Sometimes I hear myself and others say, “I can’t get that kid to do any work”. Sometimes I am even guilty of saying, “that kid doesn’t do anything (in class)”. I would even admit that at one point in my career I may have even considered a student to be “lazy” because they fail to hand in assignments.
A subtle, but obvious, shift in my thinking helps me manage my approach to how I deal with my most disengaged students. A shift that has made this common frustration far more palatable.
Instead of saying “I can’t get this kid to do work” I think, “Why can’t I get this student to learn?”
This, on the surface, may not seem “more palatable”, but I think taking full ownership of my student’s failures to meaningfully engage with learning activities fundamentally defines (or redefines) the nature of the student-teacher relationship. To clarify, I think that when a teacher’s primary responsibility is to get a kid to “do work”, they have to wear many hats. The cheerleader, “cmon you can do it”! The career counselor “this will pay off in the future, don’t you want a job someday?” The authoritarian “do this or else”! When we, instead, just think about how to get students to learn, we can wear our teacher hat and say “do this because this is awesome, and learning is awesome, and you are awesome!” This creates an environment that promotes learning over all things, instead of compliance. Furthermore, when we craft such an environment, students are more likely to take intellectual risks thus increasing the quality and quantity of student work that can be used as evidence of learning. Moreover, using student failure to engage with assignments as a point of reflection accelerates the process of curricular revisions toward making the work more meaningful. Taken all together, simply asking “what is wrong with this assignment?” instead of “what is wrong with that kid?” has fundamentally transformed my approach to teaching and learning.
"In other words, we need to ask ourselves if we believe the amount of work completed is more important than the learning experience that school work is meant to be a conduit for?"
With New York City schools holding their biannual Parent Teacher Conferences last week I realized that this shift in mindset is not just for teachers, but for all stakeholders. How many of us (teachers) used the amount of student work completed as a critical data point during our parent teacher conferences? Likewise, how many times do parents begin these conferences with “does he do all of his work?” How many students walked away from P.T.C.s last week, and likely every other parent teacher conference they have ever been to, with the notion that they have to complete all of their assignments and be better at meeting deadlines; sometimes with heavy consequences associated with failing to do so? Shouldn’t we instead be discussing the quality of student work, or even how the work that takes place in our classrooms is translating into understanding of the content or skills? Shouldn’t PTCs celebrate student work, and invite parents and the community to share in that celebration instead of uploading parents with data and information in the few minutes that we have their attention?
I think teachers and school leaders can begin to shift our thinking on how we can get the most out of P.T.C.s, but the first step is reevaluating the purpose and the importance of the work that we assign to students and owning our student failures. In other words, we need to ask ourselves if we believe the amount of work completed is more important than the learning experience that school work is meant to be a conduit for? In doing so have to be prepared to accept that a student’s failure may not be intrinsic to the student, but may in fact be a failure of our design.
*A previous version of this post appeared in an internal teacher newsletter.
Tim is a natural science teacher who is committed to inquiry teaching, task based assessment, and educational technology integration. As a teacher leader and leadership scholar, Tim is passionate about promoting continuous school improvement through data analysis and systems design. Tim is also a husband, a father, and a competitive martial artist. Follow Tim on Twitter @cambrianed