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The Most Important Need: The Need to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Am I sacrilegious by saying we should not spend so much time worrying about what happens in a student's home and should spend more time creating effective learning environments at school? I teach a class for brand new teachers and one of the things that worries me a lot is the overbearing, idealistic desire to help the downtrodden and woe begotten students with everything but their education.

Aspiring teachers spend fours year going to college to become a well-trained teacher and then as soon as they do their student teaching, some turn their backs on teaching and want to be social workers instead. I come in contact with many teachers in training who think that their number one calling in life is to dig deep into the lives and homes of their students, ostensibly, so they can better understand them to teach them, but in fact, the purpose has little to do with education.

Staying Focused

If you go into any school, you can find all sorts of state and federal programs that promote and are a result of this kind of thinking. Experienced teachers will tell you that there are so many "social" mandates that they have to take care of in the classroom, that they have a hard time getting down to simply teaching -- homeless, second language learning, special education, migrant, nutrition, and at-risk are just a few of the categories teachers are challenged with.

I responded to one of my teacher prep students in the following manner when she expressed surprise and great concern for all the problems students deal with at their homes:

You started off your post [it's an online class] with an emotional plea regarding the dire situations in which your students live. Let me remind you that of course we care for the students and their plights at home...but the best way we can help them is not to solve their home problems, but to help them learn in the very best possible way. These students know that education is the solution for many of their problems and make tremendous sacrifices to come to school.

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We, then, are obligated to use every ounce of our energy, strength, and creativity to provide the very best learning environment for them so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain. For some of these students, coming to school is a way to escape from the problems at home. So why do we want to rub salt in the wounds and bring to the forefront all of the problems they face at home?

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We are expert teachers, not social workers. If you want to be a social worker for these students, I guarantee that it will get in the way of your teaching. The best thing we should do with a student in need of assistance, if the students don't know where to get help with his or her home situation, is to point them to a professional who can help them, and then we must be the professional teacher that they want and need us to be. I could tell you some hair-raising stories about my students; and some students will always come from depressing backgrounds (rich and poor). Our job is to help them re-direct their attention on the future and the investment of time and energy that education requires of them now. Ultimately, education can help them see that there is a better way to do things.

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Also, we have to be realistic too; some students may play "woe is me" to a naive teacher...Does this mean that I am unsympathetic to the plight of many students who find their way in to public schools today? No. What it means is that I am more sympathetic with their most powerful needs and I desire to use my skill and expertise as a teacher to provide a tremendous service that is more valuable than money, food, shelter or clothing. I desire to satisfy a ravenous need that every child born with in this world. It is more urgent than hunger and thirst, more pressing than warmth or shelter. It matches and sometimes eclipses the important need to feel loved.

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I am talking about the need to learn. This is something hardwired into our physiology... and our psychology. We are by nature, learning machines. Therefore, if I am a true teacher, then that is the greatest need that I can help the student to satisfy and if I do my job correctly, I will enlarge and enhance that ravenous need to learn in each student.

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I remember a student who came to school with bullet holes in his coat and limped around with an injured leg. I asked him about it and he shrugged it off saying something about if it was his time to go, then, oh well. Then I realized that he was at school, in my classroom, expecting to learn something important from me, his teacher. I could have made his predicament the center of a discussion on culture differences and the causes of gang warfare.

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Some teachers would have applauded me for being willing to change my plans for this one student. But that is not what he needed from me. That would have been doing him a disservice. He needed to learn... and wanted to learn because he was there and had made a tremendous effort to limp to school in order to participate in a building-block learning experience that as a professional educator, I had painstakingly prepared for my students.

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I led the students in what I recall was a great interactive learning experience for him and the other students. They created a Spanish newspaper, complete with obituaries, sports, classifieds and news articles. Guess which part he wanted to do? The Travel and Foods section! Had we done the "socially" expedient thing, he would have been robbed of that awesome experience to explore and expand his knowledge of things he was interested in.

