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Virginia Journal of Education

Why Won't Students Listen?

How to get your students to tune in more of the time.

by David Kobrin

When I taught at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Governor’s School in Fairfax County, behavior problems were so slight that my department chair only gave “satisfactory” in his evaluations. There just wasn’t enough challenge to demonstrate a more superior performance. I agreed with him. With very few exceptions, a stern face and a (feigned) serious, or upset, voice were enough for the eleventh graders I taught to change their ways. Often they would then sit in (feigned) rapt attention as if what their teacher and classmates said was all they ever needed or cared about. That, of course did not mean that they were listening—that is, truly listening in the sense of actually being focused on the learning as defined by the class at that moment.

When I taught in city schools in New England, sometimes those students who weren’t interested in classwork were more direct in showing they didn’t really care. Unlike the kids at TJ, who had more to lose, these kids could close their eyes in mock sleep, or apply makeup ostentatiously, or say directly what was on their minds, or be rude.

When I taught in an all-girls private school, sometimes students who could care less presented elaborate excuses, as in, I’m so sorry, I had the paper on a disk I gave to my father’s secretary to print out, and she mistakenly took it with her to Houston. And when I taught at a school that had a post-graduate, one-year program for high school football stars who for one reason or another hadn’t received the college scholarship they wanted and were hoping for a second chance, I heard the reasons why they were kicked out of their previous schools, as in, throwing the biology teacher out the window. Why wasn’t I afraid, even though his muscular arms were thicker than my thighs? Because the student and I already knew each other well enough so that we both understood he was only playing with me.

In college, I was confronted by a graduate student who was ready to drop out of the program as inappropriate for him until I made the mistake of suggesting that he drop out of the program because it was inappropriate for him. He successfully finished the year, largely, in my view, by constantly testing the paper limits of what was and was not acceptable. Another student correctly perceived that my upbringing and past experiences left me insufficiently sensitive to his experiences to be the best teacher for him. A thoughtful and mature young man, he suggested changes in how I supervised him as a student teacher which were helpful to both of us, as well as the high school kids in his classes.
I recount these anecdotes to emphasize that in a 35-year teaching career, I’ve been around a few different blocks, sometimes more than once. I used to think that when kids didn’t care about their schoolwork it was because the material wasn’t relevant. I no longer believe that’s the heart of the matter. I’ve seen, and read about, too many classes where curriculum and lesson plans that should have been a bull’s eye for the target audience were perceived as dull, boring, totally irrelevant. I also thought for a while that the heart of the matter when it came to getting kids truly involved and caring about what they were learning depended upon the teacher’s energy, animation and bag of tricks. I still believe that the teacher’s persona in the classroom is important, and that movies, the Internet, learning games and the like are important. But I no longer think they are the heart of the matter.

I also used to say that my daughters—now themselves fully adult and responsible with families of their own—were “my best teachers.” Now I realize that I misunderstood my experience, and compounded my error by the language I chose to describe my learning experience. I’m tempted to say that I learned this from my grandchildren, but, actually, what I mean is that I learned this by observing myself and my grandchildren when we played and talked together. They are not my best teacher. I am. The same was true of my daughters. I learned by observing my own emotions when I interacted with them, and then their reactions to what I did, or said, or clearly felt. Were they supported, validated, annoyed, amused, bored, insulted, comfortable or at ease with me? Observing and thinking closely and, I hope, honestly, about these interactions and their effects on my children and grandchildren helped me to learn more about what children and young adults need and want to learn, to grow, and to thrive. (I try not to harp on my mistakes—also a hard-won lesson.)

What has this to do with the question, “Why won’t students listen in the classroom?”

I believe that the key to student motivation and involvement is the teacher’s ability to create an environment in which at least many of the kids in the room feel supported, validated and comfortable.

That, of course, is a Pollyannaish statement, and an often impossible assignment for a teacher. It doesn’t speak directly to the traditional primary task: students learning the subject matter. It asks way too much of the teacher as an individual, already overburdened with attendance, curriculum, testing, grading, skills teaching, diverse student needs, hall duty, after-school programs, advising, department politics, workshops and recertification requirements. Oh, and of course, staying current with your subject matter.

The problem is that it’s an accurate statement.

The good news is that since it’s an idea, and an ideal, it need only be kept somewhere in mind, as an agenda item, or a goal: Something to think about, regularly. Something to strive toward—when possible. Something that, if it can become habitual in your classroom life, will repay your efforts with enormous benefits for you and your students.

