EP21: You can’t lose sleep over disengaged students, but you can’t give up on them, either. In this episode, I’ll share how to overcome the feeling of powerlessness that comes from working with unmotivated students, and break free from the trap of trying to nag and shame them into working harder. Learn where to focus your energy — and how — in order to make the greatest difference for the greatest amount of kids.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunesto get new episodes right away.


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Today’s episode is part of the Ask Angela Anything format you’ll hear once a month or so, where podcast listeners submit questions they’d like for me to answer. (You can submit YOUR question here.)

The question I’m answering today is an anonymous question from a 9th and 10th grade teacher:

I frequently have students who are not motivated to learn. I actually get them because I usually can have some success with them. But in the past two years, I feel like I am helpless to change their apathetic attitudes and their lack of effort. Yes, I refuse to let them take my power away but I constantly find myself trying to figure out how to reach them or get them to do anything.

I catch myself thinking about my failure to reach these kids all the time; I even wake up thinking about them. What strategies can I use that allow me to not give up on these kids but also stops me from dwelling on these kids 24 hours a day? I feel like it is so much wasted energy but I don’t want to become one of those teachers who just lets the kids fail.”

So, I love what you said about refusing to let them take your power away. Let’s start there. It’s really essential to remember that you as the classroom teacher are the most influential person in the classroom. You are the one who creates the routines, plans the activities, and chooses how to respond to student behavior. You create the classroom climate. Your attitude is what makes the difference.

Never give in to those moments when you feel powerless, like you can’t do anything about students’ attitudes. You have to choose to be the one who raises them up, instead of letting them pull you down. You have that power. You can choose not to let a few adolescents’ bad attitudes keep you from accomplishing what you set out to do, and working toward your vision.


Now, you can’t control kids’ attitudes, but you can influence how kids feel. And when kids feel better, they behave better. Pam Leo said, “You can’t make a child behave better by making them feel worse.”  So whenever you are tempted to nag, yell, or shame apathetic students, remember that making them feel worse is not going to make them behave better.

You cannot embarrass kids into being motivated. I’m sorry to say that I know this from firsthand experience. Somehow along the way I got the idea that constantly threatening apathetic, unmotivated kids with the possibility of failing was going to scare them straight. It didn’t work, not in one instance. Sometimes they’d go through the motions for me for a half hour or so, but making kids feel bad about their lack of effort did not create intrinsic motivation in anyone.

Nagging and shaming kids seems like it might give a momentary release for us as teachers, but if we look more deeply, we can see how de-energizing it really is. No one wants to spend their whole day screaming at kids, “If you don’t do your homework, you’re not going to pass!” It’s very hard to unwind after spending a full day berating children. You end up lying in bed at night still fuming about how lazy your students are being and how unfair it is that you’re being evaluated on their test scores when they don’t even care… I mean, you see the downward spiral this creates, right?

So, like every other solution to every other problem, it all begins with your mindset. If you reframe the situation so that it doesn’t depress and discourage you, it’s going to be much easier to respond to apathetic students in a positive way. You’re also going to have the energy you need to create engaging lessons and carry them out with enthusiasm that draws reluctant students in.

Spend some time right now creating a healthy reframing of the situation that you can repeat to yourself. Your reframing needs to focus on what YOU can control. Maybe it will be something like this:

“I can go to sleep tonight content that I have done what I can do to help these kids. I worked toward my vision of making a difference for them, whether or not they chose to take me up on it. Tomorrow, I will go in the classroom and give me all once again, regardless of how much effort they do or don’t put forth. I am responsible for only my own actions.”

Write out your reframing so whenever you start to get frustrated and feel like giving up, you can remind yourself, “Nope, I refuse to give up based on the response I got from students. My job is to work toward my vision for teaching each day and bring my energy and enthusiasm to the classroom. I’m doing that and I choose to feel good about it.”

You can also use your reframing to brainstorm more ways to reach apathetic students. Though I don’t think it’s healthy to lay awake at night thinking about kids who are disengaged —at night, you really need to repeat your healthy reframing to yourself, and put everything