Election Day: A Celebration of Autonomy


Vote (Photo credit: Vaguely Artistic)

Sitting at the computer with televisions’s Election Day frenzy droning in the background, I’m wondering again about adding “autonomy” to our list of pleasures in learning.  Today is a day when my stubborn inner child can defiantly tell my liberal pal, my conservative husband, and all the pundits who have been screaming for my attention, “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”  When I close that curtain and punch that big red button, I will make a choice that is, for better worse, all my own.

Our students sometimes find unfortunate, even self-destructive, ways to tell us “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.”  We wonder why a student signs up for a class and then doesn’t come, why a student who’s been doing well suddenly self-destructs, why students miss deadlines despite generous timelines and frequent reminders.  Clearly, life can get in the way of the best intentions.  However, I suspect some of these students are stuck in a pattern of telling overbearing parents, previous draconian educators, and even significant others that “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”

They are precisely correct.  I can’t make them, nor do I want to.  They don’t have to do anything, and acknowledging that fact can be a great thing for all of us.  Learning the difference between get to and have to has been a long-term personal project, and I happily share my progress with my students.

It starts with a conscious change in verbiage: “Have to” is out; “get to” is in.  Don’t underestimate the difficulty or the rewards in making this change. A typical day might include these bits of mental conversation.

  • “I get to get up and get ready for work” (not everyone is able, and not everyone has a job)
  • “I get to go to class.” (not everyone has a job they love…mine consists of sharing stuff I really like)
  • “I get to answer emails and take care of typical administrative stuff.” (I have instant access to loads of tools that let me stay in touch with students and colleagues.  The world is full of people with no access to such wonders, and there are lonely people with no one to talk to.)
  • “I get to stop at the grocery” (I have access to a store full of food and money to buy it), “I get to make dinner” (ditto), ” I get to do a load of laundry, walk the dog, etc., etc.” (By this point, you can probably fill in the blanks.)

Pollyanna?  Maybe.  I just know that it works. When students ask “Do we have to….,” I just reply “Of course not!  You get to.”

  • You get to learn things about the human body that people have worked for thousands of years to illuminate.
  • You get to show me that you have learned these things and deserve credit for that hard work.
  • You get to interact with your peers and learn from them
  • You get to play with all the cool toys in my lab
  • You get to move toward a career that you’ve dreamed about, one that will reward you and those you care for

Bottom line, YOU get to decide whether to come to class, whether to study, whether to participate.

Every day is Election Day.


How do you remind your students about the power of their choices?


2 comments on “Election Day: A Celebration of Autonomy

  1. kencasey99 says:


    Thanks, I like the idea of “get to.” I often get the “do we have to” question at test time. I tell them that no one has to take it, They then focus on the penalty of not taking it. I think the next time that happens I will go the next step you suggest–you “get to” have a measure taken of your mastery of the material.

  2. Thanks, Ken! I’m always surprised by how few students recognize their own autonomy and by how realizing that they really do have choices makes a difference in their attitude and their performance.—Karen

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