“Rough day,” said a good friend in a text I received mid-morning on Tuesday, but was too busy to read until lunch time, to answer until mid-afternoon. My friend, also a teacher, has been dealing with a challenging, troubled student who just wants to sit, doing nothing, learning nothing. If you’ve ever taught in a factory-model school, you’ve probably met dozens, scores, even hundreds of students like that. They’re apathetic, Ms. X says, and they just don’t care. They won’t even go through the motions, won’t do just enough to pass … and it frustrates Ms. X and Mr. Y, too, though for different reasons than my friend. For her, the challenge is to engage all of her students – even this one – in the real work of authentic learning. She keenly feels that she hasn’t made a connection yet with this particular student, and she wanted to talk about how to work within the system – to make the system work the way it claims it should work – to help her student be successful.
For Ms. X and Mr. Y, on the other hand, the “quiet, lazy ones” aren’t usually a problem. “I wish more of them would just sit down and go to sleep like X does,” Some Ms. X complained bitterly, more than a decade ago, when – like my friend yesterday – I was trying to find the key to unlock X’s silent, unhappy heart. When Ms. X and Mr. Y do, briefly, express concern for “quiet lazy ones,” it usually comes out as a desire to lower the failure rate, or maybe not to look bad when a Local Power comes in to observe their classes. The “quiet lazy ones,” in turn, know perfectly well that Ms. X isn’t sincere … so they quietly resist the way they always have.
If only the “quiet lazy ones” could be in a non-factory environment, one where nobody yells and labels when you don’t go through the motions! In an environment like that, sooner or later, you find something interesting to do, and something you’re good at doing, and then you lose the “quiet lazy one” label pretty quickly. But X, all those years ago, had to drop out of school to find that – and my friend’s student probably feels equally stuck.
If you really internalize the factory-paradigm, going through the motions seems perfectly reasonable. After all, if you just do the work, you’ll probably earn enough points to pass the class – and if you do, you won’t have to sit through that class again. Even if there’s some kind of required test at the end, you’ll probably be able to get by, to know enough to pass, if you just go through the motions and do something! One Ms. X, now long retired, used to scream at her “bad, lazy students” who “did nothing” … and then, when lunch time rolled around, she’d scream about them to her colleagues. “Don’t they get it?” she’d ask, furious. “If they’d just do the work, they wouldn’t have to sit in my class again next year! But they’re going to fail, and they’ll be back, and they’ll probably fail again and again and again. And I am not giving them any points this time, either!”
As I recall, That Particular Ms. X “gave points” for tissue boxes, and for unused restroom passes students returned to her at the end of each quarter. And Another Ms. X told me, once, that if everyone was present in class on the day of a test, she gave bonus points to everyone for that. But Each Ms. X “had her standards” – and they were not going to “give that bad, lazy kid a passing grade” unless he went through the motions.
Perhaps that’s why my friend’s student has decided to fail … perhaps he’s sick of going through the motions. Or maybe he just wants to see if somebody cares enough to intervene. But I felt oddly hopeful – both for him and for my friend – after we’d talked and strategized for a while on Tuesday evening.
I’m a lot more concerned with students of mine who (barely) go through the motions but have learned quite well, from their years in the factory-system, that going through the motions is supposed to be enough. “Did my grade go up?” B asked the other day – the one assignment untouched on his desk, the reading for the day ignored, his Minor Assessment product still unfinished a week after it was due. “And can I go to the computer lab on College Application Day this week?” Yes, B, you can go – but no, B, your grade did not magically go up, and it won’t until you stop pretending to go through the motions and start working to improve your Latin reading proficiency. But that seems hard, and distracting yourself seems easier, and somehow B has convinced himself that it will all turn around in college. And B “always got good grades before,” and Ms. X is “mean,” and Mr. Y “lost that paper I turned in,” and all the yelling and labeling in the world – and all the bad grades from Ms. X and Mr. Y – probably won’t be enough to change B’s paradigm. And D, D, K, and so many others share B’s paradigm – and what can one person, or one small joyful learning community, do to help them reframe things?
We’re celebrating “College Application Week” at school, and everyone is encouraged to “wear your favorite college shirt” today. The original idea, I think, was for faculty members to wear something that represented their alma mater – but One Ms. X, who went to a Pretty Good School, was going to search through her closet last night, she said, for something for her Favorite College Team, on whose campus she’s never taken a single class. Going through the motions – or encouraging her students to look further away than she did? Doing things to do them – or making a small, positive change?
I’m not sure – but I am wearing a sweatshirt from my alma mater today. And I’m hoping that, even when it feels like we’re just going through the motions, at some deep hidden level the joyful learning community continues to strengthen and grow. Maybe, just maybe, B and the others – and my friend’s sad, frustrated student – will decide to join in when the time is right.