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The Difference Between "I Can't" And "I Won't."

Like a lot of travelers, I found myself stranded in a place far away from home last week, due to weather delays that actually forced me to abandon air travel completely and drive home (to Wilmington, NC) from Rochester, NY.  The volatile weather that often accompanies spring in the southeastern part of the US, resulted in an ugly situation in Atlanta that left a lot of frequent fliers, like me, without wings for several days. It was nobody's fault, and everyone I spoke to with the airline (both on the ground and on the phone) was friendly, kind and apologetic. But one conversation that I had with a gate agent in Rochester continues to stick with me.

Let me set the scene: It's a Thursday afternoon in Rochester. My original flight had been scheduled to depart at 10:55am on Wednesday (nearly 30 hours earlier). By the time I approached the gate agent, I was ready to start thinking creatively about routes home, and asked if she could help me look at some non-traditional avenues back to NC. I said I was willing to fly further north or west and double back south if that meant I'd be home prior to the best direct option she was currently offering of Sunday afternoon.  However, when I asked her to help me explore the alternatives she said, "I'm sorry, I can't do that right now" pointing to the line of people behind me.  She was never rude and neither was I, but I pressed a little harder. This is the conversation that followed:

Me: "I get it. I've been standing in that line for awhile myself,  but can't you spend just a couple of minutes with me now, so you don't have to deal with me again later?" Her (smiling sympathetically): "No. I'm sorry, I really can't." Me (smiling sheepishly): "You mean you won't." Her: "Pardon me?" Me: "You totally can. You're just choosing not to right now." Her (smiling less now):  "Yes. I guess you're right.

Now, even though I walked away not getting what I wanted, I need to go on record as saying this story has a happy ending. I got home safe and sound, the airline refunded me part of the money I spent on the ticket, no one had to drag me from my assigned seat, and it's all good. I'm not bashing anyone with this post, but this conversation keeps replaying in my head and, if I'm honest, in my heart too.

How often do we use the phrase "I can't" with students, or staff members, when what we really mean is, "I won't, because... " or "I'm choosing not to, because...?" To me, here are a few critical differences between those two statements:

Full disclosure here, I need work in this department too. I'm guilty of saying "I can't" too often myself, but as I reflect on my work and the role I play in the lives of educators and young people, I know I have to do better.  I'm reminded of a recent (but ongoing) conversation I've been having with my friend Todd Nesloney about educators and reading. Todd has been doing a lot more reading lately: for both personal and professional reasons. Todd admits that he's been guilty of saying "I can't read more often, because I just don't have time." Now he calls BS (baloney sandwich, y'all. Get your minds out of the gutter) on this statement, saying that he realizes he can make time for anything he prioritizes. The truth is, he was choosing not to read, because other things were a greater priority. Once he accepted the truth of that statement, examining it challenged, and ultimately caused, him to reprioritize.  When we hand the blame over to someone else by claiming our hands are tied by "I can't," we rob ourselves of that reflective process. And reflection is how we get better. 

Think about all the things we tell our students we can't do:

"I can't let you to turn in your homework late."

"I can't let you read a book that is not on your level."

"I can't let you to turn in a project that doesn't look like all the others (or isn't among the choices I gave you)."

"I can't let you read in school without some guided practice."

"I can't let you read outside of school without making you prove that you read."

"I can't let you keep that book beyond the due date."

"I can't let you checkout more than __ # of books."

"I can't let you checkout books when you owe money for late/lost materials."

I can't. 

I can't.

I can't.

If we change all of those statements so that they begin with I won't, it becomes much harder to just let them sit there without really considering the reasons behind them. And, frankly, those decisions, along with countless others, need closer consideration.  

All of that said, I know there are times when we really can't do things. There are indeed moments when the decision is truly "above our pay grade." But I believe those moments are less frequent than what our language would suggest.  What's more, our students and staffs deserve for us to be more reflective in our decision making. They deserve to understand why we've made a specific choice. And they deserve the opportunity to try to convince us that their solution is best, even if in the end, we choose something other than what they'd like. I'm going to try to do better in this area. Maybe you can will choose to as well.


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