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Teaching Opinion

How to Reach Reluctant Learners

By Nancy Barile — May 27, 2014 5 min read
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One of my favorite things about Facebook is that it allows me to connect with my former students. However, I was surprised when one student in particular—Eddie Scofield—friended me three years ago.

Eddie and I had a fairly contentious relationship when he was my student in senior English class in 2008. There were 35 students in that class, most of whom had a mix of behavioral and academic issues. Eddie distinguished himself almost immediately as the troublemaking ringleader. On any given day he could be argumentative, sarcastic, oppositional, sometimes lazy, and definitely mischievous.

After the first couple of weeks with Eddie, I was pulling my hair out. I was thinking of ways to get him switched out of my class. But a couple of effective strategies changed our relationship—and I didn’t realize it until Eddie and I got in touch for a recent project.

Reflecting on the Past

Recently, I invited Eddie to stop by my high school. I was preparing a workshop for our district called “Motivating the Reluctant Learner,” and I thought he might be able to provide some valuable insight into the topic.

He ended up telling his personal story at the workshop, and I learned so much about him that I didn’t know while he was my student. For example, I hadn’t known that he was briefly homeless during high school, that his stepfather had been deployed after 9/11, or that his mother was a drug user. I also didn’t realize that I had had an enormous impact on Eddie—and that my class had changed his life.

By the time Eddie finished speaking that day, I had learned a great deal about my former student. But that wasn’t even the best part: At the end of the presentation, he gave 10 tips for motivating reluctant learners. I hope you’ll find them as valuable as my colleagues and I did.

Eddie’s 10 Tips for Motivating Reluctant Learners

1. Be enthusiastic about your work. Students can’t get excited about learning if the teacher is clearly disinterested. Students can tell immediately if you’re bored or “phoning it in.”

2. Don’t assume. A student may look like trouble or have a reputation at school. You may even have had a run-in with the student or know his/her hellion of a sibling. However, the truth is that you never know how a student is going to act or perform in your class. It’s best to start with a clean slate—and assume he or she is ready and willing to work hard.

3. Reluctance and ignorance are not always mutually inclusive. Eddie emphasized that reluctant learners are not necessarily incapable learners. If you make those assumptions about a student, you can be sure he or she will most definitely become reluctant.

Eddie reminded me of one incident when he was supposed to write an essay but didn’t want to do the assignment. Eddie had spent most of the class period stalling, swearing he could write an A+ essay in the last 20 minutes of class. So, I accepted his challenge. Sure enough, Eddie wrote a brilliant essay in that period of time—mainly because he appreciated the fact that I gave him autonomy to use his time effectively.

4. Communicate with other educators. Back when I was pulling my hair out over Eddie, I went to speak with his former English teacher. I was surprised when she raved about him. She told me that he had a difficult home life and that I needed to give him a chance. So, I listened and changed my approach. Eddie said that he appreciated his former teacher taking the time to defend him and provide insight into his situation—plus the fact that I had cared enough to give him a second chance.

5. Ask questions and care. Eddie said that when he was in high school, he often wished that a teacher or administrator would ask him what was wrong. He said he probably wouldn’t have given an answer, but he would have felt a great deal better if someone had shown that they cared enough to ask.

6. Use class time for more than lectures. It’s hard to believe that there are still teachers who lecture non-stop, but it does happen. Nowadays, there are few reasons for not varying instruction and getting students more involved in their learning.

7. Challenge students respectfully. We all know when a student is being a deliberate troublemaker who is looking to push our buttons. But it’s important to be respectful when challenging students—don’t embarrass, humiliate, or make fun of them. Instead, encourage them and meet privately to discuss your concerns. Find out what’s behind their bad behavior or unwillingness to do work.

Eddie told me that one of the things that “hooked” him in my class was my sense of humor and the fact that I could match him point for point in sarcasm—not mean, personal attacks, but witty, playful sarcasm. That helped him to build a connection with me as a teacher.

8. Be fair and vigilant in support of established class rules. Don’t grant a privilege to one student and refuse it to another. Students are hyperaware of these dynamics and know exactly what goes on in the classroom.

9. Immediately discipline major infractions. Eddie made it clear that teachers must use immediate discipline for behavior that is completely out of line. But he suggested that minor infractions be dealt with in a non-confrontational way—perhaps after class or in a private conversation so as not to humiliate or embarrass students. For example, Eddie never forgave the teacher who called his mother in front of the whole class.

10. Make personal connections. Establishing strong relationships with your students, and creating a setting in which you and the student are working toward a common goal, is probably the single most powerful thing you can do to motivate a reluctant learner. Ask a hockey player if he watched the Bruins game last night. Make a comment about an interesting t-shirt a student is wearing. Acknowledge a student’s success on the sports field or in a school play. Paying attention to reluctant learners goes a long way in motivating them.

Eddie’s tips are simple and intuitive. But even as a 19-year veteran of teaching, I felt refreshed after reviewing them. I think we can all benefit from stepping back and re-evaluating the ways we deal with our reluctant learners.

So you might be wondering—what’s Eddie up to today? I was absolutely delighted to hear that he’s a junior at Salem State University. But I was shocked when he revealed his major and career choice: He plans to be a high school English teacher. He’s even doing his student teaching with me in the fall! As his former teacher—and future colleague—I couldn’t be prouder.

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