Every teacher hopes for a classroom of eager learners. It’s disheartening to put weeks into planning curricula, with full commitment to making it challenging and interesting, then be faced with a student moping over the results of your hard work, whining “This stuff is so dumb/boring/hard.”
It happens to the best educators. And it’s probably neither your fault nor the student’s. Kids who resist learning are likely struggling under feelings that interfere with the process: they’re conditioned by past experience to see schoolwork as dull; they’ve had teachers with “shut up and do your work” attitudes; or they’re burdened with parents who demand perfect report cards. Constant implications of “do what I say—perfectly—or you’re stupid,” paired with lack of empathy for legitimate difficulties, will crumple anyone’s enthusiasm.
Especially if you have only one complaining student, it’s tempting to brush off or contradict negative comments (“This story is not dumb. It’s very interesting. Everyone else thinks so”). But the last thing any reluctant learner needs is one more authority figure sending the message “You’re dumb. You’re the only one who doesn’t know a good thing when you see it. And no one cares about your struggles.” When a person is drowning, it’s not the time to give swimming lessons—least of all by shouting instructions from shore and implying that any idiot would catch on instantly.
The struggling learner needs empathy, not blame nor even “I’ll show you how to enjoy this” directions. Whether he genuinely has difficulty grasping a topic, or only thinks he does, he needs to be acknowledged as a human being whose needs are as legitimate as anyone else’s.
When faced with a “don’t wanna learn” attitude:
Put the child’s feelings into words. This doesn’t mean verbally agreeing with opinions you don’t share, just acknowledging that valid feelings lie behind the opinion. When someone whines, “This story is dumb,” you can say, “There’s something about this story you don’t like.” Pay attention to the reply; it can offer valuable clues not only to what they dislike about this story, but to what lies behind the larger problem.
Don’t offer advice until you really understand the student’s feelings. Listen while she’s talking, limiting your own comments to brief acknowledgements (“oh; mmm; I see”).
Accept feelings even when behavior is unacceptable. It’s your duty to stop disruptive or dangerous actions. But don’t ignore the feelings behind the behavior, and don’t tell anyone it’s “wrong” to feel angry or upset. Use such phrasing as “I understand you’re angry, but we don’t scream in this classroom. You’ll have to sit over there until you’re ready to talk about what’s bothering you.” (Don’t, however, demand that they just settle down and finish the work that triggered the angry behavior. No matter how important it may be that the work gets done, avoid teaching them to further associate it with unpleasant experiences.)
Ideally, school is a place to learn not only academics, but responsibility and problem-solving skills—a principle frequently forgotten in a society obsessed with measurable achievement. There’s nothing to be gained by putting down those who are frustrated at not being better achievers. A response that conveys full understanding—without condescension or criticism—gives young people the courage to begin to deal with their problems.
(Based on the work of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)