Help! My Students Just Don’t Seem to Care

All behavior has meaning.

Illustration of teacher with bored students

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’ve been working at a high school for five years, and it has been rough. My students don’t do their homework. They are mostly passive in class, with the occasional disruption of side conversations. I was given a curriculum to use. It’s just OK, but not really engaging. I teach Spanish, and I really want them to see the value of being multilingual, but it just seems like they don’t care. I have a team partner who is a new teacher, and he feels the same way as I do. How can I turn this around to be more positive? —I Really Do Care

Dear I.R.D.C.,

Thank you for your honesty about the lack of student motivation and engagement you are experiencing. Even though I can sense your frustration, you also express a desire to turn around the passive and apathetic vibes. Your mindset matters, and the fact that you believe you have the power to improve the learning conditions is huge. You also have a colleague you trust who shares your concerns. This type of trusting partnership can help you face your challenges with a strong back and a soft heart.

There are strategies to help you address apathy and engagement with students. Hopefully, these ideas will help you reel in your students and spark some motivation and engagement. We all know that behavior has meaning. Often there is a multitude of underlying issues that exist beneath the armor of passivity. Maybe there is food insecurity, past trauma, peer pressure, or something else. No matter what you discover about your students, connections buoy up spirits. Little by a little, a smile, a greeting, a check-in, and authentic interest in someone’s life can strengthen a bond and improve relationships. So, how do you demonstrate that you care about someone? Maybe you have five minutes to write about what you do to show the kids you work with that you care about them.

Another way to offset disengagement and promote curiosity is by letting students take the lead and have more choices in their learning. Ask yourself, are there opportunities for your students to explore their interests, use their Spanish in authentic situations, and express themselves creatively? Rita Pierson’s TED Talk captures the power of relationships with our students. She says, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be.”


And I hope you relentlessly hold up your passion for promoting the value of multilingualism. Take the time to explicitly teach the students the cognitive benefits, including building attention span and multitasking. They can also share ways being multilingual helps them open their minds and see the world in different ways. Building cross-cultural understandings is an absolute must. Right? It takes listening or reading one minute to give a full-body yes to that response.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Are we still allowed to have fun at school? My admin has been pretty clear that we’re supposed to stay focused on academics. I teach kindergarten, and I really want to continue my leprechaun traditions with the kids. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and my former students often tell me they still remember when we did the leprechaun traps. A trap is traditionally made by young children and set out the night before St. Patrick’s Day. Once trapped, leprechauns may grant three wishes. In many of the folklore stories, Irish folks have been tricked and made foolish wishes. It’s memorable and fun. Please give me the green light to do this with my kids. —Keep Learning Fun

Dear K.L.F.,

Your passion for joy in the classroom is palpable. I can also relate to how rewarding it is to promote wonder with students. There is a powerful combination between having fun and learning. Your kids will be more apt to enjoy school, actively participate, take risks, and remember the learning in the context of fun and playful learning experiences. Unfortunately, many people associate fun with entertainment. I think we both agree that the fun you are referring to includes open-ended projects and experiences that increase motivation, magic, and wonder in the classroom. As students engage in problem-solving challenges, they get into a flow, build skills and confidence, and experience pride. Helping kids see that fun and hard work go hand in hand is absolutely worthwhile.

If you have doubts about continuing your leprechaun traditions, reach out to your leadership for some guidance. Let them know how your students have responded over the years. Show examples of how this project builds academic, linguistic, and social skills, while also tapping into major bursts of excitement and joy. No one is suggesting  “fun” projects all day, every day, but every once in a while, a fun project brings a fresh approach to learning. Be proactive and communicate with your families. You might say something like, “Ask your child about the magic they experienced this week. They should be able to tell you about some Irish traditions that we have explored. The kids worked together to build leprechaun traps. They even built their language as they shared their hopes and dreams together.”

