Why I Didn’t Do Homework

08/28/2009
scale model guillotine
Image by Smudgie’s Ghost via Flickr

The other day on Twitter someone sent me this message: “your profile [on Twitter.com] says you are a teacher – I’m confused. You are against compulsory education?”

All I had done to earn this wonder was to scoff at the notion that assigning homework and giving students academic demerits for not turning it in somehow teaches responsibility.

I should not have been so dismissive. Some students need homework to help them learn, but many do not. Requiring it teaches responsibility the same way requiring a road test teaches good driving.

I stopped doing homework toward the end of ninth grade and did not resume until I was in graduate school 36 years later.

In between I dropped out of high school, returned to a different high school, dropped out again, started college, and dropped out of college.

All that was before I turned 17.

Somewhere in there I became responsible.

When I was 17 I started supporting myself.

I’ve never been much of a wild man. Quite the opposite, I think not doing homework may be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done.

I stopped doing homework because one morning a magnificent, masterful and meticulous teacher told me to never do anything just because someone who claims to have more authority tells me to.

That teacher, Mrs. Edith Novad, the homeroom and English teacher in my accelerated middle school program of 7th, 8th and 9th years in four semesters gave us homework that night.

The next morning everyone handed in their homework, except me. When Mrs. Novad asked where mine was I told her I didn’t do it. When she asked why not, I told her because she had not given me sufficient reason to do it.

Mrs. Novad, a substantially proportioned brick of a woman in her last year of teaching before a well-earned retirement, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. The whole class was watching to see how she would react, what she would do.

She burst out laughing.

She laughed for a full minute. We all started laughing with her even though none of us knew what was so funny.

Eventually Mrs. Novad regained her control, brought us under control, and told the class I was getting extra credit for taking her at her word.

My high school teachers did not appreciate my explanation for not doing homework. They demanded homework even though my straight ‘A’ average demonstrated that I really didn’t need to do it.

They said rules were rules and I had to follow them.

I dropped out instead. And I got a better education for doing so.

Great teachers don’t teach blind compliance.

Great teachers don’t force students to jump through hoops just to prove that they have that power.

Great teachers lead students to discover their strengths and help them learn how to maximize them.

Great teachers understand that their role is not to preserve existing conditions but to assist students to develop the talents and courage to change them.

Mrs. Novad was a great teacher. She woke up my intellect and helped me learn how to use it.

I could go on in exhaustive detail about what else she did that made her a great teacher, but I’ll just tell you the absolute highlight of my two years as her student: we made a movie.

We read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Then we rewrote it as a musical, and filmed it. I played Sidney Carton. It was a far better thing I did then than ever I did before. Or after.

This was 1965. Students wrote and played all the music for the soundtrack. Students did all the filming; we had to actually cut and splice the film to edit it. We figured out how to stage and film the usage of a guillotine to cut off my head and, despite the wishes of some people, actual decapitation was not involved.

In the Generation Yes blog Sylvia Martinez lists what students say they want from teachers according to an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development magazine Education Leadership:

  • Take me seriously
  • Challenge me to think
  • Nurture my self-respect
  • Show me I can make a difference
  • Let me do it my way
  • Point me toward my goals
  • Make me feel important
  • Build on my interests
  • Tap my creativity
  • Bring out my best self

Mrs. Novad did all that and more.

Everyone deserves at least one teacher like her.

I wish we could all be that good.

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