Of all the words that are used in education circles there is one which tops out all the others because of its sheer destructive force. It is a word that makes all other words cringe in fear. It is a word that is divisive, that is cruel, that invites laziness and derision. It is worse than “tracking”, worse than “punishment”, worse even than these three words put together: “emergency staff meeting” on a sunny Saturday morning.
Are you ready? Let me put my haz-mat gloves on. … Here we go: should. Seriously. Should. It’s a horrible, horrible word and needs to be banned.
Don’t believe me? Want to know why? Should is used by teachers or professors when they are frustrated by their students, parents, or administration. It sounds like this: “They should know that when they come into a classroom they should put their cell phones away.” Sound familiar? I know I’ve said it.
But what does it really mean? It means that, in this case, the students are not meeting the expectations of the teacher. Furthermore, it means that these expectations are ones that the teacher does not think (or, more appropriately, does not feel) they need to explain. These are expectations that the teacher thinks are common enough norms that they don’t have to explain and are royally cheesed-off that they might have to.
Should is used in the staff room or at liquid staff meetings (Friday evenings in the pub) to garner support from other teachers. It’s basically asking that all the other teachers nod their heads, jump on the band wagon, and slag off their students to the appreciation of all the other teachers there. Sometimes it even becomes a pissing match between teachers about the depths to which they have to sink in order to educate these boils on the bottom of humanity. And as a way of burning off the trials and tribulations of the week, it’s not even that effective. I know because I’ve tried. I always come away wishing I hadn’t been there at all.
But this is fairly innocuous. Teachers can be forgiven for Friday afternoon bitch sessions. What I can’t forgive teachers and professors for is when they allow the word should to interfere with good teaching. I’ll give you an example: “My students should know how to use a comma”. Really?
What is being said here is that the teacher or professor expects that no matter what the students’ former education, no matter where they come from, what their home languages are, no matter their health histories, personal histories, no matter where they live, or what stresses they have been under, it is those students’ job to make sure that when they walk into my classroom, they can use the comma perfectly. It is their fault that they don’t know this. It is their fault that I have to work harder.
Then the teacher or professor has a choice to make. The choice between teaching how to use a comma or simply ignoring the problem, or worse yet, grading the students as if they did know how to use a comma and are simply choosing to do it wrongly. Or the Pythagorean theorem. Or how to take notes. Or how to create a Word document. Or how to ask for help. Or how to format an essay. Or how to find for x. Or how to not plagiarize. Or how to …. Or how to …. Or how to ….
Let the whining begin. “But it’s not in my syllabus!” So what? “But it takes time away from my curriculum!” So what? “But it’s not my job to teach them that!” So what? “It’s their former teacher’s fault for not teaching them this!” So you want to perpetuate that crime, ultimately dooming them to repeating the mistake over and over because you won’t even tell them that they need to go look up how to use commas? No, because they should know it. And you’ve just lost all of my respect.
Teaching is binary. (Unless you are a professor, and you rely heavily on the Latin definition as a person who professes, and your only job is to stand up and spew forth what you have learned. As opposed to a teacher, the definition of which is to cause or help (a person or animal) to learn how to do something by giving lessons, showing how it is done, etc.) In this case, your students either know it or they don’t. Binary. On or off. Do they or don’t they? There is no place for an emotional reaction, and it only tires you out. If they know it, move on. If they don’t know it, teach it and move on. There is no room for should in the classroom.
When I first taught English as a Second Language, it was in Japan. I was hired by a University, Women’s College, and a High School. Almost all of my students had from six to eight years of English before they darkened my door. And they could barely hold a conversation. They did not know how to pronounce the alphabet, to the extent that playing Hangman was out of the question. (At some point I will tell you that story.) Not only that, but we were not allowed to fail them. I used up my lifetime supply of shoulds before I even started a credential program. And once I gave up trying to reassure myself that it wasn’t my fault that their spoken English was so bad, and I gave up my preconceived ideas about what a speaker of English with eight years of tuition should be like, I started to actually teach.
Give it up. Burn it. Drown it. Let the word should fall from your vocabulary into the deepest, darkest cavern on the ocean floor for now and forever more. Focus on what is or what isn’t. Find ways to turn what hasn’t been learned into what has. Students do not come prepped and ready just for you. You form yourself to them.
This is a tall order because should is so insidious. Still, try to stop using it. If you struggle, start by raising a little flag in your head every time you hear yourself use the word. Try to restate your idea without it. My friend told me about the strategy of snapping a rubber band on your wrist whenever you think of doing something bad for you, but that might be overkill. What you will find is that the blame and guilt associated with it drop away, too. And we can all use less of those.
I know you can do it.