The Teacher Dropout Rate

The Teacher Dropout Rate

An interesting study from Alliance for Education Excellence found here provides some interesting findings on why teachers are leaving the teaching profession. Here are the top three reasons for the teacher dropout rate:


The study also states that the cost of replacing teachers who are dropping out of the teaching profession is conservatively estimated to be $2.2 billion. The costs per state range from $8.5 million for North Dakota to over $500 million for Texas. Do you think that raises a few eyebrows?

But Why Are Teachers Leaving?

Let’s speak honestly about why teachers are leaving the profession. There is a distinct feel amongst teachers and administrators that there are so many mandates and so many expectations that the flexibility and the time necessary to build a real learning environment just doesn’t exist. When the issues above are coupled together it is easy to see how “lack of planning time” and “too heavy a workload” go hand in hand. This is an age-old problem and it is a problem that lots of people in lots of professions deal with. So why is this so problematic? Are we to believe that teachers are just not willing to work long hours and gut it out? Of course not.

The real issue is that when your classroom is untenable due to behaviors (issue #3) and you don’t have the time to deal with them (issues 1# & #2) then you end up in a downward spiral and the learning environment – and therefore teaching environment – suffers.

Teachers are very willing to work long hours. They are willing to work at home and on weekends. They are also willing to go the extra mile to prepare for the subjects that are based within the competencies of their education and training. Believe me, I know how hard teachers will and do work. I am married to a 1st grade teacher and she spends her day teaching twenty seven 1st graders. She spends her evenings grading and planning and preparing. Willingness to work is very seldom the issue for a teacher.

The Real Problem

The true problem lies in the fact student behaviors need to be dealt with but the schedule and the workload and the legislative mandates make behaviors a non-priority – except that it is the behaviors of the students that is diminishing the learning and teaching environment and making the classroom difficult. Aside from the fact that teachers are given strict mandates for performance they are also dealing with 20 – 30 different personalities spanning multiple racial, socio-economic, functional, and familial backgrounds in order to create an environment where learning can occur.

When you work long hours and spend a great deal of time in preparation and then you go into a classroom that is not manageable and yet you have stringent benchmarks for academic performance, teachers are being driven away.

We now have an educational system that espouses accountability, yet the accountability is measured solely on the academic proficiency of the students. Reading and science and math are the benchmarks of a job well done. Yet when you look at the reason teachers are leaving it is not because they cannot teach reading and math and science. It is because their classrooms are untenable and they are not given the resources and time to change them. They can do their job; they just are not given the chance.

Teaching to the Test is Not an Education

Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that “Intelligence plus character is the goal of a true education”. Mandates have replaced that with “a high standardized test score is the goal of a true education”. Yet while testing is important and the United States must be the standard bearer for academic performance and ability, teaching to a test is not an education.

A fact in all classrooms is that we have students functioning at different levels of academic ability and different levels of social ability. The vey make up of our classes coupled with the proficiency standards coupled with the time and resource restraints means that there will be some kids slipping through the cracks and this is hard for teachers to take.

The true problem lies in the inherent fact that the range of functioning within a classroom is not limited to academic abilities. There is also a range of social functioning that has a direct impact on a teacher’s ability to create and maintain a learning environment.

How do you teach to a test when you have students who won’t sit down and be quiet?

How do you teach the rigors of science when you have students who don’t understand the basics of social rules?

The classroom is after all a social gathering and even though it is autocratic by design that autocracy only works when the authority is understood and respected.

“Teaching Interrupted”, a study found at Public Agenda states that 85% of our current teachers feel that new teachers are not prepared for what they are going to experience in the classroom. These new teachers know how to teach reading and science and math. They aren’t equipped to deal with the students who are disrespectful, students who have no support system at home, students who have no desire to achieve, and then a system that accepts none of the above as an excuse for not reaching pre-designated goals.

