You can encourage them. You can empathize with them. You can coax and cajole them.
You can gently ask if there is anything bothering them or keeping them from trying.
You can lighten their load, bribe them with incentives, or offer choices, accommodations, and a buddy to sit with.
You can work with them one on one and whisper assurances or gently convey the threat of consequences.
And you may get them going for a time.
You may prod them through an extra sentence or paragraph or persuade them to give half an effort.
But in doing so, you make a deal with the devil and do them more harm than good.
You see, by spending extra time with reluctant students, by coddling, appeasing, and buying into any of an unlimited number of justifications for their inaction, you create even more resistance.
You enable their behavior and make them weaker and less motivated.
You hide from them the realities of life and at the same time crush the development of a true work ethic—which is the only way to empower future success, no matter their circumstances.
So they sit there, subjected to the same doomed and disheartening strategies year after year.
Many have teams of professionals meeting about them, designing intervention plans for them, and assigning labels to them they don’t understand.
Meanwhile, these same students who are assumed to be too attentive-averse or ill-equipped to succeed rush home at the end of another wasted day and play the same video game for three hours without a break.
It’s all a bunch of hooey.
Yet, this failed approach, that merely acts as cover for students as well as those whose job it is to educate them, is promoted and recommended time and again by educational leaders and school districts across the country.
It’s baffling. But nothing changes. The same strategies will be trotted out again this year.
So what’s the solution? Well, providing the students are able to do the work—which, except in the rare circumstance of total misplacement, should be every student in your class—the best thing you can do for them is expect hard work.
Note: Within education, the word expect has been tremendously watered-down. For our purposes, it’s true meaning is to foresee, presuppose, and believe in strongly.
What follows are three steps to get reluctant students to start producing real work and making real improvement.
1. Teach great lessons.
This is your number one job and the very essence of being a teacher. Somehow, it’s been lost in a sea of less important or completely unimportant responsibilities.
You must produce clear, compelling lessons that students want to pay attention to.
Your classroom management skills must be strong enough to have the opportunity to capture their attention, and then you must be able to do so through your passion, your humor, your creativity, and most important your content knowledge.
You must be able to draw them in, absorb them in the moment, and maintain their state of flow—where time slows, mind-energy focuses, and concerns and worries of the past and future fade away.
You must set your students up for success by checking thoroughly for understanding. In this way, before you send them off to work independently they know exactly what to do and how to do it.
Being exceptional in whole-class instruction covers a multitude of potential learning and motivational problems, most notably those that cause students to struggle getting down to work.
Note: For more on how to teach compelling lessons, see The Happy Teacher Habits.
2. Let them be.
Once you’ve done your job, once you’ve provided your students everything they need to succeed, you now must shift responsibility to actually do the work over to them.
They need to know, and be reminded of each day, that it’s all up to them—every last bit of it—that you’re not going to turn around and reteach what you just taught minutes before.
This sends the message more than anything else you can do or say that they really can do it and that you believe in them and expect them to succeed.
Therefore, if after giving your signal to get started they just sit there, then let them sit.
Let them face the hard choice right now, in this moment, rather than when they’re 19 years old and it’s too late, to try and succeed or to do nothing and fail.
When you kneel down next to them to help, excuse, or placate, you let them off the hook. You allow them to avoid and delay this critical choice—to the point where they no longer believe in themselves or their abilities.
Forcing their hand is the change-agent they desperately need to upend their downward trajectory. When the decision to either succeed or fail comes so directly and honestly every day, the pressure to make the right one builds and grows stronger and harder to avoid.
It weighs heavily on their shoulders, especially combined with the intrinsic carrot of pride in success dangling just in front of them. Until, overwhelmed, the dam breaks.
You look over one day and find them immersed in their work. And when you do, you must seize it.
3. Praise the work, not the student.
Instead of rushing over with a huge smile and telling the student how wonderful they are because they completed a few sentences—which very effectively lowers the bar of expectation—point out their good work.
Focus on the content of their production, wherein lies the key to an untapped yet very powerful sense of pride. Just be sure that it’s true, quick, and subtle.
Avoid making a big deal. It’s embarrassing for the student—and not a little condescending—and just tells them they’re less capable than their classmates. Instead, point to something in particular in their work and tell them the truth.
- “That’s a good sentence.”
- “Smart word choice.”
- “I like the direction you’re going.”
Tell them like it is, the straight dope, and then be on your way. Don’t wait for them to respond. Don’t stand there and enjoy their reaction or make them feel obligated to show their appreciation.
Let them enjoy the feeling of receiving pure acknowledgement of their authentic work, untainted by you and unconnected from who they are or were, what they’ve done in the past, or how much or little confidence they may or may not have.
Simply acknowledge their good work and allow the natural pride in a job well done, which they’ve rarely had a chance to experience, propel them to greater accomplishments.
The three steps above add up to the expectation that as a class they will succeed. They will improve. They will achieve and become better students than they ever thought possible.
And that’s just the way it’s gonna be.
But what if one or more continue to sit and do nothing? Then let them be. Let the pressure to want to work and try continue to build.
In the meantime, they’re a living and breathing reminder for you to be better. To learn the skills available right here at SCM to be an expert in classroom management and present better, stronger lessons.
Make success through your high-level instruction a foregone conclusion. Then dare your students to try. Challenge them. Believe in them.
And they will succeed, and be forever changed.
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