Teacher Spotlight: No Excuses

Ok, it’s been a little longer than I hoped for to get this post published.  I could tell you about the holidays, developing lesson plans for the upcoming semester, blah, blah, blah.  But, the reality is I was just too lazy to sit my but down and commit to keeping up on my blog.  But I guess this “preface” is appropriate to the topic at hand…

Probably one of the best lessons I learned as a student came from one of my non-English teachers (you know, it is possible to learn from those instructors too!-):  No excuses.  Fleshed out a bit more, this was a two-year long lesson in letting one’s efforts speak for itself and not trying to “soften the blow” or somehow deflect taking full responsibility for missing the mark due to poor performance.  And this isn’t to say that I haven’t given an excuse on occasion for why something did or did not happen (feel free to ask my wife!), but I can say it has certainly shaped my general work ethic from that point onward.

It’s never an easy thing to admit: I used to give excuses for nearly everything.  Sure, I generally worked hard, behaved more often than not, and presented myself as a pleasant enough student in class.  If a homework assignment was late, I usually felt I either had a good reason or deserved a “pass” since I was doing what I needed to most of the time.  My overall good behavior should cancel out any inconsistencies.  Plus, I did put in a good effort and that was supposed to makeup for the occasional bad assignment through the miraculous appearance of extra credit or extensions.  And as a teacher now, I understand the desire to (at times) let the “good” kids slide a little as a means of keeping them on the “good” side through out the semester.  But who is really being helped in that situation?  The student learns deadlines don’t really count… and the teacher doesn’t have to be the bad guy (or gal).

And I’m not saying this particular teacher didn’t give me a freebie when the situation warranted it… but more often than not, I was challenged to either do it or show up with it done–whatever the “it” was at the given time.  No excuses.  No matter how many valid reasons or legitimate concerns I brought up, it was always the same:  No excuses.

“The dry cleaners didn’t have my uniform ready”

“Another excuse?”

“It’s not my fault the drill turned out the way it did.  Those people weren’t following the orders like I gave them.”

“Really?  Another excuse?”

And I’m embarrassed to say that I could go on.  Smart students would have figured it out sooner.  It took me the better part of two years to figure out they weren’t going to fly.  What I didn’t realize until well after graduation that what I perceived as someone “gunning” for me was actually someone preparing me.  New lieutenants make mistakes: it’s in their blood and I was no exception to this fact.  What I found was my commanders knew this rule as well and wanted junior officers who were looking to improve–not point out who or what caused their failure to deliver.  I’d like to think most who I worked with while in the service found me someone who actively looked to improve on past performances.  I hope that my fellow teachers found me to be someone who spent less time blaming others for my own shortfalls and worked on ways to bridge the gap that faced us.

I’ll still toss out an excuse now and then.  Old habits are hard to break.  But instead of saying: “These students are beyond hope.  They’re just not getting the material,” maybe it’s time to ask myself:

“Really?  Another excuse?”

Sure, some students don’t always “get it”… and sometimes, it’s me, the teacher, who needs to think a little harder about what I’m doing.  Is there something I did that confused them?  So sure–one in a great while, I’ll toss my students a freebie because I make mistakes and need to own it.  Cutting them a little slack when the situation dictates can be the right move.  But too often, I think, accepting excuses on a regular basis and allowing good behavior to regularly stand in for performance does our students more harm in the long run.



About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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