True Classroom Success

The issue is that we have defined a successful education as one that creates a student population that scores within an acceptable range in the certain education areas that correlate to future potential employability. The problem with this is that this form of fundamentalist education does not take into account the students who are not prepared to participate at this level. When the push is all academics then when does the training for social competency occur? Students are not given the self-confidence and taught the social parameters for societal success and this diminishes their ability to be a part of a socialized classroom and this makes teaching and learning more difficult.

Teachers are not leaving the profession because they cannot teach.

Teachers are leaving because they are not being allowed to teach what is important. Rene Descartes once said, “To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say.” People go into the teaching profession because they want to teach. They want to mold the minds of children and create opportunities for them to succeed in life. Teachers are leaving because the opportunity to truly educate is no longer valued within our legislated system. Yes we are teaching. But we are not fully educating and preparing our children for life. And teachers are walking out. Their actions are speaking volumes.

I think teachers and administrators are trying to teach us something…

as they walk out the door.

They want the time and resources to prepare their students for life. Yes, competing and success within the global economy is important but so is self-esteem and friendship. The strictures of science must be learned but the value of respect and tolerance is just as important. Reading is an absolute but so is good citizenship. Teachers are trying to tell us something and until we listen, children will be left behind.

Consequences: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Consequences: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Jerrod’s 3rd grade class is a handful. He has his obviously bright students, his struggling students, and most all of his kids are somewhere in between. The struggles in reading and writing and math are ones he can handle. In fact, these are the struggles he became a teacher to tackle. He knows he is good at helping kids learn and understand why it is necessary to learn. Where Mr. Jerrod struggles is trying to calm down the kids who haven’t quite bought in to the whole school thing. They aren’t bad kids. They are just kids that won’t sit down and be quiet and pay attention. Again, his class runs the gamut on this as well. He has his ace students who are ready to learn as soon as the bell rings. In the middle, most of his kids will settle down with an occasional reminder. Then there is Raphael. Mr. Jerrod is pretty sure that Raphael thinks he cannot survive for 5 minutes without talking to someone. Again, Raphael isn’t a bad kid. He just won’t sit down, be quiet, and pay attention.


We have spent the last several weeks talking about the process of changing behaviors and how it is much more complicated than the A-B-Cs we all learned in Psych 101. Remember, the A-B-C chart? It says that there is antecedent event (a behavior provocation). That Antecedent leads to a Behavior and depending on the Consequence the behavior will either increase or cease. For those who are just now joining in the conversation, our past discussions are easily accessible and I would highly recommend spending a few minutes and catching up. This is important, because we are about to enter the part of the discussion that is the lightning rod of behavior change. We are about to talk about Consequences.


Even though the reinforcement we discussed the past couple of weeks is a consequence, it is not the consequence that is most often misunderstood, misapplied, and often counterproductive. The one consequence that actually creates the biggest issue is the DRI – the Differential Reinforcement of Inappropriate behaviors. The DRI is a fancy way of saying the response to an inappropriate behavior, typically a punishment. The DRI is often misapplied in much the same way as the reinforcement. It is too liberally given, often not tied to a plan for change, and – most egregiously – is often a knee jerk reaction or, even more problematically, is given out of frustration or even anger. When a response/punishment is given and it is not planned for or communicated well, then the chance of it positively affecting behavior change is minimal. In fact, it can actually lead to even more problematic behaviors.

Let me say that again:

Your response to a problem behavior – typically a punishment of some kind –

if not applied correctly, can actually lead to WORSE behaviors.

Let’s begin by defining a DRI.

