My Students Don't Give a F@#$ About My Class

In our line of work, one of the most consistent conversations that we encounter is how to combat student apathy laziness; particularly those who occupy middle and high school buildings. (I personally don’t believe that students are lazy, but that we have not found what makes them tick which teaches them to translate their passions and grit in their daily behaviors). As one teacher (Ms. T) told me out of her boiling frustration, “My students just don’t give a F@#$ about my class!” I’ll let you imagine what word to use. But for the purposes of this blog, we’ll say that it stands for “FUWC” (Fundamentally Unconcerned With Class). However, rash her statement may have been, she had a legitimate concern. Because she was responsible for students mastering the state’s assessment, she felt that she was sinking, and she was all out of ideas. I simply expressed to her “While we may not like to admit it, we’ve all been there at one point or another in our careers.” Then I left.

After I thought about her striking statement, I realized that my response may have been slightly dismissive. I truly dissected her statement, and I realized that she was saying, “I can’t win with my students, and I don’t really know what to do with them. Please help me because my job may be on the line!” Wow! She was literally crying out to me, but in the haste of my task-oriented day, I missed an opportunity to build a relationship with one of my teachers. She is very much so in fight or flight mode every day. When we are constantly in this mode, our bodies release cortisol (the stress hormone) which influences how well our immune system works to protect us against illness. In a nutshell, we become more susceptible to illness--which for teachers means that they are absent more, students fall further behind, and teachers become more stressed. It’s a vicious cycle. This phenomenon is serious, because when we, as educators, get to this point, we are ourselves approaching the precipice of also not giving a “FUWC.” So, Ms. T and I embarked on how to engage students who are uninterested and keep the engagement of those who are interested. Here’s what we did.

First, let’s unpack the effects of disengagement. There is a great danger in having some students engaged and others in a state of not giving a “FUWC.” Without of addressing the issue; that same negative behavior can spread to others. (Imagine a zombie apocalypse where the behavior starts with one person but spreads quickly to others without time for anyone to react). SCARY HUH? One of my mentors used to always tell me, in her infinite wisdom, “Emotion is Contagious.” Don’t believe me, look at this video (

This example shows how people are influenced by our environments --see Broken Window Theory.

What does this mean? It proves THAT CULTURE IS CONTAGIOUS! What culture do you want to spread?

Levels of Engagement and Apathy

So, what can we do? Before we can determine why your students may not give a “FUWC.” We should examine how different levels of engagement behaviors may look like for students in our classrooms. I say start here because recognizing these set of behaviors may provide the easiest and most immediate win.

  1. Authentic Engagement {Highest Level]-

This type of engagement is characterized by curiosity, self-direction, grit. An example of this might be reading a playing a video game. This type of engagement releases dopamine in students, or the “feel-good” hormone, and they become hungrier and want to consume knowledge at a higher level.

2. Ritual Compliance

This behavior is characterized as activities being done to meet extrinsic motivation standards. For example, “If you do well on this assessment, we’ll go outside for extra recess.” The student is completing the task only to get a tangible reward.

3. Passive Compliance

Compliance so that there are no consequences. Example: “If you don’t do your homework, I’ll take your computer time.” The student has no interest in the activity, and they complete the task to basically stay out of trouble.

4. Retreatism

The student is completely disengaged from the work, but they are not disruptive. A.K.A the student who stares at his/her work for the entire class without attempting it. Often, these students go unnoticed because they are super quiet. He/she may sit in the back of the room, away from any of the action. These students may not even come to class if they have an option. (This was definitely me in class).

5. Rebellion {Lowest Level But Most Dangerous}

Students show no interest in completing the work, and actively distract other students from participating as well. This behavior is the most infectious. These are the students who we say who really think not give a FUWC. They show up in class every day and make life very difficult. They are those we often hope are absent, but they show up every day, even on teacher professional development days. (Don’t make me feel like I’m the only one who’s felt this way).

Now What

Just like I had to truly analyze my conversation with Ms. T, we also must understand that when students appear not to care, they are actually saying, “I’m frustrated because I haven’t had a win, in school, at home, or in general. I’m much too frustrated to put towards effort into class.” This mode of thinking isn’t much different than Ms. T. She exhibited similar feelings. Think of your students who exhibit this disposition. When is the last time they have seen success in your class, or any class?

Now that we have an idea of which students may fall into each level of engagement, we can start to address the highest need— rebellion (I chose this behavior because it can be the most contagious).

First, remember that a person’s prefrontal cortex (their rational brain) is not completely developed until they are 25. What new research suggests is that teen brains work differently than adults. According to Stanford Children’s Health, teens process information through their amygdala— the part of the brain that controls emotion, which would explain why it’s so difficult to get teens to engage in activities that do not appeal to them. Essentially, teens live in the “now” processing information based on the pleasure principle (a psychoanalytic principle that says that all decisions are determined by what gives us pleasure, and not what is rational.) Why is this all Important? Because understanding child brain development helps us realize that many times these behaviors are not personal, but more emotional. Understanding this can essentially alleviate our frustration towards students, which can push them away more.

Strategies to Abate Rebellion

When I meet parents and teachers, many of them express the same frustration. “My child doesn’t give a FUWC about school (many times in those very elegant words).

NOTE This epidemic is particularly important for our students of color because according to NCES, they graduate at a rate of at least 10% less than their white counterparts—putting targets on their backs and labeling them before they have an opportunity to reach their potential. Study linked here (

So how do we mitigate this phenomenon before this epidemic becomes a pandemic? What I often share with parents and teachers is to meet with the child and think about an area of great struggle for the student to put the focus. Set a goal with the child around how to change the behavior, make it visible to the child (maybe put it on the screensaver of a phone or computer, something visible each day). Then set 2 reminders in your phone to compliment the student on how well they are doing with that specific behavior (don’t tell the student that you have planned some praise for them, it is important that they feel that is random. What brain research suggests is...after this time is over, identity another goal of intense focus to change a behavior.

People are more likely to change negative behaviors when they feel successful and someone takes notice. The dopamine that’s released in our brains when we receive confirmation is addictive. Truthfully, the goal is not to make student dependent on these affirmations, but to get them to a point where they believe they are capable and successful so that it starts to rub off in other areas.

I also suggest reading books like 5 love languages for students because if we can affirm a positive behavior based on what they’re love language is, then it’s more likely to stick because we are telling our brain that there is a reward for a behavior—even if that reward is intrinsic, like dopamine.

So, you say your students don’t give a FUWC? Well they do, we just have to

  1. Learn to speak their love languages

  2. Understand the origin of their frustration and help them realize a resolution

  3. Set goals that hold them accountable; check in on those goals so they know that you care.

  4. Create opportunities to positively connect with students based on their goal behaviors so they feel empowered to take other risks.

Each student is different and may require different actions to help curve their behaviors. And I get it, believe me I do. With all that you have to worry about, there is no time to put this type of work in. I get it! But Ms. T will tell you that putting in a little extra effort to build this relationship with her students turned her class into a completely different place. And as her administrator and instructional coach, I was ecstatic at how much her students grew that year.

If you are still skeptical, as yourself this question, “When your students leave you, will they be able to survive based on skills you taught them, or are they destined to live an existence of constant struggle?”

I’m curious as to how this works for you. Comment below and share your experiences with us. Until next time! remember, “Strong relationships are built in Signature and not Print. They all are uniquely different!”




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