19: No Excuses

19: No Excuses

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

No Excuses

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

~Ralph Nichols

Early in my teaching career, I heard countless excuses — most of them fabricated, many of them amusing — for why students didn’t have their homework. And, yes, “the dog ate it” was one of them. As time passed and I grew less gullible, I grew weary of hearing “I don’t have my homework because…”

And so I quit accepting any excuse other than a verifiable death in the family.

When I was transferred to an inner-city middle school, I took my no-nonsense attitude with me. “No excuses, no extensions!” I warned my eighth graders on the first day of school. I collected homework at the beginning of each class. When a student didn’t have it, I never asked why. Instead, I sighed loudly, shook my head in dramatic disgust and — with the student looking on — recorded a zero in the grade book. I soon gained the reputation I thought I wanted.

Then, one afternoon, shortly after the dismissal bell rang, Anthony approached me. “Could I talk to you a minute?” he asked shyly, not taking his eyes off the floor. “I know you said it doesn’t matter why we don’t have our lessons done, but I don’t want you to think I’m a slacker because I come to school without mine so often.”

Anthony looked up at me for the first time, and I could see that his lower lip was quivering. “It’s just that… well, my dad moved out, and my mom waits tables at night, so I have to take care of my little brothers. Sometimes they cry a lot, and it makes it hard to concentrate.”

I put my hand on Anthony’s thin shoulder. “Why are you just now telling me…?” I stopped in mid-sentence. I knew why. So I changed the question. “Would it help if you stayed here in my classroom after school and worked on it before you go home?”

He swallowed hard and nodded.

The next day, I announced to all my students that I’d be offering an after-school study hall Monday through Friday. Anthony was the first student to show up. A couple of days later, Terrell joined him. Then Carmen, followed by twins Sandy and Randy. Before long, I had a room full of eighth graders who sometimes stayed until five o’clock to work on their lessons. I never asked why any of them were there, but I soon had a large collection of “I don’t have my homework because…” stories. All were very real. None were amusing. Among the most poignant:

• The power company cut off our lights because my dad couldn’t pay the bill.

• We had to go get my sister out of jail again.

• My mom’s boyfriend locked me out of the house so I spent the night in the car.

• My dad says schoolwork is just a waste of time.

• We don’t have any paper in the house.

The things I learned that year weren’t taught in the education classes I’d taken in college. I discovered that not all kids come from homes that are safe and warm and dry. Not all kids have a quiet bedroom with a desk and study light and plenty of school supplies. Some don’t have a home where a parent is even around. And some kids really do go to bed hungry.

Most importantly, I learned that “I’ll listen” works a whole lot better than “No excuses!”

~Jennie Ivey

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