A DRI, or consequence, that works is one that the student knows and understands, is tied to specific behaviors or types of behaviors, is consistently enforced, and is explained when it is given, and again after the fact, so that the student knows it still applies. It is also an actual event, not simply withholding a reinforcement. In other words, the student knows the rule, knows the consequence, if the rule is broken the consequence is given each and every time, and then the consequence is reinforced to the student so that they know it still applies if they break the rule again. Finally, a good DRI is more than withholding something that is reinforcing. A good DRI is an event that the student can tie directly back to the targeted behavior(s) that led to it. For example, let’s talk about Mr. Jerrod and Raphael:


Raphael is constantly disrupting the students around him by talking during class. This is a problem not only for Raphael but for the other kids. When the students are quiet and attentive and do their work they earn a check for the period. Mr. Jerrod is very conscientious about rewarding the students when they do their work and pay attention. The system Mr. Jerrod set up is that when the students have 5 checks in a row they get to go to the “joy-jar” and choose a prize. But when they are talkative or disruptive they lose the check and have to start over. Mr. Jerrod loves to see the kids light up when they go to the joy-jar and pull out a prize. He finds himself rooting for them to make it just so he can see them accomplish this prize.

Raphael hasn’t earned many trips to the joy-jar. In fact, Mr. Jerrod sometimes struggles to remember if Raphael has ever pulled a prize from the jar. Raphael’s constant talking keeps him in trouble and is making it difficult for his classmates to earn their checks as well. To make matters worse, Raphael has pretty much given up on earning any checks himself.

(Now, before parents and secondary folks check out, please know that the trip to the joy-jar and the checks could just as easily be doing chores and earning an allowance or completing all assignments and earning the right for off-campus lunches).


In this scenario you can see that there is a reinforcement, the check that leads to a trip to the “joy-jar”. At this point, Raphael has given up on earning 5 checks in a row. Since this reinforcement is not seen as attainable he doesn’t even try. This means that this reinforcement is not strong enough to alter his behaviors. Therefore, the withholding of the reinforcement is not going to produce any results.


After the 4th time of telling Raphael to be quiet, the exasperated teacher told Raphael to leave the classroom and sit in the hallway. At first, Raphael was embarrassed but soon he was playing and twirling on the floor. And there was no one telling him to be quiet!


Here we have a DRI that was applied out of frustration, isn’t part of any change plan, and hasn’t been determined to be an effective deterrent. In fact, Raphael is enjoying his time in the hallway more than the classroom because he can play out there without the teacher constantly harping on him. This was clearly a miss on the reinforcement and a miss on the DRI. In fact, Mr. Jerrod has now reinforced bad behavior. Two strikes in behavior change often means you are out!


It has become increasingly obvious to the teacher that a class-based reinforcement schedule is not enough for Raphael. Therefore he is meeting with Raphael and his parents to talk about the new plan. Raphael will still need to earn 5 checks but they won’t have to be sequential. He will have to earn 2 in a row for them to count, but he won’t lose them once he has earned two. This way Raphael can reach the reinforcement of the joy-jar, and he still has to work for it, but it is more attainable. However, if after a warning Raphael loses his check for talking, then he will have an extra homework assignment to write a paragraph on why he should not talk in class. If he loses two checks that day, he will have to write the paragraph and will also have to write a letter of apology to the teacher for disrupting the class. If he loses 3 checks that day, Raphael will have the homework assignment, will have to write a letter of apology to the teacher, and will also have to write a letter of apology to the classmate(s) he is interrupting.


In this scenario, the teacher realizes that one-size-fits-all reinforcing doesn’t work for everyone. The teacher is also realizing that Raphael is going to talk and is going to lose checks and is going to frustrate him. So instead of reacting to Raphael’s talking, the teacher has a multi-level DRI which still encourages Raphael to not be disruptive, gives him a chance to comply, makes attaining the reinforcement manageable, and has known consequences when he does not comply. The teacher does not have to come up with on-the-spot discipline for a known inappropriate behavior. This gives Raphael a much greater incentive to comply (an attainable reinforcement) and known consequences of additional work when he does not (a clearly laid out and effective DRI).

