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The Most Difficult Question Teachers Face Right Now

By Angela Duckworth — May 20, 2020 2 min read
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How should I continue to set clear deadlines with students and also show them a little grace during this difficult time?

“This is probably the most difficult question teachers face right now.”

So said Phil Bressler when I asked how he would respond to this question. Phil has taught high school social studies in Maryland for more than 20 years and is someone I turn to when I find myself in an instructional conundrum.

Great teachers, including Phil, typically hold their students to the highest standards while also providing unconditional support.

But what does that look like when your students are dealing with challenges you can only begin to imagine?

“I’ve been keeping the same expectations for students’ achievement,” Phil says, “but I’m more flexible on how they get there. For instance, my students asked me to shorten classes from 50 to 40 minutes. So I did. And I now ask students to attend online classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only. On Tuesday and Thursday, there are taped lessons they can watch at their own time—which gives them more flexibility. And students who miss the live classes for whatever reason can watch a recording.”

This semester, I’m making similar adjustments for my students and, like Phil, am giving them the benefit of the doubt on missed classes, as well as late assignments.

“But I also think this is a time that we really need to support students,” Phil says. “I offer one-on-one meetings plus office hours. Sometimes I just reach out by email to see how students are doing. I have noticed even some of my best students just need some reassurance. And you know what? So do I. I let them know that.”

Phil says that “95 percent of students are doing a great job under the circumstances. A couple who fell off track without any excuses came back on board when I contacted them. It is important for the students to feel you are concerned about them, not trying to punish them.”

Here’s how he sums up his thinking: “My mantra right now is to err on the side of compassion. Don’t worry that if you give kids an inch, they’ll take a mile. Don’t worry that the word will get out that you can hand things in late and all the kids will take advantage of you. I don’t see that happening.”

Like Phil, I don’t think a little grace with deadlines and attendance sends the message that anything goes. Instead, it says that we’ll all learn what we need to learn, even if how we get there may be a little different from what we’d expected.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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