Death by Syllabus

It’s that time of year … back to school! Teachers are excited to meet students, and students are excited to meet their teachers.

Back to school also means a lot of discussion about how best to establish relationships and culture when students walk in the door. I’ve seen tweets suggesting teachers hold off on “doing school” at first so as to focus on getting to know the students, and establishing the positive culture of the classroom.

Part of “doing school” is, for many teachers, passing out the course syllabus, or class introductory letter. This document, often read and treated like a terms and conditions contract, outlines objectives, grading procedures, behavior and academic expectations, consequences for violating those expectations, and rewards for following them, which is often the grading scale.

It outlines what students will learn, how they should learn it, and in what timeline it is expected to be learned. It requires multiple signatures to signify understanding, and is filed away in case any of the signatory parties disagree with the terms and conditions at a later date.

So yes, I can see why this would be quite a downer on day one for teachers trying to establish a culture of joy, of lifelong learning, and of collaborative discovery with their students.

“Hey students. This year is going to be AWESOME. But first, you all must agree to the terms and conditions… potential side effects include dizziness, heart palpitations, anxiety, and death…” Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 10.16.21

Umm, yea, about that… Total downer!

That makes me wonder… if the syllabus is so disconnected from the culture being established in the classroom, what message does it send to parents who are asked to read and sign it? For many parents, this is the first impression. The first handshake. The first “Nice to meet you.” If it doesn’t represent the culture you want to establish with students, then I have to ask what culture it establishes with the parents who are being handed this paper to sign without any other context.

And what contradictory message does it send to students? “Hey, I know I told you that I value you as an individual and we had all  fun week one getting to know each other, but the reality is, if your work is late, I will dock you a half letter grade. And if you use the bathroom pass three times, you owe me detention.”

If the syllabus doesn’t reflect the culture of your classroom: a culture of thinking, of learning, of student agency, and of growth mindset, then the only place that syllabus should go is in the trash.

If it’s in the trash, how might we develop a new, student-centric syllabus that reflects our values? What questions should it answer? How about these for a start:

  • What does the teacher value about teaching and learning?
    • What does the teacher believe about how students learn?
    • What does the teacher believe about the conditions that need to be in place for students to thrive in a learning environment?
    • What does the teacher believe about the whole child, and his/her role in supporting individual development?
  • What do students value about learning?
    • What conditions do the students in the room right now need to thrive?
    • What passions do the students in the room right now possess?
  • What do parents value about learning?
    • What does it mean for parents to be partners in their child’s education?
    • What do parents need to feel like a valued partner?

In addition, we should consider how language sets a tone. Is it a “we” document or a “me” document? Does the font and spacing encourage reading? Hey, maybe add some graphics and resource links.

By creating a document that exudes relationships, culture, learning, and voice, we are breaking down one of the traditional structures that serves as barriers to our values.

… Have you already transformed your syllabus? Would love to see a copy! Post a link in the comments, or send me a message. Let’s get the word out and encourage a movement!





4 Comments on “Death by Syllabus

    • Thanks! A friend of mine said, “Why didn’t you post this three weeks ago before I printed my syllabus?” haha


    • Thanks for sharing. I love the positive spin, and the way in which the syllabus supports student learning.


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