’s call it the Socratic Oath—is essential to keep in mind as too often teachers think their content and their curriculum and their assignments are the most important things in the universe and should be regarded as such by every student at all times. As a parent and facilitator of educational opportunities (the term “teacher” doesn’t work for me), I know this to be totally bogus. School is all too often an experience of being powerless in the face of adult domination which masquerades as guidance, and the young adults I teach seem to have picked up on this prior to their entering our classroom space as juniors and seniors.
“Do no harm”
This should be our first responsibility as educators so we do not force our Beowulf essay assignment down the throat of a student who has more pressing matters at home, like: being child-care providers for their siblings while mom works nights, performing in an off-school grounds performance space like a theatre, working late at Chipotle and then going to check in on their ill hospital-bed-confined granny afterwards. I’m not sure where you teach and work, but where I am in the city in Columbus, Ohio such occurrences are not as rare as we might hope. In fact, based on the evidence I have, at least a third of my students find themselves in comparable circumstances at home.
So what are we to do?
Do let them—at least occasionally—negotiate a mutually beneficial due date or altered task due to their circumstances. Some might call this differentiation or personalization, both of which are, of course, all the rave right now.
Do hold them accountable to the freshly negotiated due date and altered task. No one is saying allow them to do less, just to take a path more appropriate given their external challenges in life. They are, clearly, at a disadvantage in life compared to their non-swamped affluent suburban counterparts, but they won’t catch up taking zeroes for missing deadlines.
Do let them feel safe enough communicating with you to open up about their circumstances, not only to build and strengthen rapport but to foster your empathic drive as their instructor and—like it or not—as their mentor. Every adult mentors every young person each time they are observed adulting. The truth is, how we treat them and how we act as adults sticks with them far more than the objective we point at on the board and lecture about.
Do remind them that you want them to do the learning and to do the work as that is what is important—regardless of when it trickles into you. Your main focus should be to help them learn and grow as human beings, not to teach them to meet deadlines and rigidly imposed submission timelines. Yes, deadlines are important and in life, you have to meet them to survive and thrive. But, high school is not the time where meeting deadlines are the number one most important thing. The number one most important thing right now is to help our young people learn and grow a little every day, to aid them in working toward becoming their best self. Yes, that does eventually culminate in a conversation and expectations about the importance of meeting deadlines for school, work, and beyond. That said, some projects and a given student’s home situation may merit an extension. Teaching young people to negotiate for extensions hones their interpersonal persuasive skills as well as their ability to ask for what they want from a person in a position of power.
Doing no harm also implies breaking any and all rules imposed by any entity that may negatively affect your students. You must be their caretaker, the one looking out for them, their protector, even. You may have some problems in your lap as a result, but any administrator worth their salt should understand your move was out of respect for human dignity, and not malice.
As an example, I was once asked to have the students take their third practice ACT section test of the day. We had just spent the entire morning doing the same, and one more section may have emotionally broken this somewhat emotionally fragile group, so, I opted out. I technically didn’t do my job in that one brief moment and I’ve zero regrets. Instead, we discussed best practices like mindful meditation breathing for managing stress, anxiety, and typical young adult emotional mindsets like the fear of the future, the fear of failure, and the fear of not being successful—of not being enough. The conversation we had as a class far outweighed in value any practice ACT ever taken in history. Yes, practice tests are helpful and important, but, no, not in that moment. As the professional on duty that day I knew my students best and I made an executive decision. Later, I did, I admit, inform one of my principals just to be open and do my due diligence as a professional. Luckily—as I’ve no union protection—they understood and trusted that I made the best choice available at the moment for the people with whom I was teaching and learning in the room.
Do recall Maslow’s Hierarchy which, from this article’s vantage, suggests the deeper work we aspire to work through with students is not feasible until their physiological needs are met—such as working that evening job so they can contribute to the family’s food supply or for their rent payment. or be it helping their uncle move, and thus being unable to meet their research paper topic deadline, is important for their sense of belongingness and familial affection and adjusting this deadline to help them cope through such a moment is the humane thing to do—and I will always be a human being before I am a teacher.
For me, do no harm also suggests we must teach material that is directly related and applicable to their lives. Yes, it is our job to ensure this is happening and that we’ve properly persuaded students of the value of our current educational endeavor. As Simon Sinek suggests, explain “the why;” explain the reason behind the work in order to create more buy-in, trust, and engagement. We are teachers not just of content, but, more importantly, of life. Accordingly, we must give our students equipment for living in the context of our content areas every single day, not just when it is convenient or when it’s in the standards. These are standards, remember, ultimately dictated by politicians whose expertise is law, and not education or the advancement of human consciousness. That’s our expertise, and we should own that without apology.
The standards of every teacher, if they want to avoid doing harm, must include matters that directly give students the tools they will need now and in the future to create a meaningful and purposeful life. Indeed, utilizing the English Language Arts to make better decisions, to advance one’s personal perspective, agenda, and objective, to stretch toward self-actualization, and to become the best versions of ourselves as human doings—is at the very beating heart of my practice. May the blood-jet of your practice be the same and may our students all benefit, adding value to the world we make together.
Feature image courtesy of Unsplash, Clark Young.