This sounds simple and in some ways it is. The hard part is applying it consistently. There will be times when the teacher wants Raphael to achieve the check so bad that he lets some talking slide. There will be other times when Mr. Jerrod is so frustrated that he wants to send Raphael back to the hallway just to get him out of his hair. Either of these deviations from the plan will weaken the plan’s effectiveness because Raphael will not learn to control his talking by achieving 5 checks and a trip to the joy–jar, nor will he learn by writing letters of apology to the entire class. Instead, he will learn to control his talking when he begins to learn that there are consequences, both reinforcing and punishment, every time he is compliant and every time he is not compliant.

It is not the writing of the plan or the determination of the reinforcement and punishment that will change behaviors. It is the consistency with which each is applied and the ability of the teacher to weather Raphael’s testing of his patience, his willingness to forego the joy-jar, and the teacher’s strong desire to give him extra breaks so that he can achieve it. Inconsistency in behavior change administration, especially the DRI, is tantamount to saying that you “don’t really mean it” when you give the rules.

So that is how a DRI works. Next we are going to talk a little about the difference between punishment and discipline in deference to the DRI. Then we will get to the single most important factor in the behavior change process, and it is not the antecedent or the reinforcement or even the DRI. It is… coming soon.

Profoundly Simple

Profoundly Simple

I grew up in West Texas in the 70s and early 80s.

West Texas is comprised of long stretches of desert broken only by oil or cotton fields. The land is harsh and unforgiving. The temperatures are extreme and the heat can be almost unimaginable. And even though there is a lot of oil in West Texas, most of us lived in families that worked in the oil fields for nominal wages. It was a hard life in many respects, because the work was hard and the financial rewards were minimal. But West Texas had and continues to have something very special. In fact, it has something that I wish would spread across the rest of Texas and then onto the rest of the country.

What is it that West Texas has, besides rattle snakes and armadillos? It has nice people.

Now this might sound simple, and every community in every state across the nation will boast nice people. But there is something special about a place that has nice people who make a point to be nice to strangers. You see, it is easy to be nice to a friend. It is easy to be nice to a co-worker. It is even easy to be nice to the person sitting next to you on a plane that you do not know. But this isn’t what I am talking about.

Growing up in West Texas I learned that if you saw someone with a flat tire on the side of the road, the proper thing to do was to pull over and volunteer to help. If you saw someone walking towards a door that you were near, you opened it and held it for them. If someone of a similar or older age asked a question you responded with a “sir” or a “ma’am”. You didn’t do it out of subservience. You did it to be nice.

I had the real privilege of spending time with quite a few educators and administrators in Miami this past week. These educators are a part of one of the largest school district in the country. The Miami-Dade School District boasts more schools and a larger budget than many of our smaller states. This behemoth of a district has opportunities and issues very unique to a large urban district that is in one of the true melting pot areas of our country.

I was in Miami because I was speaking to folks and training them on behavioral techniques, and specifically on Leaps. Through multiple sessions I would ask what the common issues are that they all deal with, and I heard the same responses that I hear across the country. My students don’t listen… Parents don’t support us… I don’t have enough time… I don’t have enough resources. These are the same laments I hear in the biggest districts in the large cities and in the small districts in the small towns. These problems transcend size and resources and are common for all educators.

But as I was listening to the educators telling me about their daily trials, one said something that really struck me.

She simply said: We just need our kids and our teachers to remember what it meant to be nice.

Nice is a simple sounding concept and in fact it’s a pejorative in some athletic circles that deride niceness as term of weakness. But that wasn’t the nice she was speaking of.


I asked her to expound and she thought for a minute and said something so simple that it became profound. She said, “If we can convince our kids, and ourselves, to just be nice today, then tomorrow would be so much easier.” At first I thought that this was a little too simple to pay too much attention to, so I moved on. But something gnawed on me and I kept hearing what she said to me, and I couldn’t figure out why it was still ringing in my ears… “If we can convince our kids, and ourselves, to just be nice today then tomorrow would be so much easier.”