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I am wondering if I am off base on this one? Does it bother any of you when teachers and administrators talk so much about caring for student needs, but don't consider learning as one of them? I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


When I hear teachers rant and rave about how ludicrous it is that the establishment expect the teacher to fix the problems that the students brought with them to class, I cringe. When a student doesn't learn, some teachers blame the parents, the prior teachers, society, television violence, drugs or poverty, but the finger is never pointed at the teacher themselves. Blame is really a symptom of a deeper problem--lack of confidence. What those teachers are really saying is that they are powerless to improve the education of those students. They are admitting defeat with out even having started the battle. The blame game is really an escape clause that abdicates the role of the teacher in the lives of those students, and frankly, that is why many teachers are afraid of performance based compensation systems-- the teacher will be responsible for adding to the student's learning regardless of the obstacles. Anyway, those educators like yourself really believe the mantra that all students can learn and the corollary mantra "I have the capacity and ingenuity as a teacher to overcome any societal, economic or emotional debilitation that my students bring to class and I can inspire the students to learn and succeed."

Thank you for helping your teachers to gain the confidence that they need to quit blaming and start inspiring student learning.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I very much agree with you. I am an elementary school principal and I tell my teachers all the times that we can not solve or fix the problems that our children bring to school. But we can do is provide the highest quality learning environment that we can.

We also can not blame them for what their parents are doing or not during. We can show students that we care about them without feeling sorry for them or trying to "fix" them. That is not our role as teachers - refer them to the professionals in the school that can help them. Our goal is to provide the best education possible so that they are equiped to create opportunities for themselves.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You have all the right pieces in place, but one-- Genuine Student self esteem. It is absolutely critical that students feel that they are good at something. By the time the students reach fourth grade, they have figured out whether they are good at following the regimented school program or not. That is because many elementary teachers are so focused on acculturation and control, and less focused on providing experiences for their students to genuinely feel successful in learning. The way to give students these successful learning opportunities is to do this through all of the things you mentioned.

Well done!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Great article.

Students have all sorts of experiences outside of school, and many carry burdens we all wish no child should have to shoulder. They need us to know this and understand. We can prove to them that we do by making our classrooms safe havens, consistent and fair, interesting and challenging. Our students need us to be leaders of, perhaps, the one environment where they know what to expect, where they can find themselves in their studies, where they can let their burdens go for awhile. Helping students see that they can also make school this place for themselves is really important. We can support students in growing and thriving by inspiring them. We can help organize learning experiences in our classrooms that are based on collaboration with others in order to help our students learn to trust. We can help students mature and grow by having expectations for them that require them to stretch their thinking, ask questions, complete assignments... be responsible.

While we cannot change their home lives, we most certainly help make school that one safe place to grow.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You are absolutely right. Teachers do not have power over the home life of the parents. It is important to invite them to get with your program for learning, but you cannot count on it. What you can count on is what you have control of--yourself, your demeanor, your enthusiasm, your interests, your joy of learning and your ingenuity and creativity. With all of that, true teachers have to believe in their heart of hearts that they have the power to overcome the deficiencies that students bring with them. Many teachers start out teaching that way...Many times the "educational system" is not conducive to this way of thinking.

Who has the power then?

Thanks for the thoughts.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I'm so glad that you took the time to write this article. I totally agree with your assessment of how teachers should focus their time. As teachers, we have no power to change the home situation. We do have the power to create a secure and positive classroom learning environment - one in which our students can thrive![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You nailed the issue! The "fallacy of the commons" is that when everybody has cell phones, nobody is responsible to help. It is obviously more complicated than that. I believe that Maslow missed a basic need--the need to learn. Combine that with the need to feel good at something, and teachers have an awesome tool to help students want to learn--success in learning breads more success in learning--fact. That is what a teacher can do.

