Every teacher, every year, has at least one student who utters those heartbreaking words: “I just don’t like school.” These words are uttered by the student who says they “just want to be left alone,” and who is resigned to get through their education with as little effort and bother as possible. But what are they really saying to you? Here, we’ll offer practical advice for reading between the lines of student apathy to inspire the uninspired learners.
When you hear “I don’t like school,” it’s easy for teachers to feel hurt or defensive. Educators put in a lot of work to make lessons engaging and challenging, so it’s natural to see a student’s complaints as an assault on your work and efforts. However, it’s important to not simply write off these words as the immature complaints of a disenchanted kid. In fact, these words are a cry for help. They’re a loud and clear declaration that the school system is not serving the student the way it should. Somewhere along the line, the system failed this student. It may be perpetually under-serving them.
Many kids — and even ourselves as learners — can accept and succeed within the education system’s compliance-based and data-based structure, and get through it without resistance. Others cannot and over time they can come to see school as a chore, as confining, confusing, and pointless. “At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is a prison. But people rationalize it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well,” says Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted.” The confines of school can truly stifle learning for many students who year after year enter classrooms to be unserved or even rejected. “I hate school” really means “school hasn’t worked for me” and, as teachers, we can do a lot to reshape this narrative.
One important thing to remember is that the student who hates school doesn’t necessarily hate learning or you. Children and humans generally want to learn, but may struggle or feel out of place or rejected in the school setting. “One of the most important things for educators — both seasoned veterans and those who are new to the job — to understand is that students don’t hate education. Learning and discovering new things is a natural part of the human experience and, indeed, it’s something that appeals to all of us on a base level,” according to Wabisabi Learning. “Many of them don’t even hate school as an idea — what they’re responding negatively to is the rigid structure that school makes them adhere to… They don’t dislike what they’re learning. They dislike how they’re being made to learn it.” The experiences students have in school shape their attitude, buy-in, and relationships with adults. Hear your students and value them as learners. If they’re not successful in school or display apathy for it, consider the experiences they’ve had within the system and their impact. What messages have they received? How might they have internalized these messages? How might they feel walking into school each day?
If the learner isn’t going to the learning, we must bring the learning to the learner. We’ve all heard it: Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like or respect. Relationships are the social-emotional bridge between students and learning. “The research is clear: humans are literally “hard-wired” with the desire and need to connect,” according to Tara Brown, author of Different Cultures—Common Ground: 85 Proven Strategies to Connect in the Classroom and the AMLE, The Association for Middle Level Education. “We are social beings who thrive on healthy relationships. And yet, the importance of positive relationships in our schools is often overlooked.”
Relationship-building with students — especially the ornery ones — is not fluff, it’s mandatory. Apathetic students are distrustful of the institution of education and therefore need you to work extra hard to forge a connection of trust. And through that trust, you can rebuild their relationship with learning. “While many teachers may not think they have the time to spend building relationships, I suggest that we don’t have the time not to. Relationships and instruction are not an either-or proposition but are rather an incredible combination. Research tells us this combination will increase engagement, motivation, test scores, and grade point averages while decreasing absenteeism, dropout rates, and discipline issues.”
Nothing inspires success like success. When a previously underperforming student sees some good grades, kind comments, or positive feedback, this may light a fire that can start to undo years of disillusionment. Give your struggling student something accessible and doable and celebrate their success. Gradually increase the challenge level and watch them. Provide supports where necessary and leverage your relationship to cheer them on.
Students are not empty vessels. Every student knows stuff and we can activate that knowledge to make students feel empowered, smart, and curious to know more. Whatever the new subject matter, find a way to access what students already know about the topic. Even your most apathetic student has a lot you can expand on. Maybe it’s an interest (which you can surface by getting to know them), a skill they have, or simply some background knowledge. Surface it, celebrate it, and expand on it.
As an educator, just know that undoing the damage can take a while. Students won’t magically come alive and become eager to learn overnight. It takes time and consistent effort, which can be hard with a full classroom. Just remember that you have the power to move the needle with students whose education experience was lacking — and that’s pretty profound.
Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.