When is a Freshman Insubordinate?

Robert is a nice awkward kid who refused to do his research paper. Weeks went by and despite his proven ability to do the work, he refused to complete the paper. He and I met weekly for three weeks to talk about strategies. I wanted to understand the context of the kid. He listened, but still did nothing.

I was done so I decided to redefine his definition of insubordination.

You are insubordinate,” I said matter-of-factly.

He bauks as if I insulted him. Later his mother gently pushed back on the label. I stated my case: Robert listens and then refuses to do what the teacher asks, repeatedly. This is insubordination. In speaking to both student and parent this new context for insubordination was met with reluctant agreement.

I had the research paper in less than 24 hours.

If a student disrupts the learning of other students in the classroom and refuses the simple directives of the teacher, a student is insubordinate and redirected or removed.We all get that. Freshmen are not allowed to disrupt the learning of other freshmen.

Why are they allowed to disrupt their own learning? How long do we wait before we intervene? These are not easy questions, and they carry philosophical and psychological baggage that divide and motivate educators everywhere.

There are a least three reasons for this reluctance to expect students to do the work that is asked of them.

First, we are focused on the student. Maybe the assignment was not a good fit.Is the connect between task and learner compromised? Maybe something outside school is impacting performance.

Second, “everyone” is not doing it. There is a critical minority of freshmen who do not do their homework. Sending the whole group to the office would prove time consuming and, because of the realities of home, often fruitless. Teachers pick their battles. Buildings pick their battles.

Third, we as teachers don’t step up and value what we teach. That’s a bit edgy, but hear me out. If we truly believed what we taught was critical to student success, would we allow it to go undone? If a student can’t breathe, we get them oxygen and do whatever is necessary to attend to that. When does a task, an objective, a concept become like oxygen for a learner?

What if we put in place supports to give teachers the ability to demand what is assigned? Would education get worse? Would learning decrease? Would parents boycott the school?

As I unlocked my door this morning, I was greeted by a student. The realities of the year’s end was apparent on the young man’s face. He declared to me that he would now start coming to after-school tutoring. His epiphany will likely prove too little too late.

What if we had sent him to the office as insubordinate when his first assignment was found missing? Would he have been at my door this morning on the verge of failure? Had we raised the bar of expectation, would he be passing today?