George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Not Giving Up On a Student

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Illio of a girl with rain clouds over her head

It was late Friday, just before the winter break. Since I was the principal of this school, I was meeting with a parent and her son. I watched the 15-year-old boy smirk when he was asked about why he did not attend school regularly. After the meeting, I talked with his mother privately for a few minutes to find out what was really going on. She shared that she was a single mother trying to raise a family of rebellious boys.

She worked hard to support her family, she explained. I then asked her why she thought her son didn't go to school. She told me that he had to go to school on his own because she was already gone for work. I asked her how the two younger siblings got to school, and she explained that they left early for the bus stop. I then asked, "So why doesn't he go to school, too?" She replied, "He goes back to sleep. He stays up late, and he watches television or plays video games or is on his phone."

"Ma'am, those are easy things to fix," I said. "Get rid of the television, game console, and telephone. When your son shows progress on attending school every day, then you bring them back one by one. Are you willing to do that?" She gave a tentative nod.

"Great. It's not going to be easy, but you have to be firm." I wasn't entirely certain that she was up to the challenge, because it seemed that the boy pretty much did whatever he wanted. She had already gone to court for her son's truancies, and he had yet to do any of the community service the judge had assigned.

Something Has to Change

Now I was facing the boy, trying to find out if he had any desire to change. I noticed right off that when he came back into the room, he immediately started looking at his phone. "How willing are you to make a change and get to school every day on your own?" I probed. He gave the "whatever" shrug. "Are you willing to give up the phone?" Now I got a reaction. "No way. It's my phone!"

I asked him, "Who pays for your phone?" His mom, he replied. "Then it is her phone," I responded. His immediate reaction was to say she gave it to him.

After a few more unsuccessful attempts, the boy still refused to relinquish the phone. I offered up to her that I was uncertain if her son would do anything different at this school than he had demonstrated at his previous school. "Something has to change at home before he will be motivated to change," I suggested. She simply gave a pained nod.

I then turned to the young man and told him that his mother had raised him to exceed and be successful, not fail at school. I noted how hard she worked to provide for him. "If you are going to be successful at this new school, you're going to have to be the one to change. Your mother cannot do it for you." He still didn't seem to get it.

Are You Doing All You Can to Learn?

A couple of weeks later, second period rolled around, and I saw this same boy out in the hall with his technology teacher. He had earbuds in his ears and the teacher was trying to talk to him and getting visibly more upset by the second.

I approached and motioned for the boy to remove his earbuds. He reluctantly complied. Apparently, that is what the conversation was really about. A previous teacher had said that he didn't care if the students had their earbuds on for an assignment as long as they did their work. I asked him if he had been doing his work.

"Wrote my name on the paper, and some other things," he testily replied. The tech teacher said, "You were supposed to be taking notes and writing down definitions. You only have one word on your paper, with no definition." I interceded before things could escalate more, and asked him, "Are you doing all you can to learn?"

The boy did not understand, so I rephrased the question. "Are you doing everything in your power to learn as much as you can?" The boy got what I was saying and looked down as he shook his head negatively. I told him that it was important for him to cooperate with his teacher, and asked him if he could do that. "Yes," he murmured. "Great!" We then fist bumped, and I said," Now show us."

As I continued on my rounds, I mused that there definitely was plenty of hope for that young man. What ways have you found successful to help students overcome negative attitudes about school and learning? Please share in the comments section below.

Was this useful?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (14) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (14) Sign in or register to comment

1st ASH's picture

It is so important to have high expectations for ALL students. Make sure to take time to work and talk with the student one on one. When working with young children, I like to find games or activities that they enjoy and incorporate it into my lessons. This engages and motivates the students. Many times teachers are quick at telling students what they did wrong; students need positive feedback. This lets them know that they can do it, and that you believe in them.

Brandi Cox's picture

Building relationships and making connections is key to reaching students who have become indifferent or given up on school. I teach reading and math intervention at the 8th grade level, and I am always working to develop relationships with my students. I want them to know that I care about them, and I want them to succeed in school and in life. Taking a few seconds or a few minutes out of your day to listen or talk to a student might make an enormous difference in their life! It is definitely worth the time!

