Five things teachers can do to conquer student apathy

“It’s them not me.” “Kids today don’t care.” “I’m not their tour guide, I’m their teacher.”

There are so many things wrong with the above statements that it would be a whole other post to explain it but honestly, we’ve all thought it, haven’t we?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing the frustrations that come with being a modern teacher. Add on the anxiety and pressures of our current political climate, pandemic, and the transition into virtual teaching-well, times are tough.

While this year has been hard for teachers, it has been equally challenging for our students. We’re all trying to navigate new terrain under scary circumstances and while I’m sure we are all champions at handling the though times, our students are still learning the basics. The most common reaction to change and uncertainty is apathy. When we can’t predict what will happen next, we check out. Our kids do it too, ten-fold.

So what do we do? How do we get kids engaged with our content whether we are face-to-face or teaching online?

Before I answer these questions, let’s talk about why it can be so difficult for teachers to empathize with the apathetic student.

Most of us who pursued a career in education were either “good” students or saved by a great teacher. We showed up almost every day, never skipped, didn’t cheat, and desperately sought the affection and approval of our instructors. The teacher wrote our names down as “helpers” when there was substitute and while everyone else was probably sneering at our incessant need to be “Teacher’s Pet”, we were blissfully unaware.

The alternative scenario is that you were headed down a dark path during a dark time and a wonderful teacher pulled you up. Or maybe you made it all the way to 5th grade without realizing a 68 in math wasn’t a great grade. Either way, we chose to become teachers and yet, we find ourselves saying or at least thinking the statements above.

So why are students today like that? Or…why does it seem like students today are like this?

Here’s the deal, today’s kids need you to care.

They need to feel important, validated, and secure. They need to feel that school is meaningful and that the lessons you’re teaching are centered in their best interest. They need you to spend your planning period racking your brain for new ways to engage them. They need opportunities to think critically about the world and they need to be given the platform to share those ideas. They need to play games. They need a chance to win. They need a chance to fail. They need a chance to try again.

Even though we feel like it shouldn’t be, conquering student apathy is on us.

Sure, the Teacher’s Pets make it easier and it wouldn’t it be a dream world if every kid instantly trusted you? If every student instantly took you for the expert?

Unfortunately, years of bad teaching has shown them otherwise.

We cannot blame students for the many unique experiences that have crafted their opinions about the classroom.

We can only reflect within ourselves.

Before we continue, reflect on the questions below.

              Do my students feel physically and emotionally safe in my classroom?

              Do I make my students voices feel valued and important?

              Do I respond openly when a student has a question? Do I shut them down because of time restraints or because the question is off topic?

              Do I give up on a difficult student by ignoring their behaviors or regularly removing them from the classroom?

              How often do I communicate with a parent or guardian at home? When I do communicate is the feedback always negative?

This profession is hard, like really hard and teachers receive so little praise for all of our hard work and so much criticism from those who have never set foot inside a classroom that it is easy to become jaded. But reflection is key. Reflection, and a willingness to grow.

Now that you have reflected on your practice, here are five things YOU can do specifically, that will soften the edges of those tough ones and begin the journey of conquering student apathy.

Build meaningful relationships

Students have to know you care about them and their success, period. The late and great Dr. Rita Pierson posed this question in her famous Ted Talk Every Child Needs a Champion, “Will you like every student”? Her answer: “Of course not”!

Having meaningful relationships with your students and being every child’s best friend are not the same thing.

Too often, teachers strive to be liked rather than appreciated and those who aren’t concerned with being liked end up just plain mean. There is a balance and that balance can be found in the word meaningful.

A meaningful relationship is one where teachers and students know and are comfortable with each other.

Trust me, Sally is not going to love the fact that you make her finish her assignment before you will grade it but that doesn’t mean your relationship isn’t meaningful.

Tommy is going to get out of his seat every single day and have to be redirected but that doesn’t mean he hates you.

Here is one way to start building meaningful relationships:

Learn your student’s names and pronounce them correctly.

Seriously folks, we’re still talking about this?

Even though we all laugh when the Starbucks barista yells out the wrong name on our coffee order, there is nothing funny about mispronouncing a student’s name, especially if they’ve already corrected you.

As humans, we have this fear of vulnerability. A fear of being wrong or having to practice something more than once. This is highly ironic because the whole point of education is to practice and try something more than once but I digress…

In reality, the best thing you can do for your students on the very first day is practice their names, in front of them, and seek clarification if you’re wrong. Set the tone from day one that their identity and their voice is valuable.

Ask Questions

Another way to decrease student apathy and increase engagement is by asking meaningful questions. For so many years my first day of school survey consisted of names, e-mail addresses, and things like how many siblings or pets my students had. While those are neat “fun facts” to have, I can find that information through a basic Instagram search [just kidding, don’t do that!].

Every moment in the classroom should be meaningful and teenagers have so much more input to give then their favorite color or genre of music. Save those things for the icebreakers we all love. Ask your students meaningful questions that drive at the things they care about, the way they shape their identify and how they view the world.

Here are some questions you can switch out on your next First Day of School Survey.

1. If you could fix one world problem, what would it be and why?

2. In five words, describe your identity.

3. What makes you feel appreciated?

4. How do you like to be acknowledged?

5. What about the world frightens you?

When we ask meaningful questions, we create meaningful experiences and when students feel their learning experiences are valuable, apathy dissipates. This sentiment should also be applied throughout the year when discussing certain topics or ideas. Ask students why they feel a certain way or have them elaborate on a thought.

