When do we have to turn this in?

by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


“When do we have to turn this in?” seemed like an innocent enough question. It is one that students ask regularly. They usually get simple answers like, “It’s due on Friday,” or “At the end of the hour.” However, this question on this day launched an unanticipated full hour conversation in Winston Brown’s 11th grade English class, a discussion that he felt warranted scrapping the days’ planned lesson.

“You don’t have to turn it at all,” he replied.

“Ya, right,” quipped one of his more vocal students.

“No, I mean it,” Mr. Brown persisted.

“We don’t have to do it? Really?”

“Nope. There are no have to’s here in this class.”

“Then why would we want to do it?”

“I can think of several reasons. Want to hear some?”


“First of all,” this veteran teacher began,” you might to see what you can learn by researching this topic and compiling your findings.”

“Or you might want to create that feeling of accomplishment that happens inside when you get closure on an assignment.”There is something exciting about accepting a challenge and finishing it.”

“Maybe you want to test yourself to see how well you can do this.”

“It could be that you would like full credit. Those of you who choose to turn it in on Monday will receive full credit for the grade you earned. Those who choose to turn it in late will earn partial credit, 90 percent of what your paper is worth.” 

“So, we do have to turn it in by Monday?”

“No you don’t. You don’t have to turn it in at all. If you decide to do that you will be earning a zero on the paper. You get to decide. It is a choice that you all have here.”

“It doesn’t seem like a choice,” a student in the first row offered.

“That’s because you talk about it as a have to,” Mr. Brown explained.

He went on, “Using have to, got to, or must is one way many people reduce personal power in their lives. These are all self-limiting phrases that suggest you have no choice in a situation. They reinforce a belief that you have no options and leave you feeling powerless and out of control.”

Have to’s are not accurate. If you examine them closely it will become clear you really don’t have to. I didn’t have to come to work this morning. I could have called in sick, quit my job, say I overslept, taken a personal leave day, or just not show up. Each one of my choices have consequences. Today I did not have to come to work. I chose to be here because I did not want to get fired, I like being a teacher. I want money to pay my rent, I love what I do, etc.”

For the remainder of the hour Mr. Brown and his class enjoyed a spirited discussion about have to’s and personal power. During that time he was able to communicate several important notions to his interested students. They included:

If you talk as if you have to you probably won’t enjoy it.

When you say have to, you can feel like a captive who is forced to endure something you hate.

Speaking of something as if it were a choice helps you feel more in charge.

You’ll experience more control and more power if you see it as a choice rather than a have to.

Winston Brown threw out his planned lesson that day. He did so because he saw the curriculum as a guideline. He did not see it as a have to. He stepped directly into his personal power on this occasion and he helped his students take a look at theirs. He chose to do that because he believed the impromptu lesson that presented itself on this day was more important and valuable to his students than the one suggested by the curriculum guide provided by the school board.

Perhaps we can all take a closer look at the lesson Winston Brown chose to share with his students: we really don’t have to.


Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for the newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: www.chickmoorman.com and www.thomashaller.com


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