Caring about Apathy


Over on the forums, Jane Bauman asks a question that surely vexes us all: “What are ways to help older (fully capable) students want to reach their full potential instead of trying to get by with the least amount of effort possible?”

Struggles with apathy have been nearly constant throughout my teaching experience. Apathy is a manifestation of human nature, and teachers usually deal with it on some level. The only real solution is for students to discover for themselves the value of knowledge. There’s no switch we can flip to turn their apathy off, but we can encourage and direct students to apply themselves more fully to learning.

We can start with those old standbys, the missed recess, the pizza party, and their cousins. They do have their place. Failure to do one’s work may justly lead to forfeiture of recreation, and achievement is cause for celebration. But as fear of punishment and hope of reward fade, apathy easily returns. Students must be taught to value learning as much as they value playtime and tasty food.

It helps for students to know what their education is good for. Anticipating the inevitable “Why do we have to know this?” questions, I look for opportunities to demonstrate the relevance of the things I teach. When teaching about the Cartesian coordinate system (the x axis and the y axis) in algebra, I tell students about a metalworking job I once had. I describe the machinery I used there that operated on that principle. I show how current events are illuminated by the history and geography that we learn. I point out that their work with poetry and other literature in English class helps them understand the Bible. When I have no ready, specific answer to “Why do we have to know this?” I respond that students are building a robust store of knowledge and skill with which to face their varied and unknown futures.

Still better, I seize on moments of accomplishment when students experience the benefits of learning. If they’re starting to get the hang of solving algebraic equations, I can show them how these powerful tools make short work of otherwise bewildering problems. Students gain a sense of empowerment, a sense that their capabilities grow at school. It’s harder to be apathetic when you’re being empowered.

Apathy is not just a student issue. The longer I teach, the more I am tempted to settle into the slothful repetition of last year’s teaching. Like an eighth-grader padding his book report with adjectives, I can refresh my memory with a quick glance at the textbook, print out the same old worksheet, and figure that will be enough to get through the period. Instead, I continually need to renew my sense of urgency and responsibility, striving for growth instead of relaxing in self-satisfaction. I can’t expect my students to take their education seriously if I don’t take it seriously.

Caring about my students combats their apathy even more than caring that I’m doing a good job, even though that’s a good thing. They’ll see little point in working hard for a taskmaster dispensing assignments from on high, but if I work alongside them, assisting them in becoming successful, they’ll be more inclined to apply themselves. Earlier this school year, many of my geography students were discouraged by poor grades on a test. Where once I would have scolded them for not studying enough and left it at that, this time I asked what I could do differently to help them do better. We had a productive conversation that led me to change my review procedures, and they’ve responded with commendable effort. If it’s important for them to do well, it’s important for me to help them.

In the forum discussion, Austin Shenk makes a great point about working with parents: “I find that communication with parents is so important. The parents of my most apathetic student are some of the most supportive. Although his apathy is still present, it has diminished. I find it tempting to believe that apathetic students have apathetic parents, but in this experience, it is not the case. If you haven’t checked with them yet, give them the benefit of the doubt and talk with them.”

Unfortunately, I have had apathetic students who were living out of values they learned at home, but my experience has often mirrored Austin’s. Many parents are eager to hear from us what they can do to help their underperforming children improve. More than once, I’ve seen parents take action to dramatic effect.

Perhaps most importantly, we must teach and exemplify a life of faithful stewardship of the resources He’s given us. What we have belongs to the Lord, and we owe Him a good return on his investment. Our love for Him will compel us to do our best for Him.

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Matthew Mast

6 years ago

Well said, Peter! The emphasis on the role a teacher plays in modeling a learning mindset is helpful. It’s unrealistic to expect that my students will be enthusiastic if I am not, or if they see that I simply pulled out last year’s notes. I agree wholeheartedly with the last paragraph, and I think it is the antidote to apathy.

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