Show that you care

Do you like the idea of being defined by a number? How about a skill? The answer is probably not. I certainly do not want to be defined by the fact that I can’t recite the multiplication tables for numbers 6-8.

Students don’t want to be defined by their grade, performance, or ability level. Partly because it’s impersonal and mostly, because it’s misleading.

Brenda may struggle with creative writing but she’s won the Science Fair three years in a row. Trevor hates math but is a talented basketball player and loves to write music. Just like adults, teenagers are multi-faceted, multi-talented humans who are still in that sweet spot of life where they can try new things and discover new abilities. If we want students to care about what we’re doing in the classroom, we have to care about what they’re doing outside of it.

This is the part that gets a little tough for some of us headed down our own apathetic road. As teachers, we are asked to do so much for so little. At a certain point, we don’t have the energy to stay at school until 10 pm for a football game or the additional funds to sponsor the school pageant. I am here to tell you that as a education professional, you are NOT obligated to spend your unpaid time at school. You are NOT less of a teacher because you don’t volunteer to babysit for every PTA meeting or make it to every volleyball game.

However, without balance you will also miss out on the opportunity to win over some of the more difficult students. Try making a pledge to attend one game for each sporting event that your students are a part of. If you can’t make it to the Science Fair, offer to look over Brenda’s presentation and give her advice. After the fair, follow up and ask her how it went.

When students know that we’re interested in their lives outside the classroom walls, they become more interested in what’s happening inside.

Do not give up, do give in

We have all had that one student. Seemingly impossibly difficult. Always moving. Always speaking out of turn. Always asking to leave. Never finishing their work.

This does not apply to students who make you feel unsafe which should always be reported. This applies to kiddos who often through no fault of their own, struggle in the classroom. They have a history or poor grades. They often quit sports teams or extracurricular activities. They are a pain in your behind.

These are the kiddos you can never give up on.

But good news, you can give in.

We have this idea that discipline and policing are the keys to a well-managed classroom guess what? Letting up occasionally can have numerous benefits.

Children don’t thrive on negative attention heck, humans don’t thrive on negativity.

We are giving ourselves a headache, creating minimal progress, while taking attention away from other students just so we can feel some semblance of control over our students. Why?

Control is not the answer. Caring is. There is nothing wrong with bargaining with the difficult student. Telling him the goal today is to answer half the handout and the other half tomorrow. Letting him do his work from the floor. Having him summarize the group discussions for the class. Letting him have a snack at his desk. My goodness, at least he’ll be sitting!

We’ve got to let up on some of the control.

In the end, students who feel they have more autonomy over their bodies and minds will eventually become more interested in the learning.

Never give up on a difficult student, do give in.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

There are lots of reasons why bridging the gap between teacher and parent(s) or guardian(s) is an essential thing to do. When it comes to conquering student apathy, proper family communication is essential for getting to know your students better and creating a collaborative partnership.

First let’s start with the obvious, teens lie.

Not all teens but lots of them. You would be hard pressed to find a teenager that goes home and tells their Mom they’re failing your class because they sit at their desk staring at the wall all day. The story is usually much different.

When we communicate regularly with families, we bridge to gap in communication or translation that can occur between parent and child.

However, conquering apathy is not a “gotcha” experience. If you re-read you’ll notice I said families not just parents. It’s actually way more valuable if students are a part of the conversations you have with parents or guardians. If that isn’t possible, discussing with the student before and after the conversation helps create a bridge of trust and mutual respect. Frequent parent communication also allows teachers a better look at what is happening in the home. Not all homes love school the way teachers do. Not all parents are physically or emotionally present. When we communicate frequently and effectively with our families, we create positive relationships that stretch beyond academics.

Students want to have positive relationships with the adults in their lives. They seek love and approval. Parents want their children to be successful and while they may not always make our jobs easier, most are not deliberately seeking to make them difficult. When it comes to communicating, too much is never a bad thing.

I can’t deny that it seems as though teaching gets a little harder every year. The kids a little tougher to crack. It could be because my rap game is slipping. It could be because I deleted TikTok. What I do know, is that it’s on me. Sure, there are going to be students in my class that are just not that into it no matter how hard I try. At the end of it all, I take solace knowing I did all the things on this list. I cared openly, I acknowledged their value, I created engaging lessons, I forged a relationship with their guardians, and I never gave up.

Upon entering this new school year, teachers will have less control than ever before. My advice? Do sweat the small stuff. Follow this list and love your students where they are in this moment. As educators, that is the best thing we can offer our students. That is the thing they will remember most.

Want more ideas and advice for teaching Secondary Social Studies? Be sure to follow!

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4 thoughts on “Five things teachers can do to conquer student apathy

  1. Our education system has a very dogmatic approach towards students that doesn’t value creativity and imagination.

    This hinders a child’s creative and intellectual development which is seen later in their lives as they grow more apathetic and cynical with absolutely no regard for significant aspects of their lives.

    Empathy can be a great tool to tackle the challenges of educating and fostering a better learning environment for children.

    Thanks for sharing and great post by the way. 🙂✍️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I could not agree more! Creativity and imagination are often place on the back burner in secondary classrooms. We are trying to bring it back as often as we can! Empathy is such a powerful way to build respect and relationships with students! Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this is great,I hope it’s going to reach the teachers and students out their to actually eradicate apathy among the students.

    Liked by 1 person

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