Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The L Word


I'm not a fan of that word, at all. But I hear students described as lazy by a parent, a teacher, even the students themselves. I've heard it too many times just in the last week.

I see it as a cheap, dismissive shortcut-- not very useful or helpful for dealing with a student problem.

It's not that I don't believe in laziness. I have no doubt that actual lazy people exist. But too often "lazy" is just shorthand for "apparently not willing to spend time and effort on the things I believe they should spend time on." In the course of my career, I have met very few actual lazy students. On the other hand, I have often encountered the following sorts of students.

The stress-averse student. There is a huge amount of stress associated with doing things one sucks at. Adults who are successful and in control of their own lives often forget just how stressful it is to do something, day after day, that one does not do well. It takes a certain kind of strength to get back on a horse when one knows beforehand that the horse is going to kick you in the teeth. And so the stress-averse student finds ways to put off getting on the horse to the point that it seems as if she has forgotten how to even find the stable.

The comfortable student. Nothing stalls the development of a student like comfort. I've lost count of the number of students who started out as performers who performed really well for eighth graders, when they were in eighth grade. Fast forward and in eleventh grade some of those same performers are still putting out great performances-- for an eighth grader. They would rather keep doing what they've always done than try new things, strange things, uncomfortable things.

The beaten-down student. Some students are simply too drained and tromped-on to easily find the energy for school. Home is not a haven, a place to recharge and get ready for a new day. It's a difficult and, in the worst cases, dangerous place. Some students face challenges that don't leave them a lot of focus or stamina for school. Plus, that kind of life can change your priorities. When you're wondering whether or not you're going to eat tonight, it's hard to get all worked up about a quadratic equation or gerund phrases.

The cost-benefits analyzer. For instance, I'm pretty sure I could learn conversational Chinese, but I see a huge cost in terms of time and opportunity cost, and I don't see a very large benefit, so I don't expect I'll ever try to learn conversational Chinese unless some part of that equation changes. Nobody thinks less of me because of that; rational adults make these sorts of cost-benefit decisions all the time. Children are not always good at cost or benefits assessment, but the basic analysis process still works the same.

Now, you could say that these are all just fancy ways to say "lazy." I disagree. I think the difference is critical.

"Lazy" is a character judgment, and irreparable flaw. If a student is "just plain lazy" then that's like saying they're "just plain short" or "just plain left-handed"-- there's nothing I can do about it. "Lazy" gives me the power to dismiss that student, to declare that they are doing poorly because of some innate character flaw far beyond my control.

But if the student is stress-averse, then it's on me to help coach him past his fear of failure, to set him up for success, to find ways to make class less of a kick in the teeth. If the student is comfortable in the same old place, then I can do something about making her uncomfortable enough to want to move forward. If the student is beaten down, then it's my job to help lift him back up. And if the student has done a cost-benefits analysis that is not in my favor, I need to make a better sales pitch about the costs and te benefits.

"Lazy" leads to resentment-- this damn kid is just holding out on me. I've seen that expression on a parent's face in a conference, and I've seen the expression on the child's face as she absorbs the message that she is just defective and shifty and bad.

But understanding the student's failure, reluctance, inactivity, stubbornness, unwillingness to move forward-- it gives me the opportunity to be a partner, to help the child (because after all-- I'm the adult in the room, not my students) figure out how to find his own strength, his own ability, his own success. You do not help people stand up strong by making them small.

Believing in that child's potential does not erase the child's obstacles. Neither does simply expecting that the child will succeed as if there were no challenges in her path. The obstacles that students face aren't excuses to fail, but they aren't imaginary, either. When we deny their ability to succeed, that's wrong. But when we deny the reality of their experience-- obstacles included-- that's wrong, too. Nor do I think that a better understanding of what's holding the student back will suddenly unlock a happy land of unicorns and rainbows. But you have to start with what is true for the student. And you also have to remember that sometimes students do things on their schedule, not ours. The flowers will not bloom sooner because you insist or expect or demand.

Are there actual lazy students? Probably. But usually I find the appearance of laziness is more data about what sort of coaching that student needs to find her success. And a diagnosis of "lazy" is not useful. (Note: a diagnosis of "lacks grit" is equally useless).

Most important of all-- we have to recognize that sometimes what we want simply doesn't line up with what our students want, and then recognize that this is not proof that the child is somehow defective. If we can extend the same respect to them that we give to all other human beings, that can be the beginning of powerful and important things.


  1. Lot's of this analysis rings true for me. Both the analysis of kinds and types of students, and the take on how we approach student difficulties.

    When something is going wrong, the first port of call is not the students. It's our practice, or curriculum. It's our assumptions, or understanding.

    And you're spot on. Resentful labe;s get in the way of us examining and adapting what we do. They get in the way of curriculum redeisgn, or cahnges in the supports or challenge levels, in the approach, or assumptions about prior knolwedge levels, or alterations to how we understand our students, their contexts, needs ambitions and abilities.

    And resentful labels tend to tell us more about the person using them than they do the students they are supposed to describe.

    Educators who describe students as lazy are probably happier to do a half assed job underpinned by a blithe indifference to their own shortcomings rather than do the decet honest thing and change or adapt.


  2. Wise and pragmatic. A good teacher needs to have respect for the student and psychological insight, and work towards meeting the students' needs. Which is not something that can be measured. And the bigger the class, the more difficult to do.

  3. My God, Peter - what a great post. All I can say is that I wish my son had been one of your students.

  4. This is the heart and lifeblood of teaching.

  5. It's so sad - students internalize this characterization. I sometimes do a unit on procrastination in writing with my students (first year community college), and when I ask, "How come you leave your work till the last minute?" their first answer is usually, "I'm just really lazy." Then you find out they're taking 15 units, doing track and field, taking care of their sister's kids in the afternoon while she goes out to work, volunteering in a soup kitchen, and working 25 hours a week in a restaurant. -- Some "lazy."