How Educators Sometimes “Enable” Students (an Oldie but Goodie)

How Educators Sometimes “Enable” Students (an Oldie but Goodie)

(Originally titled “ ‘Enabling’ Undermines Responsibility in Students”)

In this 1989 Educational Leadership article, Wisconsin social studies teacher Steven Landfried writes candidly about teachers who are “enablers” – they let students (and colleagues) off the hook by allowing them to be lazy, avoid responsibilities, and miss out on opportunities for growth. Landfried is using the word enabling the way Alcoholics Anonymous uses it – synonymous with rescuing and coddling – for example, loaning money to a person with a drinking problem, paying their bills, doing their chores, or calling in sick for them. 

What does enabling look like in schools? “Too often,” says Landfried, “teachers let students get away with academic laziness, slipshod performance, and procrastination by: allowing them to ‘tune out’ while the teacher does the talking and thinking; consistently accepting ‘forgotten’ assignments without penalty; giving credit for sloppy work; ignoring cheating or taking off only 2-3 points when students do cheat; giving easy tests and grades that require little or no serious studying; allowing students who have not studied all semester to pass courses with only three or four hours of ‘extra credit’ work.” 

There’s behavioral enabling in classrooms – turning a blind eye on sleeping or chatting, making excuses for students who misbehave (“She didn’t really mean it”), putting words in the mouths of students trying to articulate a thought, repeating questions for inattentive students, picking up trash left by students, and cleaning graffiti off desks and walls. “Making school or life easy for students shows confusion in our understanding of what responsibilities properly go with adult and student roles in school,” he says. 

Landfried believes counselors and administrators also enable – accepting lies from parents on absences and bruises; accepting and explaining away discourtesy; ignoring athletic code violations because certain students are “needed” for important games; asking custodians to clean up student messes in hallways or classrooms; and glossing over profanity, racial and ethnic slurs, and fights to avoid hassles with students and parents.

Why do educators enable students? Many want to be liked and needed. “One way to get ‘thanks’ in the educational system is to do things for people they really should be doing themselves,” says Landfried. “By making themselves indispensable, teachers or counselors can virtually guarantee being ‘needed’ by the people being ‘helped.’” Enabling also cuts down on hassles and verbal abuse that can occur when people are held accountable for unacceptable behavior. But enabling quickly produces a codependent relationship – students expect teachers to rescue them, which reinforces the original problem. Educators are also pressured by external demands and standardized tests, and it’s sometimes easier to cut corners and do things ourselves.

How does enabling affect students? “In a fundamental sense,” says Landfried, “‘enabled’ students become academically and psychologically disabled when they consistently come to expect that deadlines will always be extended, regardless of the excuse; expect good grades for little effort; expect others to solve problems for them; believe that mediocrity is ‘good enough’ and display little appreciation of excellence; set low goals for themselves; see adversity and challenges as burdens rather than as opportunities to grow; and resent people who express and enforce clear expectations.” 

What is to be done? “The first step,” says Landfried, “is to realize that good teachers don’t give a good education to students; they provide experiences that facilitate and motivate youngsters to educate themselves through trial and error, success and failure. Once we accept this proper role of the teacher in the learning process, we can come to understand how enabling works, recognize enabling in our interactions with students, and actively attempt to increase student accountability for participating actively and productively in learning.” Faculties need candid discussions on the difference between helping and enabling, between genuine academic differences and “learned helplessness”, about how “negotiations” and “treaties” can work to the detriment of teaching and learning. 

Teachers need to model accountable behavior themselves and broadcast the message, through word and deed, that significant learning and growth come from hard work and persistence. They should give students plenty of wait-time when they ask questions in class, ask high-level questions, refrain from prematurely injecting their own opinions and answers, and have the courage to stand up to students and parents who try to pressure or manipulate them into accepting something less than their personal best. “These efforts,” Landfried concludes, “will make it possible for young people to feel the consequences of success and failure and ultimately the self-satisfaction from learning that they can overcome adversity, meet challenges, and even accept defeat in cases where one gives one’s all.” 

“‘Enabling’ Undermines Responsibility in Students” by Steven Landfried in Educational Leadership, November 1989 (Vol. 47, #3, p. 79-83), 


From the Marshall Memo #471

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