A Contract with Students

I skimmed right by Locke’s theory of social contract in college. I didn’t know it would follow me so doggedly through my career. Students have to agree to learn, Locke writes, before a teacher can teach. Most teachers feel the pressure.

“Five years into retirement,” my friend told me, “I still have the dream each fall, the dream where I’m standing in front of a class and no one hears a word I say.”

So what happens when the social contract fails? Nightmares, for sure. And if it continues to fail, teachers drop out or lose their jobs.

But when the contract is in place, students join the teacher to ensure learning.

In one of my first years of teaching, I saw social contract play out in my classroom, though not in a way I approved. Still uncertain about teaching in the prison, I was leading a discussion with thirty inmates when one of them disrespected me.

I can’t remember what he said, nor do I recall my response, only that I was relieved the bell was about to ring.

That night I tossed in my bed, sorting my options.

But the inmate wasn’t in my class the next day, or the next.

I discovered why. An inmate stopped by my desk after class on the third day.

“You won’t need to worry about Inmate Smith, Mrs. Swartz,” he told me. “We all took care of him for you. He’ll be laid up in the infirmary until the end of the term.”

I’m grateful I never again received such brutal support for a social contract with my students.

But I appreciate students who cast their lots toward learning, who led out in class discussions and frowned at misbehavior and swayed the attitudes of students on the margins.


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