Andrew's picture

Quite often students are faced with problems in their homes which makes it difficult for them to function and learn effectively in school. I think this young man was rebellious because he was angry at his father. My strategies for helping students to overcome negative attitudes about school and learning includes, finding out the root cause of the problems, Allow the student to trust me so that they feel comfortable to talk about the problem, provide support, motivation where necessary. When you are knowledgeable about the issues you are better able to use appropriate measures to resolve it, not adding fuel to fire and cause a situation that could be easily controlled to escalate. When a troubled child finds that there is someone who believes in their success they are often motivated to change and become the best student they can be. I have experienced situations such as this time and time again.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Oh, with fifteen year old (boy also):
We are dealing with a combination of problems:
1. If it is a boy and if he has come from a less then middle class environment, then he has been raised with more aggressive treatment from one year of age and increased onward by parents, teachers, peers. He has been given little mental, emotional, social, *verbal interaction and much less support for fear of coddling. This usually leaves many boys entering school with those two strikes against them. The more aggressive treatment creates higher layers of average stress (more correctly defined as layers of mental work from past, present, future experiences, problems, fears, agitation, preparations for defense. This also creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of adults/teachers. It creates more activity for stress relief (not genetic but socially created). The lack of mental, emotional, social, * verbal interaction along with higher average stress hurts reading/writing and motivation for reading and writing. So for many boys they enter school somewhat shortchanged in support that only creates more agitation, discipline in reaction to the lack academics, activity, and even frustration behavior.

2. In addition, in keeping with the belief boys should be strong there is the giving of love and honor only on condition of some achievement, power, status, etc. Boys not achieving are given more discipline and ridicule to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. This was designed to make boys tough and try real hard. This also was designed to keep boys/men esteem and feelings of self-worth low so they would work hard, even give their lives for their country for tidbits of love and honor from society. Note this also works against learning academics as those skills "require slower development of mental frames" and enjoyment of the learning process requiring lower average stress and more slow approach to newer mental work.

If a boy is not achieving in school, then he will feel forced to look for some avenues of escape to generate tidbits of love and honor through outside activities such as sports, video games, other means. This will only take him further away from academics as having resigned he will succeed in school.

3. The myth of genetics taught as early as first grade also sends a quiet but harsh message to students. If they are not succeeding, they may give up early and just attempt to coast along with school. This may work fine until they reach middle school (where I think he is now). Then the myth of genetics begins to take on very real hurt to many students. For now, he is being isolated and set up in classes according to more separate ability levels. He is being talked to with more authoritarian styles by teachers in lower classes, even patronized. He may be shunned more by groups of boys and girls who are now in higher academic classes. School now becomes a place where he has to be and not where he wants to be, for he is constantly feeling more psychological suffering. This is where the myth of genetics that many middle class parents, teachers, and students accept and have avoided due to much more support, stability and care, cannot understand how now, students (now many more boys) reach middle school with a sense of hopelessness, anger, and now beginning to feel more drained of feelings of esteem and self-worth.

Many middle class parents, teachers, and students from their more supported realm of life from an early age can only believe (by reflecting their more supported environment upon others) that the only reason such students are not succeeding is because they are not able or simply not trying hard enough. This then leaves many teachers and parents, using the false genetic models of simply more effort, to push even harder and mind you, still avoid any support for fear of coddling and the false belief not enough effort is being applied. You said he seemed intelligent. I feel all students are equally intelligent barring any real organic damage. I see so many environmental variables due to having lived in both a very nice middle class area in Palm Beach and also in a housing project in Jacksonville, Florida.

4. This now is the critical time where boys and girls who now labeled by school placement as lesser students then feel more hopeless and begin to give up completely. They will then seek out ways to fight the system or escape more so to sports, video games, and worse, drug/alcohol abuse and suicide, some with violence in an attempt to reclaim some feelings of self-worth lost from society.

