I teach all levels of writing – developmental (which we used to call remedial), composition, technical writing, and in the fall, creative writing. Each of these courses requires a different level of standards and expectations, and sometimes even my best laid plans of attendance and late work policies fall short. Students don’t have their papers on time; students don’t come to class; students don’t do their reading; students don’t engage in discussions. Students don’t do a lot of things.

Eventually, Andi doesn’t get things done on time; Andi doesn’t want to come to class (but does because she’s paid to do it); Andi doesn’t give the reading as much attention as she probably should; Andi wants to bail on discussions, too. How do I hold myself to a higher level of accountability than I can hold them when all my best efforts seem to fall short?

Over the years of my teaching career – some eight years in all – I’ve learned some coping strategies. 1. I don’t take late work, except in the week before Spring Break when I’m tired and can’t deal with explaining my policy and seeing the disappointed look again. 2. There is no such thing as an excused absence, except when you have a home baseball game or get food poisoning. 3. Reading quizzes are a good way to guarantee that students read, except that then I have to grade them all later. 4. Discussions are always valuable, except when they’re not because no one has done or understands the reading.

In the end, all my policies have exceptions, and I leave school some days wondering if I’m holding my students or myself accountable enough. Am I teaching them, as so many have before me, that you can get away with things if you whine enough or wear your teacher down enough? Or am I teaching them that there are exceptions to every rule in life, an idealistic if not realistic truth? Or am I simply not living up to my own standards because I have too many other things to hold myself and them accountable for?

How do I balance the need to teach them life skills and responsibility with the need to show compassion to them and to myself at times? This may be the fundamental struggle of any teacher.