“I just don’t understand why she doesn’t do her work. She is clearly capable of doing it based on her participation in class. I don’t know how to get her to care.”

“If she doesn’t care about her performance, what else can I do? I’ve offered several opportunities to work with me, or have an extension, but she doesn’t follow through. There is only so much I can do if she won’t engage with me or the work.”

When you’re a Learning Support teacher and instructional coach, many conversations with teachers start with similar frustrations. I know how it pains a teacher who cares about their students and can’t make progress with one despite their best efforts. In these moments, I share that their attempts are not going unnoticed by the student. I know because I was this student.

I went to a large public elementary school in Hawaii with big classes and veteran teachers who maintained traditional approaches to teaching and learning and class discipline. There was no room for student voice or choice. My younger self was so focused on my powerlessness and the need to correct that power imbalance through sabotage. This usually meant not doing what I was asked, publicly questioning the adults’ decision-making, and using my social clout to get my peers on my side. I enjoyed the chaos I could create in the boring classroom where I never felt the work was purposeful. School didn’t care about me, so why should I care about it? 

Being Cared About While Struggling

In eighth grade, my parents saw I was going down a bad path, so I transitioned from a large, public intermediate school to a small, progressive college prep school. Here, the adults were responsive to my school experience. My mind was blown. My advisor went over course options with me. Options! I never had that before. Based on my entrance exam scores, I was placed in the lowest math class. But I had strong reading scores. My advisor suggested I might do better in Honors English. The idea that I could be both supported and challenged started to shift my relationship with school.

But I was embarrassed to be in the lowest math group. I wanted to prove I could do better if I tried, and my math teacher told me the class was paced to student ability. Based on my entrance exam scores, I was at least two grade levels behind. To catch up by the end of the year, I needed to do work outside of class — something I had never done before because I didn’t believe school should encroach on my personal time. Mr. Fong explained that by doing the practice work, I could focus my class time on his instruction and assessment. For the first time, homework became relevant, and I was in control. Additionally, Mr. Fong encouraged me to explore the why and how. Is there a different way to solve the same problem? I had no idea you could be creative when studying pre-algebra and geometry.

In English, I wanted to prove I belonged with the smart kids by participating in a Socratic seminar. However, I found I couldn’t keep up — and I did not have the discipline to put in the time in both English and math. I thought I could wing it in English since I was more interested in talking about the ideas behind Jane Eyre than actually reading it. When I didn’t know major plot points, my teacher, Ms. Miller, privately called me out. She explained why I had to have read and annotated the novel to write our essay. She told me she would be personally insulted if I submitted an essay for a novel I hadn’t read. She offered me an extension to finish the reading and write the essay. I tried to read the book, but I hated the way it was written, so I watched the movie, read the Cliff Notes, and did my best to BS the essay. I did not fool Ms. Miller and received a D for the semester. My advisor talked with me about moving down to the regular class. I agreed because I couldn’t face Ms. Miller. Then, I sat with the kids in the back making jokes and didn’t attempt to do the work.

Math was still going well until Mr. Fong saw me and my friends smoking cigarettes off campus before school. The school had a rule of no smoking within one mile. I thought we were outside that radius, so I didn’t try to hide it like my friends did. Once at school, we were called into the Dean of Students’ office and our parents were called to pick us up for our suspension. I blamed Mr. Fong and stopped doing work outside of class. 

Developing a New Me

The expense of private school was too much for my family and given my poor performance there, they couldn’t justify the financial sacrifice. I went back to public school in ninth grade where I immediately disengaged. I told my guidance counselor my plan: drop out of school until I was old enough to get my GED, then go to community college. She said she wasn’t going to let a college-bound student drop out, so she helped me get into an alternative school program for senior high students. The school made a special exception for me to join as a sophomore, but I had to pass all my ninth-grade classes. I buckled down and finished out the year. 

I quickly found my typical knucklehead crowd in the new program, but as I got involved in the place-based learning, I discovered that I did care because I got to choose my own learning sites and propose my own projects to earn my credits. No longer could I claim I was not engaging in the work because it wasn’t relevant to me. I loved the program and did not want to sabotage it. I knew that my failure in eighth grade was my fault. My teachers had done everything they could do for me, but I rejected it because I didn’t want to be vulnerable. So, I made the decision to separate from my past self to develop a new version of me — one who cared about school and would figure out how to succeed. 

In the program, if you did not have your work done for the week, you had to stay in Friday Study Hall until it was done. If your work was done, you had the rest of the day off. No surprise that I was a regular at Friday Study Hall. I didn’t have any experience doing work independently and did not have the structure I needed at home to develop those skills and habits. My program advisor would sit with me to map out what I needed to get done, break it into chunks, and check in to see if I was making progress. These check-ins helped build my executive functioning and metacognitive skills. She made clear that I wasn’t there for her. I was there for me. I didn’t owe her the work. I owed myself the work because I chose to be there. Her non-judgmental support allowed me to accept that being smart is not enough. You must do something with it. Eventually, I developed the self-regulation skill to do some of this on my own. In my second year, I was in Friday Study Hall less, but it helped to keep me from falling too far behind if I slipped into old habits. I discovered the benefit of getting feedback on work and following up on that feedback to improve. I realized how much I had missed out on by not doing my work in the past. 

Today, as a Learning Support teacher, I work with students to discover why they want to learn and what is getting in the way. I share my own experience — and tell them they don’t have to suffer as I did. It takes time for students with a negative relationship to school to trust that things can be different and that accepting help is worth showing vulnerability. Were it not for the dedication of my teachers, I would not have discovered that the biggest barrier to my success in school was my willingness to care about it myself.