Work’s Worth

I believe in hard work. Had to. We didn’t go to church on Sunday. We worked on Sunday. Work was our worship. When school was out, work was in. Every weekend, every break, every summer, there was work to be done. So, we worked. And while I didn’t always appreciate the lessons from work when I was younger, I proudly acknowledge the impact they had on shaping the person I am today. Hard work matters.

So, then, one might think that I sell such wisdom to my students. Well, yes and no. I certainly sell the benefit of work. Work pays off. But I only push the work that produces a meaningful end. Hay in the barn means fed cows. Wood in the woodshed means a warm house. Milk in the pail means milk on my cereal. As a young man, I could see the benefit of my work, could feel the benefit of my work. But not all of my work. See, I had other work, too. Work for which I found little meaning, from which I took little benefit; work that took my time away from other work or — even more — those few fleeting moments of freedom when I might have gotten to enjoy kidhood; work that seemed to serve no greater end than my having something to write on the test. For that’s where I would leave it. It filled no barn or shed. It filled the grade book; it filled time; but I am not convinced, in the end, it filled me.

Oh, I suppose the argument can and will be made that such work, homework, fostered and nurtured my growth as a student, that had I not done the work I would neither have gotten through nor made it to where I am today. Okay. Maybe. I guess some things may have stuck to me along the way. I won’t argue against that, but I won’t argue fully for it either. For if they all had stuck, surely I could find them now. But try as I might, I cannot collect such things from my memory. I guess adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing stayed, but danged if I can find that quadratic formula or geometry proof hanging about. One would think after all the work I had done on such things they would be constant companions. We spent hours together, but I can’t find them now. It’s like we never knew each other.

Please know I am not purposefully picking on math here. I could pick on any subject, even my own. It’s just, for me, math occupied a lot of time and effort for which I, personally, found little return. I am sure many could/would say the same of language arts.

So, then, what’s my beef? Oh, not sure it’s a beef as much as a belief. While I do believe in the benefit of real, honest work, I do not believe in work that seems to serve little end. And so, I do not believe in homework.

Wait, before you pounce. I do believe in practice. I do believe in repetition (took me a lot of repetition to get to where I could efficiently milk Betsy). I do believe in struggle. I do believe in perseverance. I do believe in doing. I do believe in, “if it’s not done right the first time, then you have to do it again” (fence posts need to be in a straight line). And I believe we get out what we put in. I believe all of this. I do. I just don’t believe the work of learning in my classroom has to happen outside of school. So it doesn’t. I don’t give homework.

Am I anti-homework? I’m not sure that’s the best frame. I am pro-learning, and I am not convinced that the vast majority of work we assign outside of class promotes learning as much as we think it does. If I am honest — and I will be — most of the homework I used to give was to fill time, to fill the grade book. I scored it, but I did not assess it, which means I did not give feedback. Basically, kids did it, and kids got points, and in my “mean years,” I punished kids with penalties when they didn’t do it on time, and I struck them down with zeros when they did not do it all. In those days, kids were doing, but I am not sure kids were learning.

And so, slowly, I began to give less homework, focusing instead on the work in class, where I could give feedback instead of scores, where I could give help instead of headaches.

Headaches? Well, not literally, of course. But we all know the stress homework causes kids and families. I see it. I hear it. I lived it then, and I live it now with my own children. And I decided I did not need to contribute to that. And so, I no longer do.

These days, I am a helper, not an assigner. And I have found that my best help comes when I am with my kids, face-to-face, working together. Do I cover as much content as some? Not even close. But I came to grips with the realities of coverage versus competence a long time ago. I will not get through everything in a year, which is probably true homework or no. But I will get through to every kid in a year. No, I did not say that I will get every kid to standard, but I will help them work and grow, right here where I can do it best: in my room.

Work matters. But the right work matters, too. I will not go so far as to suggest that homework is the wrong work. Nothing is all right or all wrong. But I will suggest, whether it’s work at school or home, there is better work. And as we work with our kids, I think we could all be more mindful of the type of work we do with them. In the end, I don’t think people — young or old — are afraid of hard work. I just think they are neither motivated nor inspired by work without a worthy end. Work wants worth.