Student Achievement

“I Don’t Care!”

By Kevin Bushweller — January 24, 2007 1 min read

The challenges rookie teachers face are well documented. They have to design lesson plans, master new curricula, and learn to navigate the oftentimes tricky politics of school life.

But for many, the biggest challenge they face is figuring out how to react to student apathy. Do you punish lazy students by giving them more assignments? Do you devote most of your time and energy to the kids who want to be there, the ones who work hard and pay attention? Or do disengaged students deserve as much attention as engaged ones?

A nicely written piece in American Secondary Education, a scholarly journal published by Ashland University in Ohio, answers those and other questions about how new teachers can reach disengaged middle school students. But the lessons in the article could apply to kids at almost any age.

The article, “A Middle School Dilemma: Dealing with ‘I Don’t Care’,” includes some poignant anecdotes from teachers in the trenches struggling with how to motivate the unmotivated . One 8th grade boy, for instance, consistently fails his history tests, but he’s polite, shy, and doesn’t cause problems in class. His student teacher offered to provide an extra study session for him. He thanked her in advance for making a special effort to help him, but then he didn’t show up for the study session.

Sound familiar? There are countless students in schools all across the country just like that boy. They don’t cause problems, but they are completely, 100 percent disengaged.

The author of the article, Foster Walsh, an assistant professor in the department of teacher education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., offers some common sense advice for teachers dealing with these kinds of students, such as using questionnaires to see what students are interested in and what subjects they like or dislike and why. This gives teachers a starting point for discussion, and even the possibility of a little humor.

But maybe the best advice for new teachers is painfully obvious: Don’t take what students say to you personally, Walsh recommends. Rather, he writes, try to see “adolescent disengagement and apathy not as a single case of defiance but as a pattern of practiced defense--a complicated problem, requiring a complicated solution.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.