On a sleepy Monday morning, I pause at my desk to quickly input attendance. After two clicks, I slowly walk toward the room while peeking at different students’ journal responses. The class, collectively hunched over their desks and silently crafting their response, doesn’t notice as I weave through the groups to where Eric sits.
He sees me approaching and sits up straight. As I quietly slide into the empty desk beside him, he puts his pen to the paper and pretends to be working on his response. Our conversation goes something like this:
Eric, let’s start your sentence for the first question. How can you turn that into a statement?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you please read the question to me?”
“What are you grateful for?”
“Which words in that sentence make it a question?”
“I don’t know.”
“Question words are ones like who, what, where, when, why, and how. Which one is in that sentence?”
“If we removed the word ‘what,’ do you still have a question or a statement?”
“So which words can be made into a statement?”
“I don’t know.”
What’s up with Eric?
Every time I see Eric, we have this type of conversation during the warmup. At first, I thought that maybe his reading level and cognition were low. However, during certain assignments he was able to analyze more difficult questions and answer them correctly.
I thought that maybe he had difficulty writing first thing in the morning. But upon further investigation, I learned that he was this way in all of his classes.
It took looking at the data – both quantitative and anecdotal – to come to a simple conclusion: he just didn’t want to do the work, and more importantly, would‘t do the work unless prompted.
Does this sound familiar to you?
“It’s not up to me to make them want to learn”
I frequent several Facebook groups for teachers, and many educators vent about students not doing their work, and about their students’ lack of motivation and respect. The typical reply is, “Let those students fail as a natural consequence of their lack of effort.” Or, “Teachers shouldn’t care more than the student about how much they learn and about their grade.”
Honestly, for these teachers, the kids are getting off easy. Their attitudes and beliefs actually motivate those students to do less and less.
Eric would prefer that I leave him alone so that he can stare off into space and get away with doing nothing. He doesn’t actually care if he fails, and, based on numerous conversations with him, his parents, and his counselor, he doesn’t care if parents get upset about it. He just doesn’t want to do the work.
Sorry Eric, that’s not how it works in my classroom!
Do you have grit?
For the past decade, educational circles have discussed the importance of students having grit, having a growth mindset, and valuing hard work and effort over perceived achievement.
But what about teachers? Isn’t it important for teachers to have these qualities as well?
Grit, according to Angela Duckworth, is “the combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal, and is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.” It’s pushing forward even after a string of failures, and being determined to meet a goal in the face of all obstacles.
It’s what you need when dealing with a student such as Eric.
Passion and perseverence for a singularly important goal
My sole purpose as a teacher is to make sure EVERYBODY LEARNS. Even Eric. Even the student who has missed more days than they’ve attended at school. They all have to learn while under my watch.
I am so passionate and determined to ensure that every students learns that I literally can’t let them give up.
For this passion and drive, plus the infinite wisdom I impart every day, I charge a hefty price. There is a significant fee for my expertise, my dazzling smile, my stomach-grabbing humor, and my ability to break down a concept for any learner.
Their payment to me?
They must produce evidence of learning. Ka-ching!
I have stalker status
When it comes to student work, I am a bounty hunter. I stalk them – email, Remind, calling parents, conferencing with them every time they see me, assigning detention… you name it!
No matter how much they push back or try to avoid me, I will collect on every student.
I squeeze everything I can from them until they produce some form of work – some evidence of learning. My job isn’t complete until I can assess their progress in my class.
Some believe that I’m not holding students to a high enough standard by giving them chance after chance. I can’t think of a higher standard than mandating that all students do their work.
I’m getting paid to do my job, and part of that job is making sure they learn – even if they don’t want to. These are kids we’re dealing with! Any type of work that they don’t enjoy is often met with resistance, even if they’re college-bound high-schoolers!
Do you honestly think that a little defiance is going to keep me from my payout?
I am on my students’ case to the point that their only option is to work. At times it’s more of a battle than when I try to trim my cat’s claws. No matter how many detentions I assign, or how many voicemails I leave to their parent, they still resist doing the work.
And yes, there are times when I really want to give up. There’s usually one or two every year that make my blood boil, and I really want to ignore them and throw in the towel. However, I honestly think they want to do well, and they want to please me, but something is keeping them from doing the assignment.
But I’m even MORE stubborn.
And while those students may resent my stubbornness, they’re resigned to the fact that I won’t allow them to do nothing. I refuse to give up on them.
They know that I’m relentless, and I will hassle them until they produce something for me. Like with Eric, I will most likely sit with them and ask them probing questions until they finally write something down.
YOU need to be gritty to hack it as a teacher
No matter how much your students feel about you, there will be those that will resist all attempts to make them learn. Just imagine having a group of students that ignore your questions, refuse to do homework, challenge you to call their parents, etc. They’ll cause a disruption so that they won’t have to work, or even better, they’ll be sent to the office where they can chill for the rest of the period.
They will make you want to give up on the students that proclaim to not care, to say that your lessons are boring, that they’re not learning anything, and that you’re a terrible teacher.
Those micro-agressions add up and can cause even some of the best teachers to throw their hands up in the air, or even worse, leave the profession.
But if you want to be the kind of teacher that makes a tangible and meaningful impact on your students, that loves their job, and makes it year after year, you need grit. You need to be able to dig your heels in and deny your students access to the easy way out.
“But it seems like a lot of work”
I will fully admit that it would be infinitely easier for me to just let Eric do nothing. To ignore him and give my attention to the kids that TRULY want to learn. On those days that he has me for English, I could probably conference with more students if I didn’t sit down and work with him.
Or even better, I could “teach him lesson” and let him fail.
Look, at the end of the day, I’m exhausted from giving students constant feedback, making multiple loops around the classroom, using my random participation method, and listening in on their group discussions. My patience has been tested and my energy sapped from sitting with the Erics in my classes.
But the work I put in during a class period means that I have to do less work later. I grade less. I give better and timely feedback.
And I get the satisfaction of knowing that I didn’t quit on those students that are quitting on themselves. I may possibly be the only person in their life who is doggedly determined to make them learn.
Don’t let them get away with doing nothing
The bottom line is this: Eric will not get away with doing nothing in my class. And neither should your students.
It’s not because of a “failure is not an option” principal. Some students may still fail, but this is more likely because they’re not placed in the proper level. They definitely won’t fail because I wrote them off as not being worth my time and energy.
It’s definitely not because my class is an easy A. I provide rigor, but also plenty of scaffolds and opportunities for students like Eric to show me what they can do.
It’s the fact that at the beginning of the year, I let my students know that, no matter what, they will leave my class more knowledgeable and better than when they arrived. I constantly remind them that I believe in them, and I will show them how to believe in themselves as well.
It’s also the fact that I want to get paid, and Eric doesn’t get to leave my class until I’m properly compensated.
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