01/29/2013 07:52 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Do We Value Student Compliance or Student Empowerment?


It's lovely when students value the learning opportunities available to them. How should we respond when they don't?

[Note: All of the names in the following sequence have been changed, except mine, of course.]

My program offers one-on-one tutoring in a range of subjects for students who want it. One of my math tutors, Samantha, was away for most of January, so I got a sub for her students. Samantha has one student in particular, Emmanuel, who is not strong in math, but works on it diligently with her support. It doesn't come easy for him, and it's not something he would do for fun. But he's committed to improving his skills so he meets with his tutor regularly and does his best.

I set Emmanuel up with Kris, the sub, for January. I was expecting that Emmanuel and Kris would work together for the duration of Samantha's absence.

I checked with Emmanuel in the morning after his first session with the sub. "How did it go?" I asked. Without hesitation he replied, "Well, I didn't like Kris. She wasn't patient and calm with me the way Samantha is. She wasn't mean or anything, but she was pushy and basically made me feel like I'm stupid. She just didn't give me the kind of support and encouragement that makes me feel capable the way Samantha does."

"Oh no!" I said. "I'm sorry to hear that it didn't go well. I really like Kris and thought that she would work well with you. But it sounds like it was a bad match. It's OK, though, I can schedule you with a different sub."

But he had had enough of my guesswork. "No thanks," he said. "I think I'll just put math on hold until Samantha comes back."

Emmanuel is 13 years old and he has learned to advocate for himself.

As the program director, I felt beholden to his parents. I had said that he would be having math tutoring. I worried that it would reflect poorly on the program if the math wasn't happening. I was faced with a choice. Should I bribe, cajole, or threaten him into doing his math? Or not?

As teachers and parents we're not surprised when some kids don't want to do their math, but we often think that it's our job to make them do it anyway.

Is it? Is it my responsibility to dismiss his opinion and his choices?

Emmanuel and I discussed it for another minute, but he was resolved. "It's OK," he said. "It's not a big deal to wait." I agreed with him. It's not a big deal to wait.

Which is more valuable: a few weeks of resentful multiplication review, or maintaining trust and respect in my relationship with him? Which should I prioritize: my convenience and desire to tell his parents that yes, he's working on math, or his confidence and burgeoning ability to identify and communicate his requirements for learning? For me (and Emmanuel), the answers to these questions are obvious.

Today happened to be Samantha's first day back. Emmanuel was happy to see her. They had their appointment, and he picked up where he left off a few weeks ago, empowered and confident.