Thursday, October 6, 2022

A No-Cost Gift Schools Can Give To All Students


It's been seven years since Robert Putnam published Our Kids, a book that laid out a lot of depressing evidence that the wealthy of this country are, in every way, leaving the poor behind. 

One of the things that wealthy families have that poor families do not is what you can think of as either a big web or a large account of social capital. It's a web of connections, the ability to call a guy, the chance to get some slack in a difficult situation. You can think of it as privilege or social capital or simply the power of family reputation. 

It shows up in a variety of ways. Some are extra bonuses, like having the right web of connections to get your kid extra help with an area of his or her interest (Little Pat is suddenly interested in widgets, and I know a guy who runs a Junior Widgeteer Club). Some are the chance for a do-over--Pat steals money from the school concession stand, but people decide to give Pat a second chance. 

When you're a kid, you learn about slack pretty quickly. I was halfway through high school when I realized that I was coded as a Good Kid and could wander the halls and skirt rules in ways that some of my peers could not. 

Some students get slack. They get extra opportunities and extra chances to bounce back from mistakes.

And the thing is, schools can give that kind of slack to everyone. From the classroom to the front office, schools can extend slack to each and every student no matter the circumstance.

Mind you, nobody should get infinite slack. I always told my students that I would trust them until they proved to me that I couldn't, and every year there were a couple who proved to me that I couldn't give them slack.

But you have to start with the slack. Even if you have Heard Things about that kid. Even if you remember How Their Older Sibling Was, or you've lived around the community long enough to know about the Parental Units' various failings.

It's exhausting and wearing to live your life as if you are just one misstep away from disaster and loss. It's hard to fix that in the world at large, but not so hard to fix it inside a school.

That means cutting slack for getting work done, for minor misbehavior, for being surly and uncooperative, for not Getting It yet, for violating some rules. It means not getting pissed at a student for what you imagine they're probably going to do. It doesn't mean a license for assault or otherwise creating an unsafe environment for teachers and other students.

There are many ways in which we cannot give some students the kinds of privileges that come with wealth and station and, well, privilege. But you can treat every single student as if they are from a wealthy, upstanding family. 


  1. C'mon now! Don't you know this doesn't mesh well with the SEL of grit, rigor and growth mindset that are aligned to the Common Bore standards/ Standardized testing industry? You're suggesting being too kind and nice to the children who are treated as chattel in the ed-deform game of rate/rank and punish.

  2. Excellent article, Peter. Also, sometimes giving 'slack' allows some students to get into deep enough stuff so that they come to realize their erroneous ways. Then, its a bit easier to help them to change.

    Teaching is an art. No 'method' is good for every student. It takes an empathetic personality to be a 'good' teacher, and not every teacher is good for every student.

    Kids will be kids, and that means they will make mistakes and must learn from them (as do all animals). We can help them along the way, however cutting too much 'slack' is as bad as an authoritarian classroom. Where's the balance? Well, that's that's art of matching the personality of the teacher with that of the student.

    Also, learning to adapt to different teachers is a lesson students need to learn. Society is a kaleidoscope, and students need to appreciate those beautiful patterns. They, however, may need a bit of help to see that pattern.

    This is not to say there aren't 'bad' teachers who have only their personal and narrow perspective to transmit. Perhaps they should be called 'preachers'.

  3. "Mind you, nobody should get infinite slack."
    You make the perfect case for a progressive (slack infused) demerit system. I used one for years in my classroom and it was a joy to watch student behaviors to adjust to a disciplinary code that had a very set, concrete limit. That limit is also what makes a slack-driven behavior policy fair to all.