This is where the myth of genetics hurts everyone. We must remove this teaching and also help parents, teachers, and others begin to prepare their children/students by providing the same mental, emotional, social, verbal interaction and other supports both girls and boys. We need to provide boys with the same love and honor simply for being boys. This means more support for boys, and much less use of freeness of expression by parents, *teachers/others to demean/belittle/allow others to demean/or ridicule boys because somehow society will look the other way due to the belief boys should be strong.

Amy Kirby's picture

That's what true educator should do. Fighting for each student is our calling. Surely it can be hard. Mostly because teacher cannot possible help each and every student. What is more, not all students want your support. Both family and school should work together to help 'lost' students. For instance, don't force them into studying. Let them use some writing assistance like HelpOnEssay or other service. They can learn a lot though copying and it will not pressure them as much. And most importantly, tell them that making mistakes is fine.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I feel given our current genetic views of learning we cannot reach and help every student or parent. Our current view of intelligence and ability leaves only encouragement and admonishments for more effort. I know this model is so accepted by society and yes, to become teachers, we are so compelled to use that long-held dogma just to be accepted by our peers who also have benefited from that teaching. For many teachers it has long been given them as the only truth from childhood. Many teachers have benefited from this fixed intelligence model and has allowed them to be successful given the support and care they have experienced in their lives. However, for many students this "false teaching" is not helping them. They are living in more unstable, less knowledgeable, less supported environments.
If we are willing to do so, we can all begin to look at "many environmental variables/tools" we can use and provide students and parents to continually improve their lives. We can try to see how our individual environments create many different amounts of layers of mental work that "remain in our minds" that take away real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health. We can then use this tool along with a better understanding of the dynamics of approaching newer mental work to also increase thinking, learning, and motivation to learn.
These are tools have not been used and will not be used as long we continue to follow the dogma of genetics that refuses to acknowledge and use environmental tools. If we really wish to help reach and help our students then we must look beyond our own, comfortable world and "try to see how many of our students are very equal in ability and desire but have not had the stability, knowledge, and support to accomplish as their seemingly more advanced peers are. While we cannot provide everyone with stable, knowledge-rich, supportive environment, we can begin providing an understanding of "equality and the need to look ahead to slowly learn and grow and change to improve in time, their abilities and their lives. By just releasing students from the horrible genetics models, we will at once relieve students and adults of a terrible, false burden. We have a choice, we can maintain our comfy place in society along with acceptance of our peers or we can begin providing real hope for our students. This is a big choice, which many teachers would rather not make.

oldone's picture

Where did you find the parent that actually followed through????

