I’m struggling with an issue that I haven’t dealt with in a while and one I didn’t really see coming, which probably makes it that much worse. The problem is willful defiance. Someone making the choice that they don’t care about their own learning or the learning of others and refusing to do work because they just don’t want to and don’t care one little bit what I say about it.
I get that as teachers it is our job to encourage, to coax, to guide students towards learning. We make it fun, we play games, we sing songs, we read books, we model, we talk about why what we are learning about is important, not only now but in the future. I do all those things and more in my classroom and yet of course I encounter students who decide that French is not important. It’s too hard or it’s too boring or it’s just not for them and no matter how many songs and dances (literally) I do or how many videos and real life examples and speeches I give about how important French is I feel like I’m fighting against something much bigger and more systemic than I can possibly win. But I keep trying, I keep encouraging, I keep teaching because it’s my job and because I honestly do believe that learning French is important and beneficial. I do.
For some students, I see that they’re struggling. For some they’re struggling in English or they’re trying to learn English and French for the first time and that’s hard. Sometimes they have learning disability or some sort of other cognitive problem that makes learning a new language challenging. Sometimes it’s an anxiety issue where they’re afraid of making mistakes or frustrated by the fact that they can’t express themselves as well in French as they can in their first language. All that I get. I have the utmost sympathy and compassion for those struggles. That’s why I try to focus on the positive. I don’t punish for speaking English and I have lots of discussions with my class about what they’re learning and how they’re learning and why we’re doing what we’re doing so that hopefully they’ll understand.
So I think that’s why this blatant refusal, this “I just don’t feel like it.” this flippant oppositional behaviour floored me so badly. This was coming from a student who is quite bright and capable, but, frankly, lazy. And maybe I need to reevaluate my thinking. Maybe this student is just bored and needs to be challenged in a different way. But this is also a student who when told to stop play fighting at school (like with punches and stuff) said that he didn’t want to stop because it’s “hilarious”.
All this triggered a thought process about choices and how everyday we all make so many choices about what we’re going to do, whether it’s something that we want to do or not. When my alarm goes off in the morning I choose to get up and get ready for school even though I’d prefer to sleep in for a few more hours before going to work. I choose to eat healthy food because I know that I’ll work better if I’ve eaten well even though I might want to have a chocolate bar instead. When I’m at work, I stay late after my students leave doing things that are not my preferred activities like marking or filling out paperwork rather than talking with my co-workers or going home early because I know it’ll help my students to learn by informing my teaching. When I come home, I make the choice to cook supper and do some cleaning because I want to eat good food and I dislike mess more than I dislike cleaning (though just slightly).
Now I know that I’m very privileged and that my upbringing and my life have made it easier for me to make these choices. I’m a bilingual white Canadian in the middle class. I have amazing parents and I had a better childhood than most. I have a good education, a great job, a supportive husband and a safe living space full of good food and heat and water and love. All of my basic needs have been met my whole life. I’ve always been encouraged to be independent, industrious and empathetic. So yes, I get that it’s not that easy for everyone to make those good choices all the time.
But I also feel like, okay, my job as a teacher is to help students to learn. If a student makes a mistake on their work I help them to fix it by re-teaching or (even better) by giving the student the tools to fix it themselves. In my opinion it’s the same with behaviour. If a child makes a mistake with their behaviour, I re-teach what they need to fix the mistake or give them the tools to fix it themselves. But what do I do when a student just flat out refuses? When they are basically mocking what I am trying to do? I try very hard to not take it personally but it’s hard.
Obviously this child is quite independent, at least in some ways, so that can be a good thing. Honest, to a fault, and has their own agenda about what is and is not important in education. So how can I help this child make good choices about doing work?