“I Don’t Care If You Don’t Care”
One time, when I was (Assistant) teaching 7th grade Science, there was a sort of tiny, quiet confrontation between a student and me. It involved both of us in the hallway talking, but it did teach me to watch what I say.
Science is one of those school subjects that a student either loves or hates. Some may claim they are on the fence about science, but when you really press them, they will admit they love or hate the subject. I personally love science. I had wanted to study Zoology when I was younger, even into high school. I had wanted to be one of those cool guys on those nature shows who jumped in after animals in swamps or got to play with lizards and snakes or stuff like that. That was my dream. . . until I found out about the math. Apparently, to get a degree in science at most universities, you need college-level math.
I hate math.
With such sighs, I abandoned my dream of studying science, although I always have a place in my heart for zoology.
On the other hand, I understand how students can get bored during Science class. It’s not all explosions and animals. Science involves processes, equations, chemical formulas, and detailed diagrams. Blech. Even science-lovers like me can’t get too excited about some of the formulas and diagrams. We want meat.
On this particular day, class was slow. The students were reading about photosynthesis in class. Not the most exciting topic in science, but something they needed to know. At this point, the class was looking at a picture containing the “equation” for photosynthesis (water + carbon dioxide + sunlight = sugar + oxygen). Riveting, page-turner stuff. So obviously some students were bored and stopped paying attention. One student in particular was obviously not paying attention, so of course the teacher’s focus flew to him. He never saw it coming.
What are the raw materials for photosynthesis, Roger? It was an east question if he had been paying attention. She had just said the answer (about 30 seconds before she called on him).
He had no answer. He attempted to get by with the classic shoulder shrug. Ah the shrug. Such a motion reveals so much about the student. It’s not so much that the shrug shows that the student doesn’t know the answer, but more that he or she just doesn’t care. The teacher could burp, and explode all over the student, and the student would just keep looking away. Parents, you probably recognize this in your children. It’s the “can we please move on” shrug, the “dear God, get me the hell out of here” shrug. It’s pretty effective too, because sometimes the fed up teacher just says “ok, well, pay attention,” and moves on, with the student not actually sure what just happened. A sort of unconsciousness is the result, with the student later getting in more trouble later for not paying attention again. The student does not remember being told earlier to pay attention, and thus there is arguments, attitude, and before you know it the student is in the office, staring at his hands, shrugging in response to questions from the principal.
Brick walls are more responsive.
Roger had probably shrugged his shoulders as he had just done more times than he could count. He had probably done it at least 30 times that day (an impressive feat, since it was not even in the morning). In this class, however, Roger would not get away with the shrug. The teacher was determined to teach him the lesson, whether he wanted to learn it or not.
She pressed on, urging him to look at the picture in the book that had the answer. He literally had the answer in front of him. He wasn’t looking at it, of course, more looking away at the next page. Do you see the picture, she said. He shrugged. Its right there on the page. Huh, he said. She went over and pointed to it. He shrugged again. By this time, I had walked from one end of the room over to where they were, and could see clearly that he was not trying to look at the picture. It was almost like he was avoiding looking at the picture.
But his efforts were paying off. The teacher shook her head, explained what she was looking for, and said Pay attention.
I don’t care, he muttered under his breath. It was a good volume level, not loud enough for the teacher, who was already to the front of the room before he said it, to hear. He should have gotten away with it. On any other day he would have. Today, however, I was standing nearby.
I heard him.
I got a little pissed.
I don’t care if you don’t care, I said, emphasizing the first “care.” It was quick. I acted almost instinctively, as if that was what I naturally did.
I don’t know whether the student was really paying attention to me when I said this, but he very likely wasn’t. I assume he thought either I was farther away, or that I wouldn’t get mad at him for talking back. Maybe the latter, since I’m well known as a softie teacher.
I don’t care if you don’t care, he mocked, emphasizing the “you.”
Oh no he di-n’t, I thought.
Get up, I said. Groaning and reluctance oozed out of his face, and I repeated the command. He got up, and rolled his eyes.
Get your book and come with me.
Yes sir, he said, a slight mockery in his words.
With eyes rolling, we left the room for the wider hallway. We sat on the floor together, and I tried to look him in the eye. He wouldn’t, of course, because who wants to look someone else in the eye.
First I wanted to see if he understood the lesson (hence the Science book). I asked him if he knew the raw materials for photosynthesis, that is, the question the teacher had asked him in class.
Yeah, he mumbled.
Well then what was it, I asked.
I wanted to scream. How the hell could you know and not know, I said. Either you know this or you don’t. AHHHHHH.
But I didn’t scream. I sighed, as I would do a lot through my years of teaching, and looked at him in the book. I pointed to the picture, explained what she asked, and had him answer the question. He did, and started to rise, as if that was all I had to say to him.
I had him sit back down, and then we had a frank chat about his behavior. I told him all the things I had been thinking. I told him that I didn’t like being made fun of or talked back to, or any of that. I asked him every time I said something to repeat back what I had said. At first he was nowhere near what I had said (I had said something like, “Don’t talk back to me,” and he said I said “Don’t talk in class”). It was slow going, but I eventually got him to pay attention.
Then I asked for his help. I’m a baby teacher, I said, and I need your help. If I do something that doesn’t help your learning, please let me know.
He said ok, but it was a kind of reluctant ok. I felt that he wouldn’t keep up his end of the bargain.
We’ll see what happens.