Thanks for the comment!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Darn! Everyone took the "great article" tack, so I guess I'll have to disagree. No really, guess I am cursed on both ends, me a public school teacher and my wife, a social worker. Actually its our children who are cursed... haha. I think the point is well made that we should focus on what we are supposed to do and do it well and that is the best service to the at risk child. Maintain a professional distance with our charges - easier said than done. Going back to Maslow's, if a student's basic needs are not being met we will never get to higher order processes needed for learning. There are truisms about the victimization complex, we can never overcome unless we take responsibility for ourselves. Fortunately, student issues can be outsourced to social workers and agencies, but what do we do when those aren't present? Being made aware of a problem, expressing sympathy, only goes so far without action, then it is neglect on our part. It is kind of like the cellphone effect: In days gone by before cellphones, a person stranded by the side of the road elicited stops from concerned motorists, now no one stops because they all assume the motorist has a cellphone and can get their own help. If we are not careful we too easily assume a government program will come to the rescue so we don't have to. A difficult line to walk...[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I have walked in your shoes and I discovered something about elementary students (generally). They will focus on whatever the teacher focuses on. If the teacher always wants to know about what happens at their homes, that is what the students will want to share. If the teacher focuses on what the students learned or want to learn, that is what the students will share. Elementary teachers have so much power to be the pied piper that many do not realize it. Elementary students obtain their social and emotional needs from cues taken from the teacher. If the teacher is so enthusiastic and energetic about learning, that the students get caught up in it, then the students will feed off of that and replicate it, seeking approbation from their teacher.

[quote]I think this article misses a number of important points. First off, you can't generalize for all children. I teach 2nd and 3rd grade and they need extra social and emotional support, which is developmentally appropriate for them. Second, it sounds like there are apparently social workers available everywhere and trees that grow money to support these extra programs so teachers don't have to be the "social worker." If you've paid attention to the budgets of school districts across the country, including mine, many of these services are being cut substantially, if not completely. If public education were the ideal you speak of, more people would get into teaching and stay in it. That just isn't the case.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX


Jen Marshall Duncan's picture
Jen Marshall Duncan
Alternative high school teacher from Iowa

"I remember a student who came to school with bullet holes in his coat and limped around with an injured leg. I asked him about it and he shrugged it off saying something about if it was his time to go, then, oh well."

Last week this quote ran, albeit out of context, in a short blog that appeared in Education Week. Later, that Education Week blog was tweeted by someone I follow--still out of context. Prior to reading your full blog, Ben, it bothered me immensely to read it because for me this quote represents the crux of so many problems in our society right now. We don't put people first.

The earlier comments about cell phone assumptions and roadside assistance touch on it, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that and can be found in every aspect of American life right now. We choose to threaten and criticize each other rather than to offer help and assistance. The negativity occurs in situations involving celebrities like Michael Vick, Sarah Palin and President Obama; in response to the shootings in Tucson; and in situations with the people in our classrooms and towns. When someone cuts us off in traffic we scream out names and obscenities. If someone stands on the side of the road with a sign begging for money we view them as animals. When a student comes into our classroom riddled with bullet holes, we keep teaching.

Now, I've read your entire blog and I see some of the context that was missing in the Education Week snippet. I now have the full picture, but I am bothered only slightly less than I was before reading the whole post. You did ask the student if he was okay. And I think that you are right about training future teachers--they should not go digging into their students lives looking for problems to solve. But if a problem walks into the classroom, a problem like a student riddled with bullet holes, I think it is their responsibility as human beings to try to help. Helping students in need is important because doing so models a critical lesson that we all need to learn: human beings are important. People are our most important resource. Show your students that in your classroom they come first. Perhaps if that lesson were modeled more often, young people wouldn't be so quick to shoot each other.

Does this mean that the whole class should be disrupted in order to help one student? Sometimes. It really depends on the student and the situation. I have interrupted the learning environment in my classroom to deal with students' issues in the past and I am sure I will do it again--because my classroom is a cooperative of individuals. Each individual contributes to the whole. When one of them is suffering, we all suffer. We teach each other and we learn together. We are both a team and a family.

Now that I have read the quote in context, I have a better grasp of your main point, but I still have a question: whatever happened to the young man with the bullet holes in his clothing? Did the learning environment you created and maintained on that day lead him to graduate from high school, go on to lead a productive life? Or did he end up with a final, "oh well" because it was his time?

