We've Had Agency All Along
We were five minutes into our high school senior-level engineering design course when Amin (a pseudonym) walked into class late. A presentation had run long in his previous class, and he apologized when he came in.
I asked him, “What does the presentation running long have to do with your being late to this class?”
He was taken aback. “Um, the presentation ran long and I couldn’t leave to make this class on time.” He obviously felt called out and that he was getting into some kind of trouble. This particular school where I was working had demerits and detention to induce the right behaviors in students, though I maybe gave out two or three actual demerits in my seven years there (I gave them all in my first year).
I told him: “Amin, I don’t actually care that you’re late to class. I 100% trust you. But I do think there’s another level of honesty and awareness that you can get to with yourself and with me.”
So I asked my question again: “What does the presentation running long have to do with your being late to this class?”
He thought about it and then gave more reasons, each following by more questions from me:
“The teacher didn’t dismiss us until the presentation was over.” And couldn’t you have asked to leave when class ended?
“It would have been rude to leave the presentation early.” So?
“I didn’t want my peers and teacher to think I was rude.” Could you have cleaned up any sense of rudeness with them?
“Well, I guess. And I was actually interested in the presentation and wanted to stay.” What else?
The whole conversation took about 15 minutes of class. Initially, most of the class thought I was just being hard on Amin and that we were wasting class time. By the end of the conversation, though, I could tell that the students seemed to be starting to get something.
Amin wasn’t really getting it, though, so I asked other students to participate. What were they getting out of this conversation?
“Amin, you came in and basically blamed your last class for being late. Mick is trying to get you to just own up to the fact that you could have been on time, but it was your own actions that caused you to be late.”
Amin was an honest, thoughtful, kind, trustworthy, and hardworking student. I mean, he basically radiated integrity, maturity, and responsibility, and he had since freshman year. He was my advisee for two years, I taught him freshmen math, then I taught him for two years in this Engineering Design course. So when I told other teachers this story about him at lunch, they were shocked - you had that conversation with Amin??? You can't find a more honorable kid at the school!
And I told them: that’s exactly why I had the conversation with him. His baseline integrity was already solid, so we could go deeper. Why not reinforce that solid foundation. After all, a consistent appearance of integrity is not the same as actual integrity.
What I intended for Amin in that conversation was that he would get in touch with his real reasons for sticking around while the presentation ended. Yes, he could 100% still decide to stay in the presentation and be late to his next class. But at least then he would be clear that he had agency all along.
Our excuses and reasons are an easy way for us to avoid responsibility.
In my post last week on the question that always delivers insight, I shared about taking responsibility in a class of students. Only once after taking responsibility like that did a kid come up to me to challenge me on it: “You shouldn’t apologize. It makes you look weak.”
So I told him the truth: “Actually, taking responsibility is the most powerful thing I’ve ever done.”
Here’s what I want all my students to get by the end of high school: We tend to shy away from the truth because we think it will dictate our actions, when in fact integrity and responsibility free us to act from agency instead of leaving us at the effect of our reasons and excuses.
Responsibility: the capacity to respond.
Thanks for reading ❤️.
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