Learned Helplessness in the Classroom, or: “The Parent Trap”

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As I noted in a previous post, I have it easy in a lot ways. Unlike a lot of teachers, I don’t lack for classroom resources, and the majority of my students are motivated—if not intrinsically, then extrinsically by parents who are concerned about the return on their sizable education investment. As you might imagine, though, with all of the advantages of teaching in independent schools come certain disadvantages.

One of the most frustrating things I deal with is the student who expects to have everything handed to him or her, not only in life, but in the classroom as well. Although I hate to sound alarmist, I fear that this behavior has serious implications for our democratic society. If all students are drilled on how to prepare for a multiple choice test but never learn to think for themselves, to problem-solve, and even occasionally to fail (and to learn from their failure), what kind of leaders can we expect in the future? What kind of citizens can we expect in the future?

Over the course of this year, I have become increasingly frustrated with the amount of “learned helplessness” I see in my classroom. Now, I am not a psychologist—only a college graduate who took Psychology 101 and has read a few books that touch on the subject, but if you’re not familiar with it, allow me to offer some background.

The first research on learned helplessness occurred back in the 1960s. In the first part of the experiment, psychologists placed dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group received an electrical shock, but they could stop the shock by pressing a lever. The dogs in the second group were actually wired to the first group. These dogs received shocks as well, but they had no control over the duration. The shocks for these dogs ended only when the dogs in the first group pressed the lever. The dogs in the third group were the control group; they were placed in harnesses but received no shock.

In the second part of the experiment, all of the dogs were placed in the same environment. They each received a shock, but they could easily “escape” the shock by jumping over a low barrier. What these psychologists found was that the dogs in the second group (those who had no control over the duration of the previous shocks) simply succumbed to the pain. Rather than jumping over the barrier, the dogs simply whimpered. From this, the psychologists concluded that these dogs exhibited “learned helplessness,” an acquired inability to take control of an adverse situation and better themselves.

Over the last four decades, the term has been used outside the realm of laboratory psychology. In politics, social welfare programs are often cited as a contributor to “learned helplessness.” (The term “nanny state” seems to be an especially popular refrain among certain segments of the electorate these days.) In education, the phrase has been applied to those students with ADD/ADHD or learning disabilities. The theory in any case, I suppose, is that once someone learns to get by with “help” from someone or something else (in the form of food stamps, Ritalin, or testing accommodations), they can no longer manage without them.

In my classroom, I use it to mean those students who have come to expect their education to be spoon-fed to them in easily digestible, study guide-sized morsels. Many of my students—even some of the brightest ones—are fundamentally uncomfortable with uncertainty in the classroom. Upon being told that there is not a “right answer,” they’re unsure of how to proceed. When confronted with an unfamiliar assignment or an unforeseen problem, they seize up. When asked to think, they say (literally, sometimes), “I don’t know how to do that.” Some of this is certainly developmental, but I think a lot of it has more to do with nurture than with nature.

In my case, it would be easy to ascribe this problem to socio-cultural factors. Many of my students come from wealthy families, and frankly, they often do get whatever they ask for. I can look out my classroom window and see several student cars whose monthly payments are probably as much as my mortgage. Most of them are good kids, but by any traditional definition, they are what you might call “spoiled.” So wouldn’t it follow logically that these students would be spoiled in the classroom as well? Perhaps, but I think this is too simplistic. I suspect that many teachers—regardless of their school culture—see this sort of behavior.

Another possible explanation involves looking in the mirror. Perhaps we—as educators—are partially to blame. Over the last ten years especially, the push toward standardized education and high-stakes testing, not to mention the more recent call for “merit pay” for higher test scores, has created a monster wherein teachers are forced (or at least greatly rewarded) for “teaching to the test.” Growing up in that sort of environment, students come to expect their teachers to “teach them what they need to know.” Although the pressures of state-mandated exams are greatly reduced in independent schools, they’re replaced in some ways by the pressures of AP performance. But of course, life is not multiple-choice, and students need to learn this.