Take a bit of time to read about the use of folktales to make multicultural education come alive. Learning the history of leprechauns in Irish folklore will be helpful. You can inform families and respond to any wonderings they may have. “One key component of the leprechaun story is their famous pot of gold. They are known to possess and hoard their prized pots and traditionally hide this treasure at the end of a rainbow. This means that humans need to catch them in order to find this fortune, as it is impossible to actually locate the end of this natural phenomenon.” Nesting this experience in the context of the value of learning from other cultures and traditions around the world promotes diverse representation, too. And don’t forget to ask the kids about their own family traditions!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I feel totally broken-hearted. I teach 7th grade. Yesterday, one of my boys asked me if he could ask me a question after class. Of course, I said yes. He then asked me if I could please try to contact his mom because she wasn’t answering his calls and texts. She left him when he was little, and he hasn’t heard from her in three months. He was just short of begging me. Something  told me to check his profile and, sure enough, there is a no-contact order, and I had to tell him I’m not allowed. I felt horrible. He was so hurt that I am not allowed to contact her. I asked him if he wanted a hug, and he said yes. I have not seen this boy be that vulnerable all year. Any advice on what to do? —Heavy Hearted

Dear H.H.,

Has anyone told you lately that you are having a profound and positive impact? What an intense and heartbreaking situation with your student. You have earned his trust, and that says a lot about your way of being. Trust promotes safety and a sense of belonging, which is foundational to your student … especially now. You are showing up and supporting in ways that tests and grades will never measure. Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count: everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Even though your heart is heavy, what you are doing counts.

Kudos to you for doing a bit of investigation into the student’s life. Schools need to follow custody and no-contact orders. We don’t have enough information to jump into a volatile and possibly dangerous situation. Thanks for modeling your strategic and calm approach. Hopefully, you have reached out to counselors to surround your student with more layers of professional support.

Our feelings of compassion can be evoked when we observe serious troubles that are not self-inflicted but rather due to unjust circumstances. And we can picture ourselves in the struggle, too. Compassion goes beyond empathy because of the desire to lessen another person’s suffering or to be with another in their suffering. Teachers’ altruistic behaviors help students feel less alone during chaotic, confusing, traumatic times of their lives. So many of us entered into the profession because of our authentic hope to make a difference in children’s lives. 

Many educators are experiencing weariness with the troubles that they have witnessed the past few years of the pandemic. Kimmie Fink, Senior Editor at WeAreTeachers, calls attention to taking care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty vessel, and compassion fatigue is a real thing. This is especially true for teachers, who are naturally an empathetic bunch. Burnout from stress and secondary traumatic response can impact your ability to care for your students. So, remember to engage in plenty of self-care with strategies like meditation, exercise, and staying connected.

You might have thoughts running through your mind that you only gave him a hug or that you wish you could do more. Let those thoughts go. Avoid minimizing the power of exuding compassion with your intentional and warm support. Right here and right now, you are like a lighthouse. Poet Cleo Wade wrote, “And be sure to keep your light bright and shining. You never know just how many people you are a lighthouse for. You never know just how many people find their way home, in even the wildest storms, because you are there.”

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
I love making students feel excited and special. So, I decided to invest some money to make a birthday prize box. The other day, another teacher came into my class frantic, saying she forgot a child’s birthday and asked if she could have a card and borrow my prize box for her student. I obliged, but later on, the box was returned to me empty. She decided to let ALL the kids choose something because, apparently, it was unfair for the other students to watch the birthday boy enjoy his treat. She said she’d replace the stuff.

A month passed, and she still hadn’t, so I replaced it myself. Then she asked to borrow a card and the box again shortly after she saw I replenished it. I, of course, said no, because of what happened the last time, and she got mad and told me not to ask to borrow glue sticks or scissors in the future, which I think is unfair because those are school resources that we’re meant to SHARE. She even told me I was ‘over the top’ with gifts. Ugh! How do I deal with this?

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

Help! My Students Just Don't Seem to Care