Responsible TO or Responsible FOR?

I used to nearly puke when I was grading papers.  In every class, there are always a few students who just don’t follow directions, and thus end up destroying their grade.

I am a firm teacher.  I write down requirements in the syllabus and expect students to do exactly what I have asked them to do.  But I am also clear.  I go over instructions again and again and again, which of course never stops one or two students in every one of my classes from completely disregarding them.  Students who do this simply cannot get a good grade in my classes.

A while ago I worked through a stack of final papers, and came to “one of those.”  I could tell right away my syllabus had been at the bottom of this student’s reading list.  I could also tell I was probably going to spend longer grading this mess than the student may have spent writing it.  I dutifully graded the paper, slapping a D on it.  But I did not do it happily. In fact, I did it with a sick feeling in my stomach.  I realized this grade would probably cause this student to fail my class, which meant it would have to be repeated, which would mean a few thousand dollars on top of an already expensive education bill.  I worried.  I fretted.  I played it over and over again in my mind.  I looked for ways to grant a few more points without violating my conscience and being unfair to the students who had actually attempted to meet requirements.  I lived under a dark cloud for several weeks, feeling upset and frustrated at this student for putting me in such a terrible position.  Next time I saw this student I struggled to make eye contact, even though I had done nothing wrong.  In the middle of this, I talked to a friend about how sick I was feeling about the whole situation.

“That’s because you are taking responsibility FOR these students, rather than simply being responsible TO them,” she said.

I dismissed her.  “I’m a counselor.  I know the difference.  I’m not bearing this student’s burden, I’m just fretting over whether or not I did right by him.”  A few hours later she shot me an email.

When I FEEL responsible FOR others:

I FIX – protect, rescue, control, carry their feelings, don’t listen

I FEEL – tired, anxious, fearful, liable

I AM CONCERNED WITH – the solution, answers, circumstances being right, details, performance

I am a manipulator.

I expect the person to live up to my expectations.

 

When I FEEL responsible TO others:

I show empathy, I encourage, share, confront, level, am sensitive, listen.

I FEEL – relaxed, free, aware, high self-esteem

I AM CONCERNED WITH – relating person to person, feelings, the person

I believe if I just share myself, the other person has enough to make it.

I am a helper – guide.

I expect the person to be responsible for himself and his own actions.

I can trust and let go.

Well blow me down!  I realized almost right away that I was feeling responsible FOR my students who performed poorly.  I was bearing the weight of their burdens, weight that they brought on themselves by not doing what they were in school to do.  I was exhausted.  I was fearful of what they might think.  I kept playing the grades over and over and over, crushed at my inability to solve this problem.  I wanted everything to be right, and obsessed over every point taken and granted.  Of course if I wasn’t taking responsibility FOR them, why did I feel I HAD to solve the problem?

I now understand that to be responsible TO my students would be to do all I can to encourage them, to help however I can, and then not to “grade” them, but simply assign whatever grade the student had earned (keeping myself out of it).  Of course it would be okay to have compassion, to feel bad for students who performed poorly.  But to be responsible TO someone is to not have to replay something again and again.  (In my case it would mean realizing and accepting that giving a grade that accurately reflects a student’s work is being responsible to him.)   We can accept our humanness.  Doing our best is good enough, though it is not perfect.  We can even accept that somehow God can even work through our flaws and foibles, as long as we care about a person and are acting in love.

Do you live as if you are responsible TO other people, or as if you are responsible FOR them?  Do you play their problems out in your mind constantly, living in the same kind of agony that someone you care for is in?  Do you carry the burdens of others so much that you experience fear and fatigue and heaviness?  Or do you love people and trust that love is enough?  Do you accept both your good intentions and your imperfections?  Do you believe that if you just share yourself, the other person has enough to make it?

I encourage you to reject co-dependency by refusing to be responsible FOR other people.  Aspire to be responsible TO others, and do so with integrity and love.  Then walk daily in the freedom and lightness this will bring.

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  • Elizabeth Morin

    Dave I really enjoyed reading this… you make some very logical points. The friend who spoke to you was right. But I can remember you giving the same advice to me at one time when I was dealing with a very close member of my family who was struggling… I quickly had to learn I was living and spending time in thoughts as if I were responsible FOR them instead of TO them.

    Well put. Nice read. An good reflection questions at the end. 🙂

    • Thanks Lizzie. It’s so easy to give advice — good, accurate, correct advice — to others, and yet still have lessons to learn in those areas yourself! I remember that conversation with you. I’m working on it! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • jean oskey

    Dave, My daughter is stuggling with a college class right now. She says her teacher doesn’t take enough time to explain and go over the work. My daughter is not a good tester! If she had a teacher like you seem to be I bet she would be doing so much better in class instead of feeling like she is failing. I wish there were more teachers the likes of you.

    • Thanks Jean. I’m a controversial instructor. I think most students really enjoy my classes, but once it’s time to get down to business and do grades, I’ll dole out the C’s, D’s, and fails when I think that’s what’s warranted.