This year, I’ve encountered a couple of students with extreme cases of learned helplessness, and they have challenged me tremendously. Perhaps the most frustrating has been a very intelligent student who couldn’t seem to complete her work on time, yet never asked for help. She received a failing grade for the first grading period, primarily as a result of late penalties. In the end, her parents intervened on her behalf, concerned that her grades in my class would prevent her from getting into the college of her choice.

They scheduled meetings with my school’s academic dean, as well as with my department chair. In both cases, they stated that they did not want their daughter present, and in both cases they took issue with my grading standards. When, in the second meeting, I asked why their daughter hadn’t turned in her work on time, they said that she had seemed unsure of herself when confronted with my open-ended writing assignments. In the course of working on the assignment, she grew increasingly frustrated, “hit a wall,” and simply stopped working. Finally, nearly two weeks after the deadline, she submitted an introductory paragraph and some sketchy notes. The parents believed that my grading was too harsh, but it didn’t occur to the parents that this submission was exactly why their daughter needed to be in the meeting. Why hadn’t she asked me for help?

In reflecting on this situation, I see two possibilities. The first is predictable: the student has “learned” to take the easy road. Why should she take responsibility for her education when Mom and Dad will do it for her? I think there is an element of this at work, but as above, I think it’s too easy to just blame the parents and be done with it. In fact, I do believe the parents are to blame, but I’m afraid there’s much more to the story here. I say “afraid,” because the more likely explanation is much more tragic than a “lazy teenager” who skates by while Mom and Dad pressure her teachers for better grades.

Again, this is an extreme example of the type of behavior I see on an almost-daily basis, but my fear is that this student has come to believe that she has little control over her own education. I don’t mean to suggest that these are bad parents. On the contrary, they obviously care for their daughter and want what is best for her, but in advocating so forcefully on her behalf, they explicitly prevented her from advocating for herself. And so nearly a month passed before the student came in to meet with me about her writing. The student simply whimpered until someone else tried to press the lever.

Although I’ve often wondered, I have no idea when or where this started for my student—but that’s really not important for my purposes. What is important is: where do we go from here? The entire situation was incredibly taxing in terms of time, energy, and even emotion. It strained the parent-student-teacher relationship, and although the student has finally started meeting with me to get some help with her writing, I can still sense that she resents my earlier grading. Her parents’ strong involvement reinforced (if implicitly) her perception that I was wrong to grade so harshly.

In reflecting on this situation, I’m reminded of a talk that I was fortunate to attend earlier this year. The speaker was Robert Evans, an organizational psychologist/consultant and the author of several books, including Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing. I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I can gather, the talk followed the general outline.

According to Evans, from the time they’re born until the time they graduate from high school, students spend only about 10% of their time in schools. As a teacher, it would be easy to interpret this statistic as “Aha! So it’s the parents’ problem.” And in large part, it is. According to Evans, though, teachers have a role to play here.

In Evans’ view, teachers are burdened by perpetual guilt and inadequacy—“Why don’t all of my students learn as much as I want them to? And why couldn’t I reach that one kid?” (I don’t know if you have these feelings, but I certainly do from time to time.) Therefore, Evans says, it’s incredibly distressing for teachers when parents become a “problem,” and particularly when they ask us “Why aren’t you doing more for my child?”

The premise of Evans’ talk, however, was that although they are sincere, parents are equally distressed, because it’s becoming harder and harder to be a confident parent in the 21st century. Even among “good parents,” he says, there is a “rising tide of anxiety,” and there are two reasons for this. First, the rate of change (social, economic, technological, etc.) in our society is incredible and constantly increasing. Parents, like teachers, can’t always keep up. Second, the choices for kids (of cultures, of ideas, of educations, of futures) are many.