This is simply too simple to mean anything. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how this simple little thought of hers was not only profound but was also prophetic. If you notice, she wasn’t lamenting the fact that kids today don’t have manners and don’t talk respectfully and don’t pay attention. Instead, she said that our kids, and ourselves, need to be nice.

I really thought about what she said, and the next day I had another full day of trainings and speaking engagements with educators– so I decided to try something. I stood at the door and opened it for everyone that was walking into the room. I made a point of smiling and saying hello to every single individual that walked into the room. I made a point of walking to several people throughout the room and complimenting them on simple things.

Before I go any further, let me give a little honest disclosure. I am a very courteous person. I respond with a sir or a ma’am. I hold the door open. I make sure that the ladies walk through the door before me or my son. I put effort into being mannerly and courteous. But nice is a little outside my comfort zone. I am nice to people I know, but I am not an extrovert. I am not a “people person”. I do not want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and I think because of this I have not put effort into being nice. Just simply being nice.

I watched the group that came in that I opened the door for and personally greeted. I watched them closely as they took their seats and I complimented them. I watched them as I smiled and put effort into making them feel welcomed. I watched them as I made eye contact when speaking to them and made them feel like there was no one on the earth more important to me in that minute than them.

And do you know what happened?

I did not have to call their group to order.

I did not have to ask them to be quiet so we could begin.


I did not have to ask them to turn their phones off so that it wouldn’t interrupt our session. Something rather remarkable happened in that group. I was intentionally nice to them, and they in return were unintentionally nice in response. I heard people answering questions with more “sirs” and “thank yous” than in all the previous sessions combined. I had people being more attentive and showing appreciation for what was being said than in any other session. I had more thank yous and handshakes at the end than in any other session.

Something profoundly simple yet simply profound occurred. A little effort spent being nice was repaid with lots of niceness in return.

I know that being nice will not cure the ills of the classroom or make all our kids act like little angels. I know that purposeful niceness will not always be repaid with niceness. But I did find that as I put effort into being nice I not only received niceness in return, I was more attentive to and more invested in the people I was being nice to. In other words, me being nice to other people made those other people more important to me.

Let me challenge you to try something: As simple as it sounds, put real effort into being nice to your students, your family, your friends, and your coworkers. Give it a try. Intentionally let someone else walk through the door first. Intentionally hold the door open. Intentionally smile and make someone else feel welcomed and important. See what this small investment buys you.

One of the truths about behaviors is that they have to be learned, practiced, enforced, and imprinted actively. They have to be seen and tried.

Give being nice a try and see what happens. It is so simple that it might just be the difference maker you have been looking for. Tags be nicechild developmentclassroom behaviorcourtesyeducationeducatorskindnesslife lessonsmaking a differencemannersmiami-dadepositive behavior changeself improvementsimplesocial emotional developmentsocial emotional learningsocial emotional skillsstudent successteachersteachingteaching tips Category Classroom BehaviorLife LessonsSelf-ImprovementTeaching

The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones

Randy walks the hall with a chip on his shoulder.

He is a big guy yet it seems like his shoulder width expands even more as he walks near guys smaller than him. His surly disposition is the only warning for people to get out of his way or else get bumped, pushed, or just plain shoved out of the way. Randy loves seeing people have to turn sideways or duck out of the way. Everyone knows when Randy is in the room.

Jessie talks and she talks.

She talks in the hallways and she talks in the cafeteria and she really talks in class. Jessie can’t stop talking. Ever. She isn’t saying anything inappropriate but she just doesn’t turn it off. In a morning assembly she was removed because she couldn’t be quiet. She has been in the office way too many times for the ridiculous offense of talking…and talking…and talking.

Becca makes good grades.

She turns her homework in on time, takes notes when the teachers are talking, never interrupts the teacher, or anyone else for that matter. Becca seems to disappear quickly into the crowd and reappear in her seat in the classroom where she quickly buries herself in her homework, avoiding eye contact with anyone near her. Becca is pretty sure that no one in her classes even knows her name.

