Why are some kids so lazy?
In a comment about my last post Ian asked this question: Why do you think it is that some students don't care about their education? Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of parents who don't prioritise education for their kids, but is that the sum of it? Our critics would charge that the majority of students who don't care about learning were disconnected from school at a young age by the same school system. To be fair, there aren't really that many unenthusiastic kindergarten students. So what happens to them that in ten years, they lose their drive to learn, to be a part of a group, and to advance themselves?
This is an important issue, and I told Ian that I'd do a post on it because I'm interested in what other people have to say about it. So here is the post. Coincidentally, this afternoon an excellent young teacher in our school dropped off this article to me because he thought I might be interested in it. The title of it is They're Not Stupid--They're Lazy. The article is actually not as fitting to this post as its title would lead us to believe, and the author does not exactly promote public education. In fact, when talking about American high schools, she says, "all this is not to say that American high schools do a great job of educating kids. They are called the weak link of the U.S. educational system for a reason." Ouch! Nevertheless, the article is in the ball game and the author does make reference to something that I think is a more important factor than most people realize--culture.
As I've said time and time again, I do think the attitudes and actions of parents are enormously important influences on the attitudes and effort of their children. But I have to admit that I have had a number of apathetic students whose parents seemed to care greatly about their school performance and were much more frustrated with their kids' poor effort than I was. This year at my high school, I have all of the sophomores in American history. I don't recall ever having a class of students with more kids who struck me as lazy and irresponsible. Out of 92 sophomores, 21 ended up with Fs in my classes (that doesn't include my basic class). I pride myself in setting up my class in such a way so that students who try hard can be successful even if they don't have great deal of aptitude in social studies, so having so many kids do so poorly bothers me more than most people know. All of these kids failed because they didn't do things that they were perfectly capable of doing. They must all have lousy parents, right? But last week, we had our school conferences, and I've never had so many parents of failing students show up. Every one of them was respectful, every one of them was concerned, and every one of them seemed willing to do anything I suggested to get their kids to do what was necessary to do well in my class. So, although in many cases students' poor effort can be traced back to the home, that's not always the case. And if it's not the parents, what else can it be?
First of all, let me admit that I think part of the problem in Warroad is that our schools (elementary, middle school, high school) are not as good as they used to be. Our district has suffered through a number of years of cuts, and as a result, we've lost some outstanding young teachers because they lacked seniority. Worse than that, however, with the checkerboard bumping system that we have in Minnesota, we now have a number of people teaching in subjects that are not their specialties. For example, in the room next to me, there is an outstanding elementary teacher who is now teaching high school English. It is the third different position she's held in our district in four years. She is certainly a talented young woman, and given time, she may become an outstanding English teacher. But if she was still in our elementary school, she would be an outstanding teacher NOW. Is this problem caused by the public school establishment, specifically unions? You bet, and I cannot deny that.
But the problem definitely runs much deeper than that, and I believe that our culture plays a major role. Right now, I'm reading a biographical book about Abraham Lincoln, who had no formal education, and it's amazing to read about the value that he put in books when he was a boy. I've read Booker T. Washington's biography, Up From Slavery, and he talks about walking for miles and sleeping under porches in order to have the opportunity to go to a school. Can you imagine anyone doing something like that in order to get an education today? The desire for self-improvement that people like Lincoln and Washington had was incredible. Today, our idea of self-improvement would probably best be summed up in the Viagra and penis enlargement advertisements I constantly receive on my email.
As I said in an earlier post, so much of our culture seems based on immediate gratification, and education is not an immediate gratification commodity. It involves work, it involves sacrifice, it involves doing something now that will be rewarded sometime in the future, and although I hate to admit it, it even involves a little boredom and drudgery. What is there in our culture today that encourages those things? The rap music stars kids see on MTV and listen to on the I-pods? The movies they watch on HBO? The sports stars they see who are blown up to incredible proportions on steroids or some other performance enhancing drug?
As much as our culture is an anathema to educational values, I don't think that's the major problem. I believe that what most contributes to the laziness we see in middle and high school kids are the behaviors that those of us in public education are forced to tolerate. Since kids have a "right to an education," and they have due process rights before they can be dismissed from schools, we end up putting up with behavior and effort that we should not have to tolerate. When some students see other students doing nothing, and still being able to come to class day after day, marking period after marking period, they are tempted to do the same. When some students see other students behaving horribly, but still being able to come to class day after day, they are tempted to do the same. I am convinced that all of our students are dragged down by our tolerating the complete lack of effort that some students show and the disruptive behavior of others.