Something, I believe, that can also boost your morale and your sense of self-worth as a professional, which, in turn, will change you in your classroom--to everyone’s benefit. Through self-observation and collaboration with colleagues, you can become your best teacher.

Here are some suggestions that may help you create a classroom atmosphere where more kids listen—truly listen—more of the time.

Don’t try to fake it; be yourself, even when you are convinced that your students think you aren’t “cool.”

I put cool in quotes because I’m not. When I was younger, I used to be “neat”—but I’m not younger anymore. And all the kids who said “neat” when I taught are thinking about retirement now. You don’t have to be either cool or neat to be a marvelous teacher for your current students. Each of us has our unique shortcomings, peculiarities, blind spots—and fears. The kids can learn, and learn to respect, adults who face their own problems reasonably, rather than denying them and getting defensive. And each of us has our own interests, earnestness, experiences, caring perspective—even love. In my experience, kids and young adults are generally super good at seeing through adults’ facades. They are also very good (eventually) at accepting and trusting the genuineness in those adults who want to work with them.

Worry less about being taken advantage of, or being manipulated by the kids. For one thing, it can’t be totally eliminated anyway. Your job is to marshal the kids to your cause, not to be the local police on the school beat.
Sometimes I would tell my classes about my past episodes of cheating while a student in high school and college. Then I would publicly weigh what I gained—a B instead of an F, for example, in one course—and what I’d lost—seeing myself as someone who would cheat when necessary. Why stop with school tests? What about friends? Or my family? Or relationships? At the time, I was really pleased with my success. Now I can see the enormous toll cheating took on my development as a responsible adult. The same is true for them, I told my students. They have a choice to make, and consequences to accept.

For me, trusting students doesn’t mean being sure that when I turn my back or leave the room all of them will do exactly as they said they would. Nor does it mean ignoring the usual safeguards in your school. What it does mean is sharing the responsibility with the students: When I say I trust you, I mean I want you to step up to the plate and be aware of what you are doing, and why.

You are the leader in the classroom.
It’s you, not the kids, who’s in charge. You are the only adult in the room, the one that knows the curriculum, the demands of the school, and the teacher’s goals and needs. But to be in authority does not mean automatically to be authoritarian. Whatever system(s) of control and discipline you choose—from an open, democratic classroom to one with the rules determined in advance by the school and/or the teacher—you can still lead without being angry or vindictive.

When you plan, think about the kids’ learning experience, not your learning experience.

There can be an enormous difference between how I’ve come to understand the ending of racial slavery in the United States, for instance, and what eleventh graders need in order to appreciate the complexity of that long struggle. So when I’m planning a lecture, or the use of primary sources, or a collaborative project, or a discussion, or a writing assignment, or a debate, I need to imagine myself into the heads and emotions of the children in the room. Where do they start? What do they need to know, or face, before they can master the complicated content? My path to where I am now is not a good guide to what the kids need. A class that makes perfect sense to me as the teacher may be puzzling, or just boring, to the students. If I teach without considering the learning needs of the students in the room first, then I’m covering the material rather than focusing on students’ learning.

A corollary to this point is that almost all students can learn complicated conceptual material that requires sophisticated skills. The difference between one class and another is how much classroom time it takes with some as compared to others. If you are willing to back up and begin with whatever skills and learning attitudes the kids need to master the learning you want them to master, most can get there—eventually.

Which brings me to my final point:  Always have a hook to help the kids in your class see why it is that they should be interested in what they are about to study.

By a hook, I mean that it’s part of the teacher’s responsibility to figure out what there is in the material on today’s agenda that is important to the students if they only understood what their subject is really about. This isn’t always easy. The Renaissance, to choose an example from my own field, is about love, and hatred, and vengeance, and greed, and new ideas about beautiful bodies. An introduction to small particle physics suggests that tabletops are not really solid no matter how solid they feel to your hand—i.e., who and what can you trust about what you already know? The definitions of basic terms in geometry can show that sometimes abstractions which can’t be literally true in the common sense physical world are needed to show what is literally true in that world.

And classroom teaching can show that even older folks can understand that all the students they teach are our future, and need to be treated as such.   

Kobrin (, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, taught for 35 years before retiring in 2006. He was Clinical Professor of Education at Brown University from 1986 through 1996, and taught history and social studies at the secondary level for 17 years, including five years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. He is also the author of Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources, and In There With the Kids.



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