There will always be outliers; this much is true, so I don’t pretend to believe that what I am going to share here is going to work for every kid. However, I do think, as a whole, we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we, explicitly or implicitly, conceptualize specific students as just “being lazy.” One thing I learned while coaching is that very few, maybe no, athletes see themselves as lazy nor are they trying to be lazy, and yet, each and every year, I found myself coming home and complaining to my wife about Suzy or Sally and how lazy they were. Then one day it hit me: maybe they aren’t lazy…we just currently have a different definition of what hard work looks like. From that moment on, whenever I saw tangible examples in practice of what I wanted hard work to look like, I would praise that action openly and publicly, and say things like, “this is what hard work in this gym looks like.” Over time, it started to make a difference because when an athlete was “being lazy,” I could remind them, with concrete examples, what hard work should look like.
Prior to the shift, I was unable to change “lazy” behavior because in the athlete’s mind, he or she WAS working hard. The work ethic wasn’t the root of the problem; it was the symptom–it was their definition of hard work that was the issue. Of course, that athlete wasn’t going to work harder because, without me showing her with examples, she had no idea how to work harder. Because, again, in her mind, she was working hard.
Over the years, I have begun to use this same approach in the classroom, and I have found it to be very effective. Of course, this will not work for certain students because, for whatever reason(s), we will always have students who just flat out don’t want to work hard, and that is true for life, but when you think about specific students are who working “hard” but you know that they could/should be doing a lot more, here are some tips to help deal with their “laziness”.
- Clearly define, with examples, what hard work looks like.
I love to show students examples of other students drafting work when we are writing papers or to share student examples of text-marking. When students who are not working as hard as we would like to see what you mean by “hard work” via other students examples, they can conceptualize your expectations. I teach freshman, so this is especially important with students coming in from a wide range of middle schools all with vastly different expectations and definitions of hard work. I have gotten to the point where the first two to three weeks of class are all about helping students understand my expectations and what “hard work” looks like in my class. It is time well spent!
- Survey your students on their perceptions of their own work ethics.
I have always had students do self-assessment of their essays before turning them in, but recently, I started adding a question or two about their work ethic. So, in addition to “grading” their own piece, they have to explain how hard they feel they worked on this piece (on a scale of 1-10) and why, with tangible examples, they feel this way. This has become super helpful in a lot of ways. First, if the paper isn’t very good, it helps me know if it was because of a lack of skill and/or confusion or just a result of a lack of effort. That changes how I intervene. Second, it forces the students to continue to think about hard work (or lack thereof) in tangible ways as they try to point out examples to support their “why.” Third, the data can be hugely important in goal-setting conversations with students and during parent-teacher conferences. So, as your students work through your class, don’t be afraid to ask them how hard they think they are working and why they feel that way–with specific examples.
- Ask students what they could have done.
One question I love to ask to help students conceptualize their work ethic is, “well, what else could you have done that might have changed how hard you worked on this paper?” Sometimes, that answer is something as simple as “not procrastinate,” but other times some really great ideas can surface. I have heard everything from, “I could have come in for extra help with paragraph four as I knew it wasn’t turning out well” to “I probably should have put more work in during the reading of the text before getting to the paper” and countless other examples. But unless students have a clear understanding of your expectations for hard work with tangible examples, they will struggle to answer this, and you will get the dreaded, “I don’t know…”
- Respect the fact that work ethic is a choice.
One of my favorite stories from work lately came this past spring. We had a senior at our school who was enrolled in AP Literature and Composition for the fun of it. Essentially, he already had his required four English courses prior to the beginning senior year, but he still wanted to be in AP Literature because he enjoyed the readings and the conversations with his peers. However, he was very upfront with the teacher that he planned on failing the class because he wasn’t going to do the work since he didn’t need to pass the class. So, this student, essentially, audited the class, but he knew he was going to get an F on his transcript. Of course, this is an extreme example, but the reality is, work ethic is a choice and one that we need to respect. I have had countless students in my freshman honors class get a B even though they were fully capable of an A; however, they were taking four or five other honors classes and in sports or activities. This type of student makes a conscious choice to adjust his/her work ethic based on survival, and we need to respect this sort of choice (until there are widespread changes in our antiquated educational system).
As we think about our jobs as educators, the bigger lessons, like understanding hard work, are really what we are tasked teach if we want to set students up for long-term success. So, as you think about your students this year, and when you notice that student being “lazy” ask yourself this: “is this student being “lazy” or have I failed to fully help that student concretely understand what hard work looks like in my class?”
by Christopher Bronke
Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School where he teaches freshman honors and leads a team of 22 teachers. Connect with him on Twitter at @mrbronke.