I worked at a “no excuse” charter school and here’s what I know now

“Excuses are a tool for the weak and incompetent. I am not weak or incompetent! Therefore, I will not use excuses. “I used to hear that mantra in my next room every morning. It seemed to be a positive message of empowerment and sometimes, for some children it was. Was.

“No excuses” schools exist across the country, often as part of charter school networks such as KIPP. They are usually concentrated in urban areas, serve mostly low-income students and families of color, and generally boast of high test scores. There has been a lot of emphasis on the belief that all students can succeed and that, my administrators told me, “we sweat the little things so we don’t have to sweat the big things.” In everyday practice, it means spending money A lot Remind children to keep straight, silent lines and face forward over time.

“No excuses” schools are usually the school of choice, which means parents choose these schools for opportunities, safety and quality of education.

And some hype is completely accurate. These schools have high achievement statistics, focus on college preparation, and provide a safe and orderly place for students who might not otherwise have it. In my school, one third of our student organizations went to private high school after graduating eighth grade. Every year in May, my social media is full of pictures of their college graduates. I have found that the emphasis on personal accountability shifts children from dependent, indifferent students to confident and motivated young people. They felt empowered by the message that they were ultimately responsible for their success. For other students, the results were not so positive.

The problem is, in the end, people are not always personally responsible for their successes or failures.

When we tell kids that their future is in their hands alone, we ignore the structural problems that stand in their way. After all, if it were all intellectualism, anyone would be able to go to Harvard if they wanted it too badly, wouldn’t they? No excuses! A child sleeping in class because he works at night with his mother and only gets four hours of sleep? No excuses! If she is motivated enough, she will take her head off her desk, concentrate on class, and do two hours of homework each night, in addition to earning money to help her family survive.

When we claim that the only element of a student’s relative success is their motivation, we remove a large part of their identity and experience. Disabilities, neuropathy, poverty, learning styles or cultural differences in interactions — these are all considered irrelevant. Worse, we send the underlying message that if students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, their parents had a “grit”, lack of intelligence or drive. If your dad is an Uber driver, it doesn’t matter that he was an Eritrean engineer. There is no excuse for living below the poverty line.

What the “no excuse” school fails to recognize is the difference between excuse and reason.

If I’m late for work because I stopped buying a coffee, that’s an excuse. I should have left earlier or survived without the added harm of caffeine so I could stay on time. However, if my son’s school bus breaks down and I have to take him to school unexpectedly, I’m not making excuses for being late. That’s one reason. It’s not something I could have avoided through more preparation or better planning; This was a problem that was beyond my control. Schools often fail to distinguish between excuses and valid reasons that a student is struggling.

Don’t get me wrong: I hear a million silly excuses a day. Often they equate “my dog ​​ate my homework”. Sometimes they are more valid — I was out late for church last night — but what can the kids plan ahead of time? I spend a lot of time saying, “But you knew about this project / test / assignment three weeks ago!” Kids need to learn to plan ahead and take responsibility for their own work. But there is a difference between making excuses and explaining the reasons and we as teachers have to accept that.

If a child is out of uniform because they had to leave their apartment after a robbery at gunpoint, that is a reason, not an excuse. There is a reason why a baby cannot do their homework because they are babysitting younger siblings, not an excuse. And the kids who come to school hungry have a great reason for not paying attention and not being ready to learn every minute of the day. You may be thinking, “Of course, but those are extreme situations. Most kids don’t have that kind of challenge!” But remember, “no excuses” schools cater to children living in poverty – these problems are more common than you might think.

All we need is a “some excuse” policy.

Everyone needs grace and understanding. And everyone has an urgent and unexpected situation. Every time I hear a coworker say to a student, “Don’t worry about why your boss is late for work,” it annoys me. Is this what we really want for our kids? Growing up and working in a widget factory where bosses really don’t care about their sick child or their car accident on the way to work or their flooded apartment? Will we be in a job that only cares about our productivity and not about our well-being? (Okay, maybe it’s safe not to answer that question.)

Accountability is important. So when it comes to acknowledging systematic injustice, it makes it impossible – yes, Impossible– For our students to succeed. Teaching students, especially vulnerable children who end up in “no excuses” school, when to take responsibility and when to ask for help is important not only for their success, but also for their survival. And only when we recognize Because Our students struggle instead of calling them Excuse meCan we start providing them with the support they need?

Have you worked at a “no excuse” charter school? What are your thoughts on such a model? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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