Captain Awesome: I Worked at a “No Excuses” Charter School and Here’s What I Know Now
Captain Awesome is the pen name of a teacher who works in an urban charter school. Here she reflects on her experience in a No Excuses charter.
What “no excuses” schools fail to recognize is the difference between excuses and reasons.
If I’m late to work because I stopped to buy a coffee, that’s an excuse. I should have left earlier or survived without the extra hit of caffeine so I could be on time. If, however, my son’s school bus breaks down and I unexpectedly have to drive him to school, I’m not making excuses for being late. That’s a reason. It’s not something I could have avoided through more preparation or better planning; it’s an inconvenience that was outside my control. Schools often fail to differentiate between excuses and valid reasons a student is struggling.
Don’t get me wrong: I hear a million stupid excuses in the course of a day. Often they’re on par with “my dog ate my homework.” Sometimes they’re more legitimate—I was out late last night because of church—but are things kids could have planned for ahead of time. I spend a lot of time saying, “But you knew about this project/test/assignment three weeks ago!” Kids do have to learn to plan ahead and to take responsibility for their own work. But there is a difference between making excuses and explaining reasons, and we need to acknowledge that as teachers.
If a kid is out of uniform because they had to leave their apartment following a robbery at gunpoint, that’s a reason, not an excuse. A kid who can’t do their homework because they’re babysitting younger siblings has a reason, not an excuse. And kids who come to school hungry have an excellent reason for not being focused and ready to learn every minute of the day. Maybe you’re thinking, “Sure, but those are extreme situations. Most kids don’t have challenges like that!” But remember, “no excuses” schools cater to kids living in poverty—these problems are more common than you might think.
What we need is a “some excuses” policy.
Everybody needs grace and understanding. And everybody has emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. Every time I heard a colleague tell a student, “Your boss won’t care why you’re late to work,” it made me cringe. Is that really what we want for our kids? To grow up and work at a widget factory where the boss really won’t care about their sick child or their car accident on the way to work or their flooded apartment? Would we stay at a job that cared only about our productivity and not about our well-being? (Okay, maybe it’s safer not to answer that question.)
Accountability is important. So is recognizing systemic injustice when it makes it impossible—yes, impossible—for our students to succeed. Teaching students, especially the vulnerable kids who end up at “no excuses” schools, when to take responsibility and when to ask for help is crucial not just for their success, but for their survival. And only when we recognize the reasons our students struggle, rather than calling them excuses, can we begin to provide the support they need.