We’ve spent the last few weeks interviewing educators of different types. We’ve talked to teachers, aides, and administrators, from both high-income districts and low-income urban schools. While these interviews are no substitute for classroom observation or the experience of teaching itself, we have begun to understand some of the challenges in today’s classroom.
One challenge in particular stood out to me. Repeatedly, educators from low-income areas mentioned the difficulty of keeping their students interested. Many of their students were being recruited by gangs outside of school and few went home to stable environments. There was such a contrast between a student’s curriculum and their life, that many just didn’t see the importance of the subjects being taught. These kids spent most of their school day asleep, secretly using their smartphone, or disrupting class.
All the educators we talked to agreed that these students aren’t inherently unmotivated. Every student cares about something. Everyone has something for which they will put in effort to achieve. For these students, however, that something was just not the curriculum the teachers were mandated to teach.
Now a brief anecdote: I grew up in a low-income area, where nearly 50% of students received free or reduced lunch. My middle income family discussed books and worked on science projects after school, so it made sense to me to pay attention during those subjects. However, some of my friends only had academic interactions during school hours. By high school, many of these friends no longer cared about algebra, US history or English literature. Fortunately, their apathy didn’t extend to extracurriculars. Our school, which had one of the worst average GPAs in the county, had the best track and soccer teams in the state. Many of my peers who wouldn’t spend a minute on homework, trained for hours everyday with our sports teams.
We now live in a world where the grit and determination demonstrated by these students in sports matter more in the long term than what they learn in class. Research increasingly shows that the most important predictors of modern job success are so called “21st century skills,” such as collaboration, motivation, and creativity. So students who don’t care about the traditional subjects aren’t doomed to boredom or failure if we teach these universal skills through subjects the students care about. To do this, we need more empathetic schools. We need schools which are built around an understanding of their students’ needs and motivations.