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A lesson in life – step into my office…you’re fired!


A few years back, I wanted to develop a student project in my senior economics classes that truly embodied a multidisciplinary approach to learning. I wanted a project that would demonstrate all the skills students had developed throughout their 13+ years of education.

The “business plan” project was just that. It incorporated both soft and hard skills: research, analysis, statistics, analytical writing, problem-solving, creativity, synthesis, hypothesis testing, public speaking, practicality, teamwork and courage. It was an ambitious project to execute with 120 students, especially for seniors in their final semester of high school, but I felt it could be done if I were passionate, highly organized, and a bit crazy.

Six weeks later, I learned it was more difficult to manage than I had envisioned.

“50 on the group grade!? I’m tired of doing this stupid business plan project, Mr. Wakefield! It’s taking way too much of my time and only a couple of us are doing all the work,” said Evette (names have been changed to protect the innocent).

Devoid of emotion, I paused. Then I grinned.

“Hmm…Research shows that in any organization or group project, 20% of the individuals do 80% of the work, so why don’t you have an honest conversation with your peers about their contributions thus far?” I said.

She quickly retorted, “But you said we could fire our team members from the group if they weren’t contributing.”

“I said that,” I responded with a smidge of sarcasm.

“I’m tired of doing all the work. It’s just not fair, and my mom agrees.”

Knowing this particular student’s mother, I knew I would receive a call later that evening about her grade.

I confidently responded, “You do know that I give two grades, both an individual and group grade, but unfortunately your group has not met my expectations for this benchmark for the group portion.”

“Whatever,” she said. She began to turn her head away from me and was about to storm of, when I responded assertively, “STOP.”

“You will be working in teams throughout your life, in both your family and the workplace. You have to know how to deal with all types of people, both motivated, less motivated, and unmotivated.”

I raised one final question before ending the conversation.

“As the leader of this team, what do you think you could do differently to raise the performance level of your team? I know you can think of different ways to motivate your peers. If you still have issues after trying a few different approaches you think may work, I will consider your request at the next benchmark.”

A small smirk came across her face as she briskly walked away, but I felt confident she would rise to the occasion.

I don’t approach every one of my students this way, but I felt this was an age-appropriate response, and, knowing this student quite well, I believed it was the right approach, at the right time, for her. Recognizing and understanding the differences among students allows you to make better and more informed decisions when developing them in both academics and life.

Anyone who has taught K-12 understands that children and teenagers are on all different levels both socially and academically, even if they have, since the age of 3, been classified into a group based on their age.

Early in my teaching career, I probably would’ve confronted the students who were slacking and reprimanded them for not pitching in, and I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have been effective. Needless to say, allowing the group leader to figure out why her team members were slacking and then giving her the opportunity to figure out how to motivate them to achieve their collective goal was a valuable lesson in leadership and life.

Both teachers and students need the opportunity to develop appropriately. Reflecting on one’s mistakes is part of the process of learning. There’s no reason to fire your students or teachers until you have done all you can to help them develop both academically and professionally.

It’s far too easy to adopt the slash and burn mentality, and usually the costs of this approach outweigh the benefits. Turnover is expensive, not only financially but also in terms of culture, morale, and team cohesion. You can’t build great teams of teachers without supporting and developing them throughout their careers.

As a student leader, rather than belittling her group members, Evette became more assertive and set clear and “attainable” goals for her group members.  Her members had difficulty managing their time and didn’t know how to ask for help, nor understand how to finish their individual tasks.  Developmentally, they were not ready for a project of this magnitude. However, Evette managed to reach her peers on a personal level, which I was unable to do in this instance as a teacher. Students usually have more influence over their peers than their teacher does, so anytime you can get natural student leaders on your side, it becomes easier to facilitate project-based learning that involves working in teams.

In case you’re wondering, the “failing group” ended up with one of the highest overall grades. And the individuals who weren’t pulling their weight? They also rose to the occasion and finished the project with passing grades.



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