Inspired might be the wrong word for me to use here. So let’s use provoked. Provoked by some of my students on the day their essays were due, I took to Twitter and asked, “What’s the difference between a reason and an excuse?” I got some really great responses and it pushed me to think about how I interact with my students but also how I view my own work (or sometimes lack thereof).
For me, one of the biggest issues is the unwillingness some students have to take responsibilities for their own...shortcomings. It’s always someone or something else’s fault, and when all else fails, blame technology. And I realize that many of my students face structural and social issues that are legitimate reasons why work was late, done improperly, etc, but at a certain point…
Take for example a student of mine who emailed me to let me know that she would not be attending class because it was "too cold outside." This particular student lived some distance from campus and only had a bicycle for transportation. It was the fall semester and the weather had turned cold. Her class with me was at 8:00, compounding the cold with darkness and general unpleasantness. On the one hand, this student was trying to live within their means and perhaps couldn't even afford a coat. On the other...it's fall in Kentucky; what did they think was going to eventually happen? At this point, it was only October, and the weather wasn't going to get any warmer, the days even shorter, but there was half a semester left of classes.
Legitimate reasons can often morph into excuses if left unchecked. A student who never checks their school email quickly goes from a reason in Week 1 to an excuse in Week 8. Or that computer that never seems to work quite right, as once you figure it out, it might be time to build time into your schedule to head to the many, many computer labs available on campus. And maybe that’s the most frustrating part to me, how the reasons (however legitimate) can turn into, or at least start sounding an awful lot, like excuses.
A recent “fitspiration” poster, “What’s Your Excuse?” caused a minor uproar on Facebook (yes, there are still people there). In a nutshell, a mother of three posed with rock-hard abs and her small children, chiding the rest of us for not having the same body/discipline/attitude. The link above does a great job of showing that there are legitimate reasons that a lot of women can’t look that way, with or without kids. Even more galling to me is in her non-apology, the author of the picture kept reiterating that it’s just that easy.
I bring this up, however, not just to show how complicated differentiating these days between a reason and an excuse, but also to remind myself to be more patient with my students, because maybe it isn’t just that easy for them, in the same way it isn’t easy for me to rock six-pack abs. I don’t want to try to motivate them by shaming them, or by dismissing or belittling the real challenges they face. But I do want to help them improve and take responsibilities for the things they can control to do the best they can, perhaps even better than they thought they could.
That, to me, is what an educator should do. And that really isn’t easy.