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  • Writer's pictureSandy Coursey

Student Apathy isn’t Arbitrary, Your Expectations Are

"Why don’t these kids care like they used to?" It’s a grievance often commiserated by teachers, justified in their frustrations with the lack of student focus, respect, or motivation. What if, though, blaming our students for their apathy toward education is misplaced? Beyond being a straightforward example of “declinism,” or an extension of the “good ole days” cliché, this perspective sets students up as adversaries against their teachers. I argue that students need us, now, more than ever, to be their advocates for wellbeing, and conduits for change in systemic education. 

Before I share these reflections, it’s important to contextualize this blog post in that my teaching experience has been rooted in the private sector and collegiate settings, primarily as a piano teacher and through various group classes. This vantage point offers me a unique perspective, yet I fully recognize it differs significantly from the challenges public school teachers face daily. My intention is not to diminish the real struggles, behavioral issues, and lack of support that public educators encounter. Instead, I aim to contribute to the conversation from my corner of the educational world, advocating for environments that nurture the best outcomes for all students. My experiences have taught me the immense value of empathy, flexibility, and understanding in educational settings, principles I believe can benefit educators and students across all types of classrooms.

Let's dive into this idea of apathy. Traditionally, we might think of it as a lack of effort or interest. However, it can be more than that: apathy, especially from a medical standpoint, is a genuine lack of motivation that someone can’t just snap out of because it's not a choice; it’s a condition beyond one's control. Consider, then, that apathy isn’t about actively choosing to disengage, but is actually a sign that our students are facing uncontrollable barriers that make engagement feel insurmountable.

Many of our students are chasing after straight A’s, a college scholarship, or even just trying to avoid getting grounded, all factors of which are motivating the student by external rewards rather than a genuine thirst for knowledge. These external motivators can often lead to a bare minimum approach from our students, doing just enough to get by. Their apathy is therefore learned efficiency, an adapted survival strategy in a capitalist system that glorifies test scores and achievements over the learning journey itself; a system which sometimes even prioritizes on-paper accomplishments over student wellbeing. Facing these external pressures, can we really blame students for feeling the way they do? Our real challenge is to help students find intrinsic motivation and to find empowerment in education, regardless of external factors.  

Moreover, we must acknowledge how class and socioeconomic status influence student engagement and the phenomenon of apathy. Students grappling with the realities of unstable home life, working jobs, supporting families, or managing debts face an uphill battle in balancing these responsibilities with their education. For these students, 'time is money' isn't just a saying—it's their lived reality. Without the financial flexibility to afford rest, they're far more susceptible to burnout, making engagement in school not just a challenge but sometimes an impossibility. This underscores the need for empathetic educational practices that recognize the varied life circumstances of our students, ensuring that learning becomes accessible and meaningful for everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

But, let’s not overlook a glaring irony in many our classrooms: When we bemoan student apathy, pointing fingers at their "lack of engagement," are we not, in a sense, showing a form of apathy ourselves? Yes, if we’re failing to understand and address the challenges our students face, we’re exhibiting the very apathy we’re fed-up with our students over. True empathy requires us to look beyond surface behaviors to understand the obstacles that might be dampening our students' spirits.

Now, consider the complexities of teaching groups of students at a time. Apathy can also stem from students feeling that they don’t have the skills needed to tackle a task or, conversely, that a task feels too easy. Neither scenario fosters genuine engagement. And crucially, students trapped in these situations aren’t actively choosing apathy. They’re responding naturally to their perception of the task at hand. And, to be fair to teachers, here, it can also be next-to-impossible to personalize a lesson plan for every student in an over-filled classroom, especially when students are all expected to meet the same standardized scores at the end of the day.

Showing our students unconditional empathy doesn’t mean we have to discard teaching accountability. Instead, it means acknowledging that while we should continue to encourage resilience and self-determination, we must also support our students through their failures as well as their successes. This includes understanding student challenges, whether they stem from feeling overwhelmed, under-challenged, or disconnected from the material. There may be students that want to want to learn, but can’t find that intrinsic motivator. Either way—comparing students to others in the same class, or even students from an earlier generation, isn’t going to get us anywhere.  

The title of this blog post, 'Student Apathy Isn’t Arbitrary, Your Expectations Are' is a call to action. This phrase gets to the root of this discussion: student disengagement isn't without reason, but instead a reaction to the unrealistic expectations and pressures placed on them, and to being forced to fit into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ educational mold. If we, as educators, shift our perspective from assigning blame, to an empathetic understanding of student experience, we can take a step toward fostering educational environments where intrinsic motivation, without shame, guilt, or comparison, can grow. 

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