An End to Enabling

This post is in response to “How Educators Sometimes ‘Enable’ Students (an Oldie but Goodie)” from the Marshall Memo sent on February 5, 2013, based on “‘Enabling’ Undermines Responsibility in Students” by Steven Landfried in Educational Leadership, November 1989 (Vol. 47, #3, p. 79-83).

As Kim Marshall writes, “In this 1989 Educational Leadership article, Wisconsin social studies teacher Steven Landfried writes candidly about teachers who are “enablers” – they let students (and colleagues) off the hook by allowing them to be lazy, avoid responsibilities, and miss out on opportunities for growth. Landfried is using the word enabling the way Alcoholics Anonymous uses it – synonymous with rescuing and coddling – for example, loaning money to a person with a drinking problem, paying their bills, doing their chores, or calling in sick for them.”

Dr. Carol Hansen

This is absolutely a wonderful commentary on enabling. It is just as current now as it was in 1989.

We recently took the Kansas City Leading Educators Fellows on a tour of successful urban schools in Chicago.

One of the key components of the Leading Educators program is a trip to visit high-achieving, complex, city schools that mirror the challenge our greater Kansas City teacher-leaders face each day. During this trip, I was able to see first-hand how these effective Chicago schools used non-negotiables with students and staff. Those schools did not “enable” students. Expectations were high and were met. This article emphasized that key take-away from our visit.

For example, I saw a teacher at one school we visited who upheld her expectations for completion of her assignment during class by stating, "You will not be able to take this home for homework. I expect you to get this done during this class period." And she stuck to that expectation. You could tell from the students’ attention to task that this was not a new requirement for them. When she reminded them of the completion requirement, there was a renewed urgency to finish their work.

At another Chicago public elementary school, the principal was very clear about her expectations about the use of anchor charts by teachers. Anchor charts are artifacts of classroom learning, used as a visual reference point for students as they move through learning.

There were anchor charts in all rooms, and students and teachers referred to them during lessons. One student pointed out to another student a piece of information on an anchor chart as that student struggled to answer a question. You could see students looking at the charts during the lessons. The principal stated that she believed in the power of anchor charts and she said that when she wasn't seeing them being implemented or used, she had a professional development (PD) session in which the use was explained and time was given to make them. Whether you believe in the use of anchor charts or not, you could tell this was a non-negotiable for the principal and she did professional development, provided support, and gave time for teachers to make the appropriate charts.

I think we have teachers who do let kids dawdle during class time and then allow them to turn in what they have done, many times poorly done or with surface-level responses, or take it home. In urban schools, we may “accept” or “enable” students to submit less than thorough and accurate work, rather than hold them to a higher bar. What I saw in these thriving and high achieving Chicago schools was the establishment of a community of learners, both students and staff, which accepted only rigorous and comprehensive work. The schools established a strong support system with interventions, support, and unfailing belief that urban students can succeed at high-level projects. The scores of these Chicago schools were very high, proving that we must “step it up” and not accept mediocrity.

Having said that, I believe that we as educators need to hold ourselves to a standard of meticulous attention to our instruction each day. We should not allow our peers to “just get by” in their teaching. We are a community of professionals. Let’s hold ourselves to the requirement to give 100% every day to our students and not enable any teachers or staff who don’t. Just as the medical profession polices its own, we need to do the same.

Congratulations to those teachers, leaders, and administrators who are already committed to serving our urban students. These students need our love, support, and high expectations, not our willingness to let them “get by.” I call for all of us to stop the enabling of students and staff.

In order for our education system to succeed, we all have to have the standard of constant rigor, no matter what.

– Carol Hansen, Lead Leadership Coach at Leading Educators - Greater Kansas City

Dr. Hansen has spent more than 25 years in public education as an elementary teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Michigan. She also served as the Director of The Leadership Institute at The Learning Exchange, an educational non-profit, in Kansas City, Missouri.