The Most Difficult Student to Teach
by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz
He was young, bright, and failing school.
A year after finishing the eighth grade he failed high school and was sent to a continuation school. There, I noticed his writing talent, gave him an old computer, and worked to get him into a small, high school program where he could get the attention he needed. I went to the principal of his school and told her of my plans. She was thrilled and brought him in to discuss the possibilities. The only thing he had to do was continue not be a discipline problem. The next day he got into a fight over a pencil. End of story.
He won. He liked his life. No expectations, no school related stress, and no fear of failure. This is the most difficult child to teach. The reasons are simple and complex. Unlike students who have been diagnosed with a learning concern, these students don’t have any measurable problems that can be ascertained by testing. They simply win by losing. They see a test not as a measurement of what they know, how to improve, and to guide future methods to help them, but as a waste of time that can only end badly if they try. They know they have the power to fail and it they do, it was of there own choosing. Some may call it passive aggressive, but it reality it all aggressive. They are in charge and let the devil take the hindmost. Within minutes they are done with the test and sit idly by trying not to draw attention. Bubble tests offer them the ability to make designs with the answer sheets. Essay tests enable them to write about issues that are not related to the subject, but make it look like they are working. Going to the bathroom requests are frequent and finding ways to hide and use cell phones provide the only challenge that a quiet room provides.
The results are no surprise to the parent, teacher, or student. Indeed, most schools advocate simplifying the requirements, giving the student extra help, and even after school detention. It is the latter that provides the most joy to the hardcore. For there they meet others who could care less. Not all the students, but he or she only needs one to rationalize their efforts and maximize the benefits of failing by providing socialization possibilities. By the end of high school, if they make it, the system has provided them with hundreds of hours of special help, thousands of dollars worth of remedial books and media, and has pushed them out into life. They have won even if they are not allowed to graduate because they have beaten the system. They remain in charge.
These students have made the legendary, “not working to potential” comment a staple on report cards and parent meetings. To the student this means they have ability and confirms what they have known all along. The amount of ability, the ability to show it, the ability to use it in a useful manner are all the teacher’s responsibility to measure and maximize.
This syndrome, if you will, is not just for low or average achievers, it is also for some of those labeled gifted. It is this latter group where this winning by losing is most evidence because some schools heap more work on those identified as high achievers. There is a dramatic difference between high achievers and those identified as gifted in some cases. The achiever loves the game and loves to win. The gifted student may just want to blend in or face the competition and simply does poorly. These students come in all shapes and flavors, but the one thing low achieving, highly gifted students have in common is the belief that in the end everything will be okay.
Many teachers have seen the same scenario, especially when students take tests. They know if they do well they are going to be challenged and, if the scores are high enough, even lose friends. Students know the game and play it well. I have seen them complete a two hour state test in 15 minutes with no regrets. When the results come in they shrug it off and return to the lifestyle they have learned to enjoy. No stress, no expectations, and best of all no need to change. Change is frightening and these students have found a way to avoid it and thus new challenges. They like their comfort and responsibilities aren’t a concern now that they have proven that they aren’t any good at meeting society’s expectations for them.
Smart? You better believer it. They have the system mastered. While other students are working away trying to prove they are the best, these students cliche together and enjoy themselves without the worries school usually provides. They have realized that if you do well you only court disappointment and they also fear losing control. Ironically, the only control they have over their future is to fail and using that method that don’t lose control. They can control their expectations and gain approval from their peers. Best of all they can shrug off that bright label and its expectations.
It is important to note that failure is not the student’s term, but one society places on them by grading them on things they don’t value. Not working to potential is an overworked term to imply that the individual in question has the same potential as others regardless of that individual’s self-imposed value.
Some students don’t fear success as much as they fear it’s ramifications. Doing well puts the onus on them to continue to do well, even improve. It also can cut into their social life and may even create a classic Catch 22. If I do well I shall have to do better and better. If I don’t do well I don’t have to stress.