Gone are the days of finish your homework, eat your vegetables, do your chores, and head to bed. The “kids these days” are plugged in to people and ideas from around the world, and although that’s exciting, it also makes it difficult for parents to assure a child of his or her future. It sounds a little nihilistic, maybe, but I buy it. Parents are worried that they’re not getting the job done as well as they should be, and so they expect teachers to take on some of that responsibility. Unfortunately, we don’t really know what the future holds either.

In any event, what I took away from the talk was that most “problem parents” are sincere but anxious (if wrong), and Evans says that teachers sometimes have to “parent the parents.” This does not mean to act in a condescending manner toward them, but to make sure the expectations are clear and then engage them in a conversation about where they are and how to get to where they want to be. In the case I described above, this was clearly necessary.

The parents needed to understand that there were clear expectations. The student needed to hear (again) that clear expectations had been set, and that she had failed to meet them. And both parents and student needed to hear that past failures would not define the future. I made it clear to everyone involved that I was more than willing to work with the student on her weaknesses, but that she had to take the first step toward success.

I can force-feed a student names, dates, and facts, I suppose, but this is antithetical to a classroom model of democracy. I can’t encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and personal responsibility on one hand and force a child to do his or her work on the other. (And, by the way, if no one can predict accurately what the future holds, is it more important that we teach students a bevy of historical “facts” or the skills to wrestle with uncertainty?)

Although it’s not what I signed up for, I have no problem with this idea of “parenting the parents”—as long as the student is also part of that conversation. Education is a partnership, to be sure, and everyone needs a place at the table. But I get a little bit confused on how we intend to prepare a child for an unknowable future by solving all of his or her problems behind closed doors. That just won’t work. Like those dogs in the 1960s, students need to know that even though education sometimes delivers a “shock,” the levers are always there. At the end of the day, though, only the students can push them, and sometimes you have to push pretty hard. That’s a lesson from the lab experiment of “life,” and one needs to be taught in the 21st century.

Career Envy

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Like many teachers, I think, I occasionally suffer from “career envy.” Around this time last year, I visited the state farmer’s market and the state fair in the same day, and I came away from that experience wanting to become–get this–a dairy/poultry/goat farmer. There is something about becoming intimately reacquainted with the land that really appeals to the romantic in me. And there is something about becoming more self-sufficient that really appeals to the cheapskate in me. (As a side note, I think both of these qualities do serve me well in my actual career.)

I’ve also thought at various times about going to law school or getting involved in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if any of the careers I find myself envying would actually make me happier. It seems that all of the “careers” I find myself drawn to are ones in which you must work long hours and take your work home with you, and this is exactly what I would be trying to escape in leaving the teaching profession. So perhaps what I really want is not a career at all, but rather, a job. And specifically a job that you can leave at the office and not think about between the hours of 5:00 pm and 9:00 am.

Honestly, there are times–usually when my grading “inbox” has gotten backed up–when I would kill for a 9-to-5. I know that this would leave me unfulfilled professionally, but I do wonder if it wouldn’t allow me to feel more fulfilled personally. Would I be happier day-to-day if I could come home and spend time with my wife rather than quarantining myself in another room, grading essay after essay after essay? Would I be happier week-to-week if I could go 48 hours without thinking about work, rather than spending most of Sunday a) grading, b) preparing for class, or c) both?

I’ve been told that, in this economy, I should just be thankful to have a job–and I am. Don’t get me wrong: there are many things I love about my job. I love that I start over with a clean slate every year (at least in theory). And I love the life of the mind–always thinking, questioning, reflecting. I also–most of the time, at least–love the kids, and I especially love the kids when they show an interest in the life of the mind. And, of course, I can’t lie: I love having the summers off. I know I would start to go crazy in a job that involved menial labor or simple repetition. But sometimes I start to go crazy now, usually around 9:00 or 10:00 on Sunday night, after putting in 6-8 hours of work before the week has even begun.

Most of my job-related stress centers on grading. In case you haven’t caught my drift yet, please allow me to be clear: I HATE GRADING. And I’m not talking about multiple choice tests here. If I could, in good conscience, give nothing but multiple choice tests, my life would be much more pleasant. But, as it turns out, I am that teacher who requires his students to write–a lot–and as much as they hate writing essays, I hate grading them.

