Sorting out the “Can’t do” from the “Won’t do”

by John Eck Summit Prep History Teacher

On day one of the semester students drift in and find seats. In those minutes before the lesson gets underway there will be joking, mild horseplay, questions about what we will be doing in class today (“History / Government  and lots of it” is my usual reply) and general chit-chat.  Each student brings their own personality, level of interest, learning style and hopes and fears–about me and the course.  They come in with a mixture of anxiety and ease, interest and apathy, focus and distraction.  Some have cognitive challenges, learning disabilities, different levels of self-motivation and self-expectation. They have different stories and experiences of success and failure in school.  Some arrive with documentation of challenges–ADHD, executive functioning, dysgraphia, dyslexia, NLD–you name it.

So the question for me as a teacher is:  How do I cover the curriculum in the necessary depth and vigor with such an array of characters, styles, attitudes, interests, learning challenges and abilities?  My response, developed over decades of teaching is: Teach the individuals in front of you and sort out the particulars as you go.  Look at their abilities while parsing through actual challenges.  Motivate them outside of their demotivated state.  Find their places of interest and curiosity, sometimes buried in apathy or lack of confidence.  Instill confidence and competence to overcome habits of disengagement and failure. Mentor with patience, understanding and a sense of humor. Figure out what makes each kid tick. Keep an ongoing discussion with colleagues regarding your individual students, especially the ones who are struggling. Where there is a documented, identifiable learning challenge, it is up to the teaching staff to understand the nature of it and the extent to which applies to particular student. Collaboratively, with the student, teacher, key staff members and parents, set about finding strategies to help the student find the way forward in skills, content and intellectual growth.

A teacher can be inspirational and transformative in a young person’s intellectual development. A teacher can help struggling students turn cynicism and negatively into skepticism and critical thinking.  The beauty of History and the Humanities is that students are encouraged to disagree with, challenge and contradict authority as a way of getting to the truth.  This is the heart and soul of liberal education and it is the heart and soul of what adolescence is all about.  The fundamental task of a young adult is to find their own way in the world.

Having said this, a few notes for clarification are in order. These are my observations which are based on decades in the classroom concurrent with coursework, readings, consultation with learning experts and discussions with colleagues. Here’s what I have observed:

I must sort out the “can’t do” from the “won’t do”. In other words, is this a learning challenge or are we looking at a decision by the student to not fully exert themselves? Over the years, I have observed that often documentation of learning challenges are inaccurate or incomplete, and it emerges that there are other factors at work in a student’s failure or underperformance. Students sometimes get a false “can’t do” message. As a result, the student may develop a “won’t do” attitude toward their studies.

The designation is not destiny. Having a cognitive struggle documented does not mean a student cannot learn to perform at a high academic level – even without special accommodations and modifications. I have seen in almost every class I have taught students bearing some sort of learning disability label who have achieved at academic levels on par with their peers.

Failure is an option. Students who receive support or have it available to them and choose not to take advantage of it, have experienced failure in the short and the long term. Students who do not make a consistent effort to study, to complete assignments or to engage in class can and do fail assignments and assessments. Occasionally, a student can even fail a course.  However, I have never failed a student who demonstrated effort and the growth that accompanies it.   Failure is a normal part of life and can be a good teacher if we are paying attention.

Grit and grind prevail. Research indicates that resilience and hard work are the most accurate determiners of achievement. Some students need more academic support than others but in all cases, these two attributes will have the final say. In the end, we are the agents of our success.

Self-expectation and self-motivation. What a student thinks about their ability and potential in school will guide their response to their academic challenges. Self -perception in this realm trumps actual ability and possibility.

Kids get over it. Students’ challenges are often enmeshed in emotional, familial and developmental issues. As students start sorting out their issues they begin to become capable of working through their cognitive stuff. With help and feedback from their teachers and by persistent effort, they push through some of these difficulties and/or find successful strategies to move forward. The vast majority of our kids go to college and go on to live meaningful lives. Many of them struggled with learning challenges earlier in their lives.

In light of the above realities, how are we to proceed as educators? Presented below are some key approaches and practices I’ve adopted. They are not unique to me but are informed by my years of study, observation and experience.

  • Work closely with therapists and educational specialists. Learn what you can about the student’s cognitive and emotional life. Be sure to bring your perspective and experience to every discussion of a student
  • While being aware of any challenges a student faces academically, do not put that at the forefront of your interactions with them. Relate to them, first and foremost, as fully capable intellectual people.
  • Maintain high expectations of effort, quality of work and in-class focus and behavior. Be encouraging and helpful along the way but also firmly and consistently hold boundaries. Season this process with a sense of humor and calibrate the correction or consequence to the nature of the infraction.
  • Establish a mutually respectful relationship with the student. Get to know her. Have   conversations outside of class. Have an occasional laugh. Apologize if you feel you’ve made an error in your dealings and expect the same in return.
  • Maintain passion for your subject area and for teaching. Relate, in every way possible, how what you are doing matters and how it can inform their understanding of the world and themselves.
  • Help students turn cynicism into skepticism; opposition or contrarianism into critical thinking. When a kid is quirky or edgy or even oppositional, turn that into a positive force which critiques accepted thinking and opens the door to a different understanding.

As I tell all my students: the mistakes you may have made and the pain and difficulties you may have experienced do not define you. They can, however, be good teachers and show you a new way of being in the world. Teachers, parents, therapists, mentors and peers will all become part of who our kids are and who they might become. Let’s make the most of the opportunity to put our students on a good path.

About Summit Prep School Blog

We are an accredited, private, non-profit therapeutic boarding school specializing in compassionate, relationship-based treatment of bright, capable high school age youth who are struggling in their current academic and/or home community due to emotional, academic and behavioral concerns. We seek to integrate professional therapy and college preparatory academics within a warm, nurturing and dynamic community that energizes and challenges adolescents to succeed and transform their lives. Our state-of-the-art campus is located on over 500 beautiful acres near Kalispell, Montana. This location allows easy access to transportation, medical and cultural resources, as well as unmatched opportunities for hiking, skiing, rafting, camping and fishing. We love what we do! Come by and visit and see if we are right for your family!
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