Due consideration, and not just a syllabus




Benefits derived from a contract are called “consideration.”

The Common Law holds that contracts that don’t deliver some benefit, or consideration, to both parties are invalid. Let’s say that you sign a contract for lawn service, but you have no lawn. The courts would not hold you to that contract because you couldn’t possibly benefit from a lawn service living, say, in an apartment.

I’ll let the lawyers argue this one out, but for our purposes, let’s look upon the student and teacher relationship as a contract. Teacher contracts to deliver learning to the student, and the student contracts to be taught. Easy enough, except the usual teacher-student contract has lots of clauses and stipulations. If we think of a syllabus as that contract, then here are some of the usual elements to it:

Students shall…

  • purchase a book and materials such as a pen, notebook, or folder
  • arrive to class on time
  • not disrupt class
  • be graded as designated by the teacher and based upon completing assigned tasks
  • turn in assignments on time or be penalized
  • adhere to writing guidelines
  • track grades as posted by the teacher
  • not cheat
  • follow fire and emergency procedures
  • not use cell phone in class
  • etc., etc.

Teacher shall

  • grade students
  • hold certain office hours

Uh, yeah, that’s about your typical syllabus.

My own syllabus generally included all those student things, but I always added the following stipulations on the me, the teacher:

  • Your teacher promises you compassion, enthusiasm, understanding, learning, and love.
  • Maintain a comfortable classroom and learning environment
  • Set clear expectations
  • Bring the highest-level preparation and knowledge to students

Teachers often throw in fluff like that, although I was deadly serious about mine, especially the promise to maintain a friendly and comfortable learning environment and to be prepared as the teacher. And, as with just about every syllabus, mine were never looked at again after first handed out. And, as with contracts, the only time anyone ever really pulls out a syllabus is when there’s a problem. But even then, the syllabus offers no solutions.*

Thinking about a syllabus as a contract makes me reconsider my own. If I were to redo it today, I’d turn the document into a much simpler, much more “considerate” document that holds me responsible as much as it holds the students. I’d add things like, The teacher will:

  • return emails within 24 hours
  • submit grades within 2 days of receiving student on time work
  • never say anything sarcastic or purposefully insulting
  • post assignments online daily

There’s a lot more to go in there, but you see my point: students don’t get much consideration in the typical classroom contract. It’s time we treat them as we expect them to treat us.

– Michael

* Note how college syllabi are far more useful than those for high school; the reason is that the college course is more easily planned, so due dates are able to be scheduled in advance — and kept more easily than in high school.


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