High expectations aren’t for everyone. Some students just want to remain uncalled upon. “I don’t know” is their code word for don’t ask me anymore because I don’t want the attention good or bad. The goal is to hide among the masses.
The good news for students who fail to succeed is that they can capitalize on apathy and make it their stock and trade. When the test comes the student simply does not care. I am not good at math is an explanation they have learned works. Failing because one simply does not care is better then facing a challenge where the results of studying might be failure. It is better not to care and not be surprised. These students aren’t lazy, they work at not doing well. They have all the answers to avoiding it. “I forgot”, “I don’t understand”, and other rationalizations have worked for them. They simply do not have the courage to change. It isn’t self-esteem, it is a lack of understanding, foresight if you will, of the value of success to society. It has been said all students want to learn, but the reality is that they may not want to learn what you are offering. They want to count, but without a clear appreciation of what is at stake failure becomes acceptable. Let’s face it, a good grade means little these days. The difference between a B and a D isn’t worth staying up late and losing friends. To these students a D isn’t a disappointment, it is a victory. They didn’t fail and who really wants to be on the honor role anyway.
A common trait of these students is usually the fact that they are street smart, but have limited math and language art skills. As the school years went by they found themselves falling behind more and may have reached the conclusion that it really didn’t make any difference how well they did because they wouldn’t measure up. In many cases parents are also feed-up having tried several types of motivation without success. Parent-teacher conferences were tedious and repetitious with educators noting the lack of achievement and offering up a few suggestions all of which the parent had heard frequently.
Smart students don’t care if they pass or fail or fall somewhere in between. Threats of repeating the year hold little value to them. Worse, if they do fail next year’s teachers are probably going to have a student in their class who could be disruptive to the others and a behavior problem. Is the system going to fail them two years in a row? They know this won’t happen and so their goal just might be to get kicked out putting more pressure on the parent and a loss of income for the school.
Schools are caught in a quandary with these students. If they follow Piaget’s theory that they will learn when they are ready to learn and promote all students failure is not an option and threatening a student just makes them more hardened to such talk.
To overcome this consistent failure to buckle down to society’s standards requires a paradigm shift in education. Schools must learn to accept failure from some students and be willing to use it as a starting point. Failure is the leading cause of progress. To error is not failure, but a starting point. The only true failure in school is expecting that all students are the same. Hence standards based testing is essentially useless to these students. They don’t care. The problems that the system must solve are how to motivate them, how to measure this success, and how to justify this to the public.
To overcome the “I don’t give a damn” attitude requires some decisive action that may be out of the mainstream and thus expensive, time consuming, and frequently frustrating. If you follow the idea of multiple intelligences you cannot help but being struck by the fact that most people are better at some things. The problem is finding what they are better at and developing a plan to exploit this weakness in the bright child’s armor.
The student needs to be taught about themselves. Why? Because they may think that they are unique and their problems are different. The reality is that their problems might not be common place, but they are seldom unique. That does not mean they should be ignored, but they can benefit from learning about problems others have overcome. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s many failures. (http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/education/failures.htm)
Ways to Help Reach Them
I recommend that following plan when dealing with deliberate non-achievers. First, involve them in the decision making. Tomorrow we are going to read a story about people who burn books to keep others ignorant. Here is brief outline of Fahrenheit 451. Do you think the students would like to guess at what the title means before reading it or after? Engagement is crucial in motivation. Asking students to develop questions about the material and showing them how to create these questions is a plus. Giving the questions to other students to answer is also engaging.
Relate assignments to real life when possible. Books are being banned. Here is a list of them. How do you see the relationship between those who burn books and those who ban them? Is banning the book the same as having parental guidance on records? Write an essay on why such warnings are needed or not and when we are done we can write to a record industry official and see what they say.
This type of lesson can result in discussions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and helps feed the skeptical nature that some students have because they don’t feel empowered. Having lessons that can attempt to change society are very motivational to these students.
