Substitutes, bathrooms, and responsibilities

If you are a parent, you have likely gone out for a night and hired a babysitter. Who do we think of first as a babysitter? Perhaps our parents, but many of us think next about the responsible teenager who lives down the street. He or she is a great alternative if your parents are not available, and you want your children to be safe while you are out.


As a high school teacher, I have been able to choose so many of these responsible students, from sophomores to seniors. I have to admit, I really like it when they are of the age where they can drive themselves home at the end of the night, but I would have students from age 15 and up watch my children. With all the different teenagers I have had babysit my kids, I have never once worried about if they could make a decision about going to the bathroom, or leaving a room to get something they needed in another room, or even going out to their car to get something.


You may be wondering why those are the things I listed. These are the things we don’t trust students to do in schools. They have to ask permission before leaving the classroom to do any of these things, and in some cases they have to have an adult chaperone walk them to their car, and even sign a piece of paper to track where they are going. Maybe they even have to carry a piece of paper or an item to verify they have the permission to do so.


The issue I am addressing is why is there such a dramatic difference in trust offered in different scenarios. Many of the same students are working jobs where they have to collect money from strangers, but can’t go to the bathroom at school without permission.


I was talking to a student who told me this story about a time when their teacher did not show up, and the school did not realize there was no substitute monitoring the classroom.


I’d like to ask you to pause and think of where the story might head. Jot down a word to describe what the situation might look like. Really, do that, please.


Now, here is what happened: the students waited for an adult to come in for perhaps five minutes. When it was clear that no one knew what was going on with the class, one of the students suggested they go over the homework from the night before. He went to the board and did the math problem out for his classmates. When he was done, he asked who would like to do the next problem. After a while, as usually things happen, an administrator walked by and asked where the teacher was, or where the substitute was. The students said they didn’t know, and the administrator observing the class said, ‘carry on.’


Does this story match the word you wrote down?


It most certainly did not for me. I was ready for the student to describe chaos and mayhem, or at the very least the students leaving the room to go socialize somewhere. Then I thought about having the students be able to monitor their own time in that classroom, knowing it was up to them to decide how they would use the time. Of course, there is always the possibility that my vision would happen, but perhaps it was the leadership and ownership that teacher provided to the students that allowed them to feel empowered to make the right decision.


It’s at least worth considering, don’t you think? If we didn’t let them know that we trusted them, or given them the opportunity to trust them, they likely wouldn’t make the responsible choice this class made. But what if we did?


Could it be as simple as not requiring permission for them to leave the classroom? There are natural consequences of leaving class at a pivotal moment, just like there are natural consequences of taking your break when there is a long line of customers.


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