Robin's picture

The person with the stronger reality wins out. We don't want to buy into our students' reality; we want them to buy into our reality. Of course, my reality is very much in lines with my school's reality and our district's reality. I want my students to succeed at school.

I've had a parent quoting the rapper Tupac Shakur. I like his music, but I don't think his music or his philosophy has anything to do with succeeding in school. In other words, if that child is going to succeed at school, they need to buy into my reality, because the student's outside forces are encouraging him in ways not conducive to succeeding in school.

I read a great post on Top Tips for Improving Student Engagement in Writing. In it the author talks about engaging students but is against a creating a permissive atmosphere. He points out how that if you don't engage your students, it's going to be a rough going. Engage them, but don't buy into their reality.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Intriguing idea. Reality is all about perception and perspective. The reality in my ideal classroom is that students enter a different world when they walk in. They are immersed in a learning environment that is so pervasive that it is hard not to learn. The reasons to learn are intrinsic and embedded into the learning activities. The tasks at hand have an obvious purpose and lead to an obvious end that the student can understand and appreciate. This was easier for me as a Spanish teacher. I made my world visually appealing by decorating the classroom with Spanish artifacts, posters, parrots etc... I used music, food and media to add to enhance the environment. Perhaps most importantly, I was different. I didn't speak English to them unless I absolutely had to. We did everything in Spanish. I can envision a math class in a similar fashion. The teacher makes math fun, enjoyable and engineers successful math learning experiences. Mathematics is the language that is used. The best teachers entice students with a reality or learning environment full of fun, challenges and adventures. Students respond and revel in such new realities. They rebel in teacher environments where control is the dominant feature. Teachers have to be pied pipers not chain-gang bosses.

Great ideas.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]The person with the stronger reality wins out. We don't want to buy into our students' reality; we want them to buy into our reality. Of course, my reality is very much in lines with my school's reality and our district's reality. I want my students to succeed at school.

I've had a parent quoting the rapper Tupac Shakur. I like his music, but I don't think his music or his philosophy has anything to do with succeeding in school. In other words, if that child is going to succeed at school, they need to buy into my reality, because the student's outside forces are encouraging him in ways not conducive to succeeding in school.  

I read a great post on Top Tips for Improving Student Engagement in Writing. In it the author talks about engaging students but is against a creating a permissive atmosphere. He points out how that if you don't engage your students, it's going to be a rough going. Engage them, but don't buy into their reality.[/quote]

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching


In some ways you are not. I think teachers are expected to wear too many hats--content master, pedagogy expert, 21st Century skills expert, assessment expert, homeroom advisor, club sponsor, coach, attentive participant in many meetings, communicator with parents, and the list goes on. The first four are the most important to me--content mastery, interest and expertise in teaching practice, assessment expert, and someone interested in 21st Century skills.

So in that sense, I think teachers are expected to do too many things and not given enough time to master any of them. We need to take a few steps back and ask how can we help teachers be effective in the learning environment with students. That is their primary responsibility.

I also think the ills of our society and families' do impact the ability of a child to learn, so we have to pay attention to them in schools and develop programs to address them. Nutrition and health are certainly one example. Schools have some responsibility to work with students on these issues. I also think schools should help with parent education in some areas, like health and nutrition. We did a nutrition and health fair at Drew Charter School last year that was a very successful tool for educating students. Not a big burden on teachers.

Still, too much is asked of us in schools. We get a lot of blame we don't deserve. In a way, the influence of parents has a greater impact on student learning than any one teacher has. See my blog post on Amy Chua's article in WSJ (if you haven't already seen it).


Good questions and good post on your part.

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer


While I agree with some points of what you're saying, I do agree with some of the others in this thread about the point of generalizing students. Age, family background, and location where they live can drastically affect student performance and to ignore that would be ineffective. I just came across an article in Mother Jones titled "Pedro's Scars, which is an account of a reporter getting to know some troubled high school students in San Francisco. It's worth a read and clearly articulates the need for some teachers to step beyond the classroom into home to get them engaged.

Just trying to point out that with everything in education, there's no "one-size-fits-all" solution, as much as we like there to be.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post Ben.

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