“I Don’t Care”

Student apathy can be a frustrating drag in any classroom. What might be going on beneath the surface of a student’s “don’t-care” attitude?

For some, it might signal a fear of failure or a wrong view of education. For others, it might indicate disordered priorities and desires. Whatever the case, John Mark calls teachers to the daily work of forming students into passionate lovers of goodness and truth, of God and neighbor.

Don’t you love a good project?

Take some time to develop the thing, but once you roll it out to the students, the students are engaged, and you get to stand back and watch them work. You get to advise them as they dig deeply into this thing on their own, whatever the subject is that you’ve assigned to them in this project. Instead of being the sage on the stage, you get to be the guide by the side for a change. And the students, they’re working extra hours trying to fill in whatever gaps they might have. They find sources you hadn’t thought of. They learn things you didn’t know. And when they get to obstacles, they just bound right over those obstacles as if they don’t exist…

It’s not connecting? That’s not your experience of projects? Sometimes it is, and those are great.

I have only ever had students outright tell me they don’t care about what I’m offering in words, maybe a handful of times in the 14 years that I’ve been teaching. But they tell me they don’t care in other ways.

What’s actually going on when a student is not engaging with the material I have to offer?

Fear of Failure

A student saying “I don’t care”—a student really not engaging with the material may actually be afraid of failing. They might be saying “I don’t care” as a means of covering up their fear of failure.

We talked about that yesterday as a misapplication of carefulness. Carefulness is a good thing. If you misapply it and go to perfectionism, then carefulness is damaging and debilitating.

Today I’m going to take a little bit of a different approach to the fear of failure and say that the thing to develop in students who are afraid to fail and therefore feigning a lack of care—the thing to develop in these students is intellectual courage.

Courageous thinking is a willingness to take risks for the truth, for something important. And in this case, intellectual courage is a willingness to take risks for the truth.

So they may be saying they are afraid of failure and feigning that they don’t care. And in that case, the thing to develop is courage.

Misplaced Priorities

It may be that the student is saying that their outside life is more important than what is happening here.

In math class oftentimes we talk about making math real for the student, and that means you’re connecting it to their daily life. And actually, in every class we try to do this. We try to connect the class to what students are experiencing outside of school. And that’s a good pedagogical technique; that’s a good thing for us to do as teachers, is to tie what students are learning today with what they know from their life outside of school.

However, if the student is relying on me always to do that, I’m going to fail, and I’m going to lose them along the way because I can’t always make those connections for all of my students.

I have 14 students coming in this year. They have widely varied interests. I’m not going to hit them every single time with things that interest their personal life, with every single lesson that I teach. And so it is the student’s responsibility sometimes to make those connections.

Transactional View of Learning

It may be that the student is saying of learning, that learning is a transactional relationship.

Think about a transactional relationship that you have with a clerk at Walmart. I will give you this money, you will give me the goods I desire.

Think of the transactional relationship that people have with their boss. I will do the things you ask of me. I will allow you to boss me around for 8 hours a day and in return you will give me a paycheck.

That translates very, very easily into school. I will do the tasks you ask of me and in return you will give me a grade and you will let me go to the next grade. And at the end you will give me a diploma.

Transactional relationship of education means that as long as the student is fulfilling the commands of the teacher, the demands of the teacher, then they have earned their diploma, their grade, their advancement.

Is that really what education is? Is that really what we’re all about?

I would say no. No, no, no, no. You see, education is about far more than this transaction.

Malformed Love

Another way the student might be saying this, might be communicating this transactional relationship is that he might be saying or she might be saying, “I love something else more than I love school.”

Well, that’s fine, actually. Does a student really need to love school itself?

No. But there are things going on at school that ought to be shaping the loves of our students, and students ought to be finding themselves loving certain things more and other things less because of what’s happening at school.

So far this week I’ve been focusing on intellectual character traits, things that exist in the mind, the way students think about things. Today I want to highlight something very different. It is a character trait. Remember, I called character how a student behaves within the range of possible behaviors that they have.

So how do they behave within a range of possible behaviors, within that range of possibility when it comes to love?

Love is a transitive verb that means it needs an object. There is something—you don’t just love, you love something or someone.

So while we are thinking beings, I would argue that we are much more than our minds. What we love is a deeper part of who we are than what we think. Now the two are closely connected. I like to say that the mind defends what the heart chooses.

Education as Reformation

Education is not a process of information; it is a process of reformation. Think of it almost like a hammer and an anvil and the student is this piece of metal. I almost said a piece of work, but that has a different connotation. Sometimes they are a real piece of work.

We shape our students. But it’s not in a single act, it’s not in a single statement. We don’t have these brilliant moments where we change the life of a student. I wish for us that we all could have that experience, but it’s rare.

What happens over time is that the student gets shaped by what happens repeatedly. Loving God, loving our neighbors through practices, these daily habits, will hopefully move the needle.

Now, I recognize, I recognize we have our students for a very short amount of time in the overall scheme of things. We have them for a few hours a day. Then they spend a lot of time elsewhere. And a lot of their loves are shaped by their friends, by what they do elsewhere. As teachers, we have limited capacity, but we do have some capacity to shape their loves. And I’m saying that we ought to be using that capacity to the fullest of our abilities.

If you wish to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Perhaps the problems that I face with getting students to really engage with the projects that I give to them, to really engage with the lessons of the day, perhaps those problems are not so much problems of disconnection. Rather, they’re problems of students not longing for the immensity of the sea and not seeing how these things that they’re doing day by day connect to that big term, that long-term picture.

I have a vision for schools where each classroom is a community of lovers. Lovers together of truth, lovers of knowledge, but more importantly, lovers of each other, lovers of God, and lovers of neighbors outside the classroom. And we can do that through practices that build that community.

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