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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: What about kids that don't want to learn?

A high school student is enrolled in a physics class because there is nothing else he can take. He doesn't really relate to the teacher and the teacher makes no effort to relate to him. The student cannot find any meaning in the class. The teacher teaches out of the text. The student is bored and gets "D's" and almost loses his athletic eligibility.

If the teacher had been asked if there was a problem, he probably would have said, "Well, he just doesn't want to learn."

Question: Should the student change his behavior or does the teacher need to change his behavior? The student I am referring to is myself. Did I change my behavior? No. Did the teacher change his behavior? No. The result was that I did graduate but it was the closest I ever came to not being eligible to play football or basketball and, to this day, I abhor physics. Could the situation have been different if the teacher would have first changed his teaching behavior?

During the first part of the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus," Mr. Holland begins his teaching career with the hope that he will find more time to work on writing music. His idea of teaching is not to spend a whole lot of time at it. Later the principal learns that something isn't quite right in his classroom and asks him how he is doing. After listening to him the principal gives him some advice about the need to change his teaching style.

Mr. Holland reluctantly changes his style after he realizes that the problem was less of a student problem and more of a teacher problem. I realize that this is a movie but the solution to helping these kids "who just don't want to learn" should first begin with the teacher. Why? Teachers can affect what students do. Plus, this is just what good teachers do.

So, what do we do with the really hard to work with kids?

Three brothers enrolled in school at the same time. It was an elementary school where I served as principal. All three had previous terrible school experiences. There was virtually no mother or father. They stayed with their grandparents.

They had attended numerous schools. In most cases they were asked to leave or the parents just pulled them out to move on to a different location. All three were way behind in their basic skills. All three had serious social and relationship issues.

On the very first day of their attendance, problems begin to arise. I visited their grandparent's home that evening. At home the three brothers were polite, congenial and it was very evident that they respected their grandparents.

We talked. The grandfather shared some stories. He knew his grandkids were not doing well in school and vowed to do whatever he could. It was a very good home visit. The next day in school was a little bit better than the first day.

Unfortunately the boys had poor attendance. Often they left home but never made it to school. I made frequent home visits with some success. They were always congenial and the grandparents, again, promised to do what they could.

The boys continued to do poorly both academically and socially. The teachers did what they could at school to try different approaches. At times, their parents would pull them out of school and take them to another school and then they would return to our school.

The oldest brother had been held back several times so he was not with his regular age classmates. As a result of this and as a means to show that he had some ability, he became a bully. He knew how to punch.

There was one very good moment we had that year when one of the brothers had an idea as to how we could get some money to acquire some playground equipment. With my help, he wrote a mini-grant and presented it to the people who had the funds. They gave us the money and we purchased the equipment. It was a proud moment for him and the school. By the end of the year, however, the three boys had moved on to another school.

Effective teachers believe kids want to be good and they want to do well in school. It just doesn't seem logical to assume that any student would want to experience 12 years of failure. Often kids do not know how or why to change but teachers do and that's why they are called teachers.

But what about the three brothers? You didn't get any parent support. They seldom came to school. You tried different things. They moved from one school to another. How is it possible for teachers to teach?

For someone like me who promotes a 100 percent graduation rate, I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to help teachers help students who show little or no interest in learning. To find an answer to this issue, I keep coming back to the idea that "we can do more." We have to do more. There is too much at stake. Every child needs to find success in learning. I often think about those three brothers and wonder what they are now doing.

What if the child doesn't want to learn the skills? Effective teachers will say, "What more can we do?" They won't give up. I believe that if enough teachers keep asking this question, we will find an answer. No doubt, we could have done more for the three brothers.

Riddle: What do you get when you throw a million books into the ocean?

(A title wave!) It often seems like teachers have to try a million ideas to help one student. Is it really worth the time and effort? If that student was your child, how would you answer?