Recently I was in Dodge City, Kansas, at Red Beard Coffee on Gunsmoke Street. I walk up to a guy with a red beard—the owner—and I ask if he knows any kids I could talk with about apathy and motivation in school.
He nods and yells, “Hey, Brooklyn, come here.” Brooklyn, a recent high school graduate, is Red Beard’s barista this morning, and she walks over from behind the counter. Before long, we’re deep in conversation about school and teenagers and motivation.
Then a man at the coffee bar behind us turns around and interrupts, saying, “You could talk with a dozen kids just down the street.”
The man works for Dodge City’s Juvenile Services, around the corner from the Red Beard. “They ain’t got no motivation, and I’ll tell ya why,” he says. “It’s ‘cause they just don’t care.”
I hear that a lot—from adults, mainly.“Some kids just don’t care.”
So, how do we reach these kids? How do we motivate them?
Nearly 30 years ago, I wanted to be that special breed of educator who excites and inspires, who propels and persuades students to reach their full potential.
For years, I was that teacher. I was the voice in my students’ heads that said, “You can do this.” And they believed me. They crafted stories and published newspapers. They raised their attendance and their grades. They graduated.
Yet in the end, it wasn’t enough. For most of my students, no matter how much motivation I provided, it didn’t translate into long-term change. The motivation I provided, no matter how intense, was ultimately transient.
I didn’t start to truly understand this phenomenon of “student apathy” until I engaged my students in this conversation.
I listened. Carefully. And what I heard broke my heart.
- “But I don’t learn that way.”
- “No one cares what I say.”
- “What’s the point in trying?”
- “Everyone is smarter than me.”
- “I don’t understand this.”
- “I’m a failure.”
- “I can’t.”
- “My parents ignore me.”
- “Teachers never ask about me.”
- “My friends aren’t real friends.”
- “I feel so alone.”
I needed to talk with more students about their experiences in high school.
I started at home in St. Louis, asking several current and former students about their motivation: when they lost it, why they lost it and what schools could do to prevent it. Their responses were consistently related to autonomy, relatedness or competence.
But that was just in my little Midwestern world. What if I asked students across the country? What if I traveled to every state, interviewing hundreds of high school students, collecting stories of motivation? I created the Backtracking Apathy project to find out: Is apathy really a thing? Do some students truly not care?
So, I stuffed my backpack with a laptop, a digital recorder, a pen and paper, and left St. Louis, for a 30-day, 14-state quest. What I heard is the same story: Lack of motivation is always related to having no voice in the classroom, no connections with people or no confidence in their academic abilities.
In a suburban Kansas City, Missouri, coffee shop, a high school senior broke down in tears talking about lack of friends, struggles with school work and a disrespectful teacher. In Dodge City, Kansas, a recent graduate of an alternative high school talked about a loneliness that led her to self-harm and quitting school. On a sidewalk in Grand Junction, Colorado, a kid told me how boring school was, then cried when revealing that first his friends, then his teachers, then his parents had given up on him.
All of these students spoke of one teacher who truly cared—who bent over backwards for them, who went above and beyond for them—yet whose efforts ultimately weren’t enough. Sometimes even the superstar teachers—the inspirational, motivational “life-changers”—are limited in their abilities to create self-determination.
Don’t get me wrong. There are exceptions. Hollywood is great at telling their stories. But most of the 3.6 million teachers are not larger-than-life personalities worthy of a blockbuster movie. The good news is, we don’t have to be. We can do something about student motivation.
It’s Not Students Who Are Disengaged, It’s Us
Are we serious about making a difference for our kids—something more than a few superstar teachers here and there? Then we must use what science and psychology are telling us about motivation, and we must enlist the help of students.
The next time a kid says “I don’t care,” what he or she really is saying is, “You haven’t given me sufficient reason to care. You’re not talking my language. You’re not listening.”
It’s not students who are disengaged—it’s us. Teachers. Parents. Legislators. When we don’t engage students in what matters to them—autonomy, connection, competence—the components that actually create motivation—when we don’t involve students in the process of teaching and learning, then the problem is ours, not theirs.
What we can do doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’m suggesting something utterly doable. Gather a diverse sample of your high school students. Include kids who are high-achieving, the kids who fly under everyone’s radars and the kids who are supposedly disengaged and apathetic.
Enroll 25 or so of these kids in an elective class. Teach them about cognition, and neuroplasticity, and resilience, and self-determination theory. Then work with them in creating what could—what should—become a new department: Human Learning & Well-Being. Let them design a four-year curriculum that would meet their needs.
Listen to them. They know what they’re talking about.
Our students are telling us the most important things to teach and learn in high school. Let’s not just teach students how to be smart. Let’s teach students how to thrive. Let’s teach them to resist obstacles, defy gravity and endure falls. Let’s help them develop enough momentum to keep moving without a teacher.