Randy is the school bully. Jessie is the school motor-mouth. Becca is a teacher’s dream student.

These kids seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. One is anti-social. One is hyper-social. And one is non-social. So which kid needs help?

lack of behavior

Randy obviously needs help. I don’t need to quote the stats to you, but about 77% of all kids feeling bullied and less than 15% get help. I don’t need to remind you of your personal experiences with the school bully in the hallway of your school so many years ago. Everyone knows the bully needs help, and now there are regulatory initiatives demanding social, emotional and behavioral help for that bully.

Jessie also obviously needs help. Her constant interruptions warrant a Behavior Improvement Plan and a placement in a Tier 2 small group for behavior change. Jessie, like so many other teenagers, needs to learn when and where to talk. Jessie also has a very frustrated teacher who will make sure Jessie gets some help if for no other reason than to get her out of her hair for a little bit. Do you know how hard it is to teach 22 kids when one of them will not stop talking??

What about Becca? She makes good grades so she is good, right? She doesn’t talk or interrupt or act up in class so she is good, right? She does her homework and is compliant and doesn’t start any trouble so she is good, right?

Becca is the one on the list that worries me the most. Randy will get help. His behaviors coupled with a well-deserved emphasis on bullying will make sure Randy’s behaviors are addressed. Jessie is also going to get help in the form of behavior training because her teachers need her to learn how to be in the class without disrupting. Again, this is well-deserved attention, and Jessie needs it and will get it.

But what about Becca? Becca seemingly floats through the day never stepping on the toes of her fellow students or her teachers or leaving an imprint of any kind. What about Becca?

Becca needs help. Randy and Jessie are going to get help – their behaviors demand it. Becca’s behaviors actually make her a model student in many ways. But Becca isn’t a model of emotional stability. Do you know how much it hurts to walk a hallway crowded with peers and no one notices you? Do you know the fear that grips your insides when the teacher asks for a volunteer to answer a question and you strain to avoid eye contact while not be so suspicious as to draw attention? Do you know the longing for a conversation when you hear them all around but the anxiety that comes when someone actually speaks?

notice behavior

There are a lot of Randy’s and Jessie’s and they will get help. There are also far too many Becca’s who are going through life unnoticed. A lack of bad behaviors does not mean that a student is not behaviorally involved. Becca is just as behaviorally symptomatic as Randy and Jessie, but she won’t get help. She isn’t doing anything to be noticed. Kids tearing the school apart and disrupting classes and bullying get noticed. Shy doesn’t get noticed. Quiet isn’t a criteria for help.

But do you know how much happier Becca would be if she could learn how to make a friend? Do you know how much more she could learn if she were taught the courage to raise her hand and ask for help? Do you know what a more fulfilled life she would lead if someone invested the time to teach her self esteem? Becca is very behaviorally involved. Becca’s problem is that her behaviors aren’t hurting anyone but her, so Becca doesn’t get noticed.

Over the last couple of posts, I have shared with you stories and challenges about being nice and listening. Last week the challenge was to find an elderly person and listen to their stories and hear of their life. What a blessing to give someone the gift of a listening ear for a few minutes!

Today let me challenge you to now look the other direction. Who are the students in your class that need to be heard? Who are the Beccas in your world that are trying not to be noticed but wished with every fiber of their being they were worthy of being noteworthy. What child or adolescent or teen is in your life but if they weren’t you wouldn’t really notice? Take a few moments now to notice them. Notice if they are ok. Notice if they are too shy to be heard. Notice if they need someone to see them and hear them and know they exist. Then notice how noticing can lift the eyes of a child who tends to stare down at his desk. Lift those eyes by giving them the healing of attention and the balm of self-worth.

Art Linkletter once said, “Kids say the darndest things.” But first he had to talk to them and ask.

Finding That Spark

Finding That Spark

As I smiled and said, “Great!” to my little girl, the voice inside my head responded with a resounding, “Ugh!!”

