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Accommodations And Compromises (& Two Questions About Them)



The above quote is from an extraordinary scene in “The Wire,” my favorite television show of all time, and I’ve embedded a video of that “must watch” scene at the end of this post (you can read a great Bill Moyers interview with the show’s creator here). In it, Police Captain Colvin describes when a law was made prohibiting public drinking but, instead of spending all their time arresting people who chose to do it, drinkers started putting open bottles in paper bags that police could ignore and so focus their time on real criminals.

I’ve written a lot about the importance of compromise (see The Best Posts & Articles About Compromise). A compromise is “a deal between different parties where each party gives up part of their demand.” From there, progress is made forward on making changes. For example, in my community organizing career, getting to the negotiating table to make such a deal, and the leadership that was developed in the process, was the whole point of our work — whether it was to get affordable housing built, a quicker processing time for citizenship applications, or a more effective job training program. We recognized that it was important to identify a few key principles that are unyielding, but everything else was on the table. The problem occurs when people turn all sorts of beliefs into principles that can’t be compromised.

Ambiguity is all around us, and I am very wary of anyone who does not recognize that fact.

I would suggest, though, that the situation described by Bunny is not a compromise but, instead, something very similar that is equally important — it’s an accommodation. It’s not a “deal” designed to make any kind of change. Instead, accommodations are often designed to allow both parties to diplomatically ignore rules made from “above” that would distract from the major goals of one or both parties. The word “accommodation” means “Something that meets a need; a convenience.”

Interestingly enough, the word has a specific definition in the context of understanding human eyesight:

Accommodation (Acc) is the process by which the vertebrate eye changes optical power to maintain a clear image (focus) on an object as its distance varies.

In other words, accommodations help us keep our “eyes on the prize.”

I think it’s important for us to keep the concepts of accommodations and compromises in mind in the school reform debate, and in our classrooms. For example, in addition to trying to explicitly teach the concepts through lessons, I also try to model them. One accommodation I make relates to our school rule against gum-chewing. At the beginning of the year, I tell students that I am not telling them that they can chew gum in class. I go on to say, however, that I tend to get caught up in teaching and learning, and tend not to notice gum chewing unless I see it or hear it. During the rest of the year, at most, one or two students will pop their gum, I’ll point to them, and they will dump it in the trashcan unquestionably.

I really don’t understand how we can make any progress on anything without making accommodations and compromises.

Here are two questions readers:

What are some accommodations and compromises that you make in your classroom life?

And what are some ways you teach your students the importance of making accommodations and compromises?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. The Wire clip has some seriously graphic language. Your article might have included a “heads up”.

    • Kathy,

      Sorry, Kathy, except for a couple of uses of the word “a_s” and “g_ddamned” I didn’t hear any other words that might be considered “graphic” by some. But I might be less concerned since I teach high school. I believe both words are okay to be used in “G-rated” movies.


  2. Larry,

    Great post and a very interesting read. I have to say that I agree with you about The Wire. One of the most important shows (and the best) to come along in a while.

    Maybe it is because I am a first-born, but I am a rule follower by nature. My feeling about rules is if it is not important enough that EVERYONE enforces it, then don’t make it a rule in the first place. I think one of the dangers in making accommodations is that not all teachers make accommodations in the same way. This leads to the, “but he/she lets me do it.” Students get mixed messages about the importance (or lack thereof) of a rule.

    You used the example of gum chewing. Why is there a rule against gum chewing? Is it because it ends up on/under the furniture? Is it because people make noise while chewing it? If those are the reasons, we as teachers should deal with the behaviors, not try to ban the cause of those behaviors.

    My school has the same sort of issue with cell phones. Our faculty does not like the texting, rings during class, etc. The answer was to ban the cell phones. This led to the same sort of issues you were describing. Some teachers made “accommodations” while other teachers confiscated cell phones on sight. As you can imaging this led to some consternation among teachers. We are currently having a conversation about lifting the ban and dealing with the behaviors.

    Did not mean to get on a soap box, and I hope this makes sense. Keep up the great writing, it is always a pleasure to read.


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