Learning from errors is what schools should be for. Remember, failure is the first step on the road to success. However, humor is also important. Bright non-achievers usually have an aversion to making errors and so they don’t try. Thus they feel they control the situation. It is the same tactic that students use when they reply that they don’t know to a question even if they do because they don’t want to get involved. This is why I recommend not using red markers and giving students a variety of ways to show they know the material. Some students might be motivated to improve by having their marks read out loud and some may be chagrined. The toughest students to teach don’t care and if they do well frequently say, “I didn’t even study” to assure their position at the bottom on the class.
These students have another universal code word and that is “boring.” Unfortunately, it is true. Most lessons taught are boring. There is very little that can be used to motivate a student outside of parent pressure, love of the subject matter, or desire to please someone, even the teacher. The latter is vital and the reason that good teachers are often subject to undue pressure brought about by students telling others whatever it takes to get them out of the class. Administrators essentially have a choice of believing the child and/or parent and the teacher. It is easier to move the student. The transfer seldom results in improved grades, but alleviates pressure and that is why the tough to teach student uses it. As for why a subject or lesson is boring is almost always because of two reasons. First, they see no need to know the material. Secondly, it requires too much effort. Students used to memorizing answers, asking friends what was on the test, and spending hours figuring out ways to cheat are seldom happy when confronted with something that is out of their control. Asking why that is the right answer or wrong answer is tough. Especially for those why rely on the “I don’t know” evasive reply.
In an attempt to avoid this the teacher might consider giving students a choice of lessons that teach the same subject matter. Sites such as Awesome Stories (https://www.awesomestories.com/) are prefect for this. The stories are high interest, plentiful, and provide a variety of ways to reach a goal. Proof of learning can also be expanded to include the traditional essay, writing online stories, Khan Academy website (https://www.khanacademy.org/) type tutorials where they teach others, songs, poetry, and more that transcend boring. Here are some examples based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (http://buhlercc.wikispaces.com/Bloom’s+Taxonomy) In my classroom I have students create museums, newspapers, miniature golf courses, tattooed arms, and musicals to allow students to show mastery of the subject.
Critical thinking is an interesting term in that the person has to have the knowledge to think critically before they can apply it. For example, a mechanic must find out why the engine does not work. Without a working knowledge of the engine their can be no critical thinking. That is why the hard to reach student must learn the value of being skeptical. When you add this to their usual positive response to the absurd you can develop students who start to look for the disconnects in lessons and society. I make fun of fairy tales, for example, and that usually gets them to start rethinking what has been accepted by them in the past. This contrarian point of view also works in math class as well. Giving students the answer a question and having them write the question results in their striving to apply their learning in ways that they have not experienced before.
Conclusion: I would suggest that winning by losing attitude is the prerogative of the student and to overcome this learned behavior requires changes in methodology and require a teacher to have patience and the ability to try different approaches. Time consuming, yes, but once mastered the lessons flow and the results are dramatic. Start slowly with these students by empowering them and inviting them to take part in the process. After that tilt the lesson so that it requires a fresh outlook with no wrong answers. The little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to save the community is a grand example of getting these students involved. http://www.dutchcoachapproach.com/The_Dutch_Coach_Approach/A_brave_Dutch_boy.html
After reading this to them ask them why this was a stupid thing to do? Ask them what they would have done instead? Next read them this
“True! Of course it is! […] I have given you the story just as Mother told it to me, years ago. Why, there is not a child in Holland who does not know it. And […] you may not think so, but that little boy represents the spirit of the whole country. Not a leak can show itself anywhere either in its politics, honor, or public safety, that a million fingers are not ready to stop it, at any cost. “
Now the teacher can relate this to a number of readings and even tie in math, geography, and political science. There is the potential to consider whether the quote was a primary source and why it wasn’t. The point is that the lesson isn’t boring and the learning potential is vast. The non-productive student can be called on to design a medal, create a poem or song, write an editorial, or even design an outfit the Dutch boy might have worn as well as writing an opinion of why it was good or bad.
Bottom line: Empower the students, keep the lessons unique, and be prepared to challenge yourself. Finally, share your outcomes with others to gain feedback and solicit changes. Remember that they may be the most difficult students to teach, but they can be the most rewarding.