Every teacher is told that they must teach to all learning styles, that they must follow 504 plans and Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and that they are responsible for differentiating assignments so that all students can learn equally.  What if a teacher does all of these things, but a student simply won’t learn?  Believe it or not, this happens a lot more frequently than one might think.  After teaching for seventeen years, I still start each new semester (I am a high school teacher) with the idea that I am going to be able to help all students be successful in my class.  I am an optimist at heart, and I imagine that if I teach the material to the best of my ability, that the students will likewise put forth their maximum effort.  I tell my students that if they listen, and if they simply do the assignments given, that they will have the opportunity to be successful in my class.  The students look at me eagerly and with confidence on that first day, but for whatever reason, there are always one or two who slip away and just refuse to work.  What is happening here, and is there a way to solve this problem?

The Realities of the Classroom

Early on in my teaching career, I took great offense to those students who refused to work.  I could not imagine what I was doing wrong that caused them to sit in my classroom day after day, twiddling their thumbs, staring at the walls, putting their heads on their desks, and just turning in blank worksheets (or turning in nothing at all).  I believed that the problem stemmed from some defect in my teaching or in my personality, and so I would try to think of different ways to try and reach these students.  I tried more group work; I tried less group work.  I tried peer tutoring, and I tried talking to the students individually.  I tried assigning work with options so that each student could choose a task that most appealed to him/her. I tried what seemed like every trick in the book; however, it seemed like no matter how I changed myself, I could never change the unmotivated student.  So, I decided to ask my class one day what they thought about this problem.  One of the students who refused to work said something that changed my entire outlook, and quite frankly, blew my mind.  He said, “You are doing everything that you can.  You are a great teacher, but I just don’t want to be here and I don’t want to work.  There is nothing that you could ever do differently that would change my attitude.”  I told him how much I appreciated his honesty, and then I did some reflection on his words.

The biggest question I had after this brutal bit of honesty was, “Do I give up on these students?”  These students have clearly given up on themselves (for whatever reason), but at what point do I also throw in the towel and allow them to fail?  I decided that I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, and so I thought that the most logical next step would be to contact the parents and see if the home-life was a factor.  I really wanted there to be a common factor that seemed to be causing these students to lose focus and interest in school, but I can honestly say that while there are a few demographics that tend to struggle with this issue more than others, that there isn’t one single unified cause that I could find.  My groups of students who can but won’t have included females and males, white and minority ethnicities, rich families and poor families, and kids with involved parents and kids with absentee parents (or students from alternative forms of families).  Regardless of the student’s background, there had to be something that triggered the academic apathy, but there certainly was not a one-size-fits-all reason or solution.  At this point, I took the blame away from my personal teaching style, which was a huge relief, and decided to see what other solutions might be out there.

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Moving Forward

First, I investigated how the students were doing in their other classes.  At the high school I teach at, kids are on a 4 x 4 block.  They have four classes each semester, and they change classes each semester, for a total of eight classes per year.  In our gradebook program, we have the ability to look up the grades for the kids in all their classes (current and past).  In nearly all cases, it became clear that the student was not only refusing to work in my class, but in the other core classes as well.  Many students were failing at least three of their four classes at any given time.  Also, most students were not only failing their current classes, but had also failed most of their classes in previous years.  After finding out this information, I started thinking about the dynamics of how our school and classes are set up.  Currently, the kids have the opportunity to earn 32 credits (8 classes a year x 4 years), but only need 28 credits to graduate.  Theoretically, students can fail four classes and still be on track for graduation.  This may lead some students to develop the attitude that they will just take the class again another time.

This leads to the next problem that I found that may be encouraging these kids to fail.  If a student fails English I his/her freshman year, he/she will simply be put right back into English I the next year.  If the kids fail Algebra 1, they go right back into Algebra 1.  They are not required to go to summer school to make up the missing credits.  We have students on our campus who have taken the same English course three or more times because they keep on failing.  At what point is there an intervention?

Another problem at our school is that we do not have a late bus for after school transportation.  If students ride the bus, they must go directly to the bus after school and cannot stay for tutoring unless a parent is unable to pick them up at a later time.  Many students find that if they aren’t getting the information during class the first time, that it is hopeless for them to ever catch up, and therefore, they decide to shut down and refuse to work.

Finally, as far as I can tell, these kids are not receiving the support that they need from the school itself.  The students on 504 plans, IEPs, or ELPs (English-Learner Plans) have procedures and safe-guards in place to ensure that they do not fall between the cracks; however, most of the kids who can but won’t are kids who have not been identified as any of the above.  These are regular-education students who simply do not qualify for any extra assistance, and so they are oftentimes effectively ignored.  I realize now that this problem is something bigger than any one teacher can conquer.  However, here are some final ideas about how to possibly find a solution to this problem:

  1. Don’t take it personally when a student won’t work. Every person who goes into teaching wants to and believes that he/she can and will reach every student.  Realize that you can do everything right, and there still may be that student who just won’t work despite that fact that he can.  It is not your fault.
  2. All incoming freshman should have an individualized education plan regardless of whether they qualify or not. Each student should be connected to a counselor (or teacher) who can sit down with them and discuss goals, strengths, weaknesses, fears, etc.  The student should know that they have someone that they can reach out to if needed.
  3. As soon as a student fails more than one class in a single semester, there should be a counselor, parent, and possible teacher intervention set up. Plans should be made with the student to show him/her how to get back on track.  Schools are often waiting until too late to identify the at-risk students.
  4. Summer school is a must. Quit allowing students to retake classes during the regular school year.
  5. Make sure that kids do have time for tutoring. If a late bus is not financially feasible for a district, then there should be study hall built into the school day.  One positive improvement at my school is the addition of homeroom time.  The kids will be in their homeroom 4 days a week for 30 minutes at a time.  Teachers will be talking to students individually about their classes and their grades once a week, and students will have access to reliable peer tutors (National Honor Society members).

Remember, these are only possible solutions that I have come up with on my own, and I am sure that there are many other great solutions out there.  I do hope that this article can be a start to a great discussion about how to motivate the student who can but won’t.

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