Flossing and the Frustration of Undone Homework

Homework. Hmmm…yeah. The topic is as controversial today as it was when I began my teaching career 36 years ago. Although I am now retired, this exasperating subject surfaced the other day when I was veritably blasted by my periodontist for failure to floss. Let’s just say I really got schooled. In a nutshell, he said he was a highly trained professional, and furthermore a very busy man, and if I couldn’t be bothered to do my share of the work at home, then I should not come back. Wow. I mean double wow.

So let’s be honest. Hasn’t every teacher run those same thoughts through their head when confronted by a recalcitrant student who refuses to do their homework? Educators everywhere have wrestled with this problem for decades. Every teacher knows that there are some students who will do all their homework, some students who will do some of it, and some students who will do none of it. And in my experience, unless you’re teaching an honors class, the amount of homework that doesn’t get done is greater than the amount that does.

So what strategies can the teacher use to increase the amount of homework that gets turned in? We’ve all experimented. Here are a few I tried. First, I increased the weight of the homework category so a student could not pass my class unless they completed at least a large percentage of it. The result? The students still didn’t do their homework, and tons of kids were failing. Then I tried reducing the number of assignments from four nights a week to two nights a week. That helped with their grades, but it did not increase the number of assignments that got turned in. Next, I tried giving assignments that couldn’t be quantified, such as, “Your homework tonight is to study for your test tomorrow.” And then I just hoped they would do this, although I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. Finally, I gave them classwork assignments and told them if they didn’t finish in class, they should finish for homework. And then I gave them enough time to finish in class.

I can’t say I felt very professionally satisfied with any of these strategies. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that if I had given voice to my frustration in the same way that my periodontist did, if I had pounded them into the ground for their errors, I could add another failed strategy to my list. Even if my students showed up empty-handed, I was always glad to see them come back the next day. Because every day a student shows up to class is a new opportunity to guide them, to help them be more successful, and to lovingly plant that suggestion one more time that, yes, homework is an important part of continued progress. And seizing these opportunities is never a waste of time or energy, even for a busy, well-trained professional.

I understand full well my periodontist’s exasperation. I empathize. I am truly sorry that my failure to floss provoked such an angry outburst from him, and I forgive him for losing his temper. After all, I’m not a kid. I know the man is right. Since that day I have attempted, in New Year’s resolution fashion, to mend the error of my ways. But I also found a new periodontist.

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