Teaching Opinion

Early Career Myth: If Students Don’t Comply, They Aren’t Learning

By Starr Sackstein — June 20, 2017 3 min read
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It is easy for a teacher to look at a student who is clearly not participating and assume that the student isn’t engaging in the learning. Often, however, looks can be deceiving and what we thought was a totally disengaged young person, was actually a child who wasn’t comfortable learning in the way we established learning should happen in our space.

We have to be careful not to judge our kids before offering them multiple opportunities to show us what they know in a way that is appropriate for each of them to do so.

Here’s one example:

Shawn was a student that all of the teachers complained about. He was loud, disrespectful, and downright mean when he bothered to show up for class. Exuding anger and disappointment about being shuffled around from class to class, Shawn had a reputation as a problem that made him seem unteachable.

When I met Shawn in my 10th grade English class, he seemed closed off. I’ve always worked hard to not allow other teachers’ judgments of students cloud my experience with them and offer each kid the opportunity to be who they wanted to be in my space.

Notorious for not doing work or participating in other classes, Shawn was different from the onset. He almost waited for me to treat him as others had: he tried pushing my buttons to no avail, talking to his friends, or sleeping through class.

Then came the mythology unit. It was as if Shawn came alive.

Once Shawn was interested in the subject, all of my suppositions about Shawn became true. One night for homework, I asked for a written page in response to a myth we were working on and Shawn turned in seven written pages. When he put the papers on my desk, he smiled and said, “I had a lot to say on the subject.”

From that point forward, Shawn was my “go to” student.

Since he was a natural leader, many of my other strugglers looked to him approval. He made it cool to learn in my class and I was grateful for that.

Shawn wasn’t the last student who graced my classroom who didn’t appear to be doing anything. He was the first of many who had issues with authority and was convinced by the system he wasn’t smart, so he rebelled, and who could blame him?

Non-traditional students/people make up the world; they are the innovators. Just because they can see through the BS and refuse to comply doesn’t mean they aren’t listening, comprehending, synthesizing, and developing skills. We need to ask ourselves how we can best accommodate them instead of assuming they can’t do something.

Each year when my “Shawns” walk through the door, I’m intrigued. Eager to know each of their stories, I try to build a rapport immediately. I want to know what makes them tick. Why do they have the reputation they have? What do they care about? How can I help them achieve their goals and get them the skills they need?

We have to work together. It goes beyond the box and the system. We must make choices that encourage their ability to show what they know in a manner conducive to their learning needs and style. We must adjust the way we assess if they are meeting standards or not.

It’s easy for a teacher to dole out a failing grade and to blame a whole lot of people for why it happened; it’s challenging and essential to prevent that from happening. Teachers mustn’t underestimate students based on what they see on the surface; we all must dig deeper, the same way we expect the kids to.

We sometimes mistake a student’s attitude about compliance and authority with his/her ability to learn. By not focusing on the work (any or all products and proof of learning in our space), we fail the students by forcing them to jump through unnecessary hoops.

Try this to avoid pitfalls:

  • Try to not use fear as a tactic to compel students to learn. High school students in particular need to choose to learn, we can’t force them.
  • Kids learn in many different ways and just because they refuse to jump through hoops in which they might not find value doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or that they aren’t capable.
  • Don’t underestimate your students at any cost—talk to them first.
  • Truancy is often a bigger problem than not showing up to school; go deeper and avoid judgment.
  • Education is not about justice; it’s about learning—remember that when you are grading.
  • Don’t assign busy work for the sake of just giving work. All work must have clear value to your students.

Kids may not appear to be listening, but most of the time they are. High school students in particular are going through a phase where school is just not their priority and on some level the adolescent need to rebel sometimes includes their learning.

What have you done to foster a relationship with your challenging/truant/ students? Please share.

*Excerpted from Teaching Mythology Expose: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.