I especially hate trying to figure out if an essay is a B or B- and worrying that a student may compare his grade with a classmate’s and have a legitimate complaint about fairness. I hate seeing the looks on students’ faces when they get another C, and then I hate myself for feeling guilty, because they’re the ones not putting in the effort to learn from their mistakes. And I especially hate when parents ask me if there’s “anything Susie can do to raise her grade” right before report cards come out (read: “anything you can do to artificially reward her for failing to meet expectations”), even though they know her essay was totally off-topic.

It seems to me that grading (especially meaningful grading of writing assignments that prompt critical thinking) requires a vast investment of time and energy, only to put unnecessary strain on teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in the end. And, as I mentioned, it’s also caused me to want to become a farmer. For all of these reasons, Alfie Kohn’s 1999 article “From Degrading to De-Grading” really speaks to me. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that “de-grading” (i.e., not giving grades) is an option for me given my school’s culture.

My wife tells me that I simply need to relax my standards. Don’t assign so many essays, she says, and don’t grade them so strictly. After all, there are a few teachers in my school who basically “hand out” A’s and B’s for mediocre work, and they seem to be well-liked by students and parents. To my knowledge, at least, they don’t receive any pushback from the administration either. But I find that this is easier said than done. For better or worse, I think that part of my identity as a teacher (and thus, as a person) is tied up in trying to show students that success requires hard work. It’s not something that’s handed out freely. I suppose I’m trying to teach them life lessons as well as history lessons. Maybe I’m trying too hard.

But given that I have no farming skills to speak of, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my grading process. Now that I’ve laid out the “problem,” if you will, my next post will start to address how I hope to solve it. Honestly, I expect the solution to come to me in fits and starts, but if there’s anyone out there reading this, I certainly welcome your input.

How do you manage the stress associated with honest, meaningful grading that accomplishes your pedagogical goals without sacrificing your personal sanity? I’d love to hear from you.

Welcome to Indie Teacher

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I teach history and coach in an independent secondary school in the South, and although I have blogged before, this is my first foray into the education blogosphere. (As I side note, I hereby resolve to steadfastly avoid the word “blogosphere” henceforth.)

I envision this blog primarily as a place where I can a) reflect on history, on teaching, and on independent school education; and b) connect with other educators, thus informally advancing my own professional development.

I first considered starting this blog over the summer, while reading Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Palmer’s book had been assigned as “Faculty Summer Reading” by my school’s administration, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that although I didn’t necessarily agree with everything I read, it was full of ideas worth engaging. During our faculty orientation discussions, I realized just how much I’d missed the unfettered exchange of ideas that I enjoyed during college and graduate school. Too often, I think, this sort of communication is limited by institutional power dynamics, by the compartmentalized nature of secondary education, and (perhaps most often) by the sheer exhaustion that we teachers struggle with on a daily basis.

For me, this orientation discussion was refreshing. This sort of thing happens occasionally in passing conversations with colleagues, but there is rarely–at my school at least–any sustained dialogue about what it means to teach, why we do it, or how we can get better at it, especially while maintaining our collective sanity. (This is to say nothing of serious intellectual conversations about our respective disciplines.) Although I hope that I can help to change the “local culture” where I work, I also hope that this blog can become a place where teachers can swap their own ideas about such topics.

So, now that you know a bit about me and why I started this blog, you may be asking: why is it called Indie Teacher? Well, I can assure you it’s not because I’m always up-to-date on the indie rock scene. In fact, I tend to dismiss guys with asymmetrical hair and skinny jeans, regardless of what their music may sound like. (Yes, in fact, I do realize what I’m missing. I just don’t care that much.) Rather, I chose the name because I teach in independent schools and I tend to have a bit of an independent streak. I cherish the autonomy I’m given in the classroom, although sometimes I wonder if I’m a little too independent even for an independent school. More on this later.