It is November, and that means it is Science Fair time for my 10-year-old daughter. She came bounding in with the list of requirements, do’s and don’ts. “Isn’t it exciting Daddy?!” she said as we read through the never ending list of requirements. That voice inside my head was running a sound track that was balancing the enthusiasm of my daughter with an ongoing diatribe of negativity. “This will take forever!” “Not again!” and, “Didn’t we almost blow up the back porch with that volcano last year?”

I smiled and told my daughter, “Great!” while fighting those voices that were going in quite the opposite direction. “What can we do Daddy?”

I must admit that in the years past we have had some Science Fair doozies. We have built a full scale catapult that launched a watermelon nearly 50 yards (the teacher didn’t believe that my then 10-year-old son did most of the work for some reason). We have built a hydroponic garden. We have done some cool things. But they were all a LOT of work.

“What can we do Daddy?” Again, that question. Are Daddies really supposed to have that answer readily on file for everything? Even Science Fair projects? Well, today Daddy didn’t have an answer, so Daddy gave the answer that all Daddies that don’t have an answer give – “Let’s go look on YouTube”.

I typed in “Science Project Ideas for 4th Graders”…

Abbie, my 10-year-old, and I ended up watching YouTube videos for nearly an hour. We laughed at some of the silly things people did. We ooh-ed and aahh-ed over some of the really cool things people did. We found this guy who calls himself the “Crazy Russian Scientist” and watched nearly 20 things that he did with dry ice. We had a blast. In fact, I think my enthusiasm for playing with dry ice or building a homemade lava lamp or maybe building a catapult that could launch a watermelon the length of a football field was surpassing even my daughter’s enthusiasm.

After my wife wisely said “NO” to the catapult (we are still working through issues that the last one created), my daughter and I decided on the homemade lava lamp. It is so cool with incandescent colors and it is powered by the chemical reactions of different liquids and their varying viscosities. In other words, Daddy is starting to have fun with the Science Fair idea. For almost a week my daughter comes in wanting to work on the Science Fair project and I have already beat her to it. It is set up and ready for work to commence. This lava lamp is going to be awesome and won’t my wife be surprised with her Christmas present this year!

As I watched my daughter jump out of the car and skip to the school building this morning I had to ask myself, “What changed?” Why was I excited about this science fair project when my initial reaction was a resounding “UGH!!?” I thought about this for a while. I always had fun with the kids when we build things together and we discover together. I love spending the time with them and goodness knows it is a better way to spend time than staring at the television each evening. As I pondered this, it really bothered me that my first reaction was negative. My first reaction was all about the aggravation of the time commitment and the dreading of another item on the schedule and the process of reading the rules and the seeming drudgery of one more thing to do.

But I know what changed.

spark kinder

It wasn’t my daughter. It wasn’t the rules of the science project. It wasn’t my attitude towards my kids. We spend our evenings together playing games and watching shows and reading. No, what changed was my attitude and my priorities. But what was so interesting is that these things changed because I rediscovered something inside myself. Watching those videos and seeing my daughter’s enthusiasm and then getting excited myself about creating and exploring changed my attitude from “one more thing” to “this could be really cool!” In other words, the excitement of learning and exploring and asking and trying reignited inside me.

I have heard many teachers say that they struggle with some students because the students just don’t care whether they learn or not. They don’t care whether then pass or not. In fact, “I don’t care” seems to be the mantra for many of our students. They walk the hall with their eyes pointed towards the floor. They don’t turn in their homework. They doodle instead of taking notes. They just don’t seem interested in learning. Do you know these kids?

Think about these kids. Now think about Kindergarten. Whether taking your own child or observing a class or just some random experience of seeing a group of kindergartners, think about these little 5- and 6-year-olds. These kids come into school scared and excited and worried and fearful and exhilarated and stressed. They start their first day of school with an anticipation that is only matched by the excitement of exploring this newfound responsibility and independence. They are excited about everything from their new lunchbox to their first recess. They light up like a candle when they read and write their first words. They think the songs they sing as a choir are the most compelling musical pieces ever written, and they prove it by singing those songs over and over and over to their parents. In other words, I have never seen a kindergartener show up on the first day of school and say, “I don’t care!” I have never heard of a kindergartener starting the countdown until he or she is old enough to drop out of school.

