The two sides of “should”

I am finding that there is a fondness among educators at all levels and roles for the word “should”.

“Should” is a tricky word. Should implies an assumption. Should is a word that sits between “is” and “is not”. When something is not what we expect it to be, we know that because we has a preconceived “should.”

With that in mind, “should” represents high expectations, big goals, ideas of things getting better.

“Students should be able to do these things by the time they make it to high school.”

“We should be able to reach out to our parents to get their viewpoint on this issue.”

“Our teachers should be able to solve these problems.”

In this way, should has the ability to represent vision. This becoming something different than they are, and preferably something better.


But “should” has a darker side. A side that reflects an expectation. And an expectation creates opportunities for let down. And then what?

“We don’t have time to teach that. You should know that by now.”

“You should be able write a decent test.”

“Well, if they wanted a say, they should have responded to the survey.”

In these cases, “should” represents a passing of the buck. It is a word used as a presumably more polite substitute for “that’s your problem, not mine.”

“Shoulds” that lead us to placing blame are valuable only insofar as they allow us to focus on a potential problem-solving process. Blame for the current state doesn’t equate to responsibility for solving the related problems. The leader in the situation is the chief problem-solver. Because they know the “shoulds”. (Side note: How many of our shoulds are unspoken, implied, or in some dastardly cases, flat out secret?)

When a student shows up in your classroom not meeting all of your “shoulds”, you have a choice to make. Okay, perhaps, it should have been done by now. Yes, the student should have done a better job learning. Yes, the school should have safeguards in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. Should this, should that. But it didn’t. And what are we going to do about it?

Remember, the fact that they should have done this or that means that it is especially problematic when they don’t.

If a student needed to be fluent in fraction arithmetic by the time he/she makes it to your class, that’s fine. But what are you going to do if a couple don’t? Because you have to do something. You can’t simply leave those students hanging out to dry.

If you are going to survey your community and a whole segment of your community doesn’t respond (like they should have), what are you going to do? You can’t simply make decisions ignoring the perspective of an entire group of your community.

If you expect your teachers to have a certain skill set, that’s fine. What happens when you find that some are missing some of those skills? Because you can’t simply leave those skills underdeveloped and you can’t simply fire them.


Perhaps we should consider “should” an incomplete word. It needs a partner phrase. let’s just start referring to it as “should, and if not”.

It might be a nice first step. We are no longer allowed to create any should-statements without also creating a sustainable, effective plan for what happens when people miss the mark. No more incomplete shoulds. Expect to be faced with people falling short. Because they will. In these days of shifting assessments and curricula, teacher mobility, and school of choice, there are plenty of chances for shoulds to not be met.

Also, inasmuch as it’s possible, state your all of your shoulds clearly, explicitly and up front. “Here’s what I expect. Here’s what we have in place to support you if you need some help getting there.”

That is an entirely different message than “You should be able to do this by now. That’s too bad for you.”

We are a growth community. Education’s job is to set the “shoulds” then create the conditions for people… all people… to grow to meet them.



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