oldone's picture

This is a really simplistic version of what reality is . Most students won't just come around, and most parents won't do what needs to be done. It takes incredible perseverance on the part of the teacher, combined with intense scrutiny of the situation. Effective methods are not easy to find. Sometimes they just don't care to learn the most they can. What then? This article makes it seem so simple. A fist bump is not going to accomplish anything long term.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Both teachers and parents are greatly locked in to how they can help their sons, daughters, or students due to our present "false beliefs" regarding intelligence and effort, still used from Galton and Gardner. This leaves teachers and parents with only one variable, more effort on the student's part. This can easily create feelings of helplessness by parents, teachers, and the students themselves who can easily feel permanently inferior in some areas, totally wrecking their esteem and motivation. We all need to remove the idea of fixed intelligence and sheer effort and begin to look at how more complex learning, motivation, and mental health for students really is. This will then provide teachers and students with many more, long-term ways of providing not just help but long lasting cognitive tools the student can use to continually change and improve their lives.
I know our school systems have been using single and multiple intelligence models for many years, and now it has become dogma. This is why education is very stagnant today with feelings of permanence and hopelessness hurting and even killing thousands of students each year. The problem many middle school students are facing is that due to the false genetics models, many students have given up and remained stagnant for years and now are just beginning to feel the effects of not being able to coast through as they had been able to do in the past. This will require time and yes, a very new change in thought by removing the false genetics models and providing tools for students, teachers and parents to continually change and improve the lives of others.
We need to see and use a very new definition of average stress to redirect parents, teachers, and students toward a more complex, but much better environmental model of learning and motivation to learn. This will provide continuous tools we as parents, teachers, and students can use to continually change and improve our lives.
1. We need to redefine our average stress as "only maintained, unresolved mental work that takes up real mental energy, leaving less mental energy to think, learn, and have motivation to learn (mental reward received for mental work expended). We need to see these layers as many unresolved mental work from our past, present, and future - experiences, weights and values we may develop (some perhaps faulty) from experiences creating more fear, preparation for defense; trust; etc. - present fears, many SD's from various stimulus replayed in our environment each day; problems, circumstances, anxieties from even osmosis of family, peers, area; and last but not least the added burden of striving to keep up with the myth of genetics and the false feeling of need to measure up according to those false genetic markers of achievement, status, even style of dress. Our minds are very complex and have developed over time many layers of mental work that are maintained and take up real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, and have motivation to learn. This will not be all at once, but continually fed from many continuous SD's in their individual environments and the relation they have to past, present, and future, maintained, unresolved mental layers of mental work.
We need to begin seeing how we "cannot relax or use meditation to remove those layers". When we relax or meditate, we may feel wonderful, but when we attempt any new mental work all of those layers are then re-fed mental energy, so nothing is accomplished. - *We can however, slowly begin to understand how mostly all of us are very normal and very equal when it comes ability to learn. Try to see an upright rectangle representing our full mental energy for mental work. Now try to see how all of us are acclimated to many many different amounts of layers of mental work that may take up very little or very much space of that rectangle. Therefore all of us may have to work harder than others to receive the same mental reward for mental work expended. We can however, if we can stop reflecting our own, perhaps more supported environments upon others, begin to understand that all of us fall on a continuum of layers of maintained mental work that cause even us to have to work harder than other to receive the same mental reward for mental work expended. This idea in itself will immediately remove a terrible weight from the shoulders of our students and parents, for now they will begin to see immediately how all of us are very equal but affected greatly by our individual environments. *Also, we can all begin to slowly understand, resolve, and perceive some perhaps faulty weights and values that can be changed to more permanently remove or diminish the importance of many "non-essential layers of mental work" that take up much mental energy. This provides us with a way to teach students how they can all slowly begin approach their lives more delicately and with more understanding to continually begin lowering layers of mental work and continually improve their thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health.
2. We can all as parents, teachers, and students begin to understand the huge, long-term potential for long-term motivation by understanding the dynamics of approaching mental work more correctly or more slowly at first. The false idea of working hard is creating far too much pressure and effort for many students when approaching newer mental work. This improper pace and intensity exacerbates greatly their average stress at that time, creating more impedance to thinking, learning, and motivation. Students with higher layers of average stress and the false connection of physical work will then also have much more mental energy applied to that newer mental work, thus hurting those students more. We need to understand that for reading, writing, comprehending, and growing academically we need to approach newer mental work more slowly to develop mental frames for newer mental work. As we develop those mental frames for that work or skill our pace and intensity in connecting and adding that newer mental work will increase faster and faster over time with equal enjoyment of learning (motivation to learn). This is why the dynamics of approaching mental work correctly is so important. The only way we can help students improve their lives, especially in the information age is to go to an environmental model. This is doubly important for many Male students who are being given much more aggressive and less supportive treatment from a young age, leaving many of them with much higher average stress, much less social knowledge from lack of support, and a very incorrect pace and intensity in approaching mental work.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

Great story! I have spent the last 11 years working in low income schools. The students who I learn the the most from are almost always the most challenging. I think a lot of the difficult behavior really is about trust and relationships. I think most really want to be loved and accepted, but their personal experiences have taught them not to trust people anymore.

Because of that mentality, I believe that such a child is testing to see how far someone is willing to go to support them. If you give up on such a child, you are perpetuating their belief.

It takes an incredible amount of emotional energy, but worth it when you finally break through that trust barrier.

What works for me? Be is empathy, not sympathy...frame your words carefully..."I care too much to give up on you'.."I will not let you fail"..."you know I care because I am taking time to talk to you about it"...etc

I have been writing about such tough challenges on my blog:


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.