So when does it happen? When does that excitement turn to dread? When does that anticipation turn to malaise? When does learning become drudgery rather than a joy? We often ask the when question but I think the one we should be asking is the why question. Why does learning lose its luster?

If truth be told, learning never truly loses its luster.

However, measurement does. The reason kindergarteners do not say “I don’t care if I pass or fail” is because they have no experience doing either one. The reason they get so excited when they read their first word is because it is a discovery and an accomplishment. The reason that 7 years later they dread reading that book and writing a report is because it is now a measurement; and when you are measured and you constantly come up short it becomes much safer to say “I don’t care” than it is to care and continually fail.

Not caring is a defense mechanism, and when it is applied to school it has nothing to do with learning. It has everything to do with the purpose of learning. If the sole purpose of learning is measurement, there will be lots of kids who end up in the “I don’t care” space, because they aren’t going to measure up. If the purpose of the learning is to spark curiosity and explore new and exciting things and encourage the question rather than calling for complete silence, then you will probably be bringing most of the students along for this journey.

spark journey

I am a huge believer in accountability, and grades are essential for education. But teaching to a test and preparing for a grade is not the same as teaching to learn and teaching to question and loving the process of questioning and exploring and discovering.

I have heard many teachers say they have reached the point of not caring themselves. When I ask them why what I usually hear is that their students just don’t care and it has drained their enthusiasm. It has squelched that desire to teach. It has turned teaching into a routine rather than a journey. It has made them tired.

When I ask them why they became a teacher to begin with I hear very similar answers. Those answers never revolve around having the summers off or having a steady job or any of the other reasons those outside of education think teachers choose to teach. What I hear is, “I love to teach” and “I love to see a kid get it for the first time” and “It is all I have ever wanted to do”.

I fear that between testing and standards and core competencies and all the other mechanisms we use to measure proficiency, we may have deterred the most important. In order for learning to thrive there must be enthusiasm. In order for enthusiasm to exist there must be ideas. Ideas need questions in order to foment into hypotheses. Questions need questioners who are thinking critically and are given the ability to question. Then those questions need guidance and structure so that answers can be found through exploration and discovery. In other words, learning needs to be our daily science project. Learning needs excited learners and enthusiastic teachers. Neither of those can be accomplished when learning is unevenly yoked to measuring.

Why did I get so enthusiastic about those YouTube videos and my daughter’s 4th grade science fair? Because I saw things I did not know before and I wanted to try them. I heard things I had not heard before and I wanted to test them. I wanted to explore and question and discover. More importantly, I wanted my daughter to explore and question and discover. And isn’t that what our classrooms are supposed to be about? Why do we learn to read? Because when we can read it opens our world up far beyond our physical boundaries. Why do we learn to write? Because when we can write we can communicate in ways that speaking will never afford. Why do we learn mathematics? Because everyday life is built on the equations of survival and opportunities to thrive.

Why do we lose our enthusiasm for these subjects?

Because somewhere along the way we forget about the journey.

We forget to explore and ask questions and discover. Somewhere along the way, the process overtakes the purpose and it becomes an assignment rather than an enthusiasm. Watching my daughter’s eyes light up as we built that silly little lava lamp gave me the happiest moments I have had in a while. Watching her explore and learn sparked my enthusiasm for helping her. I can only imagine what it would do for the classroom teacher if they had the opportunity to help their kids explore and question and discover, not just teach them to simply remember. Learning isn’t simply recalling; learning is knowing what to do with it. And more often than not, the best thing to do with recalled knowledge is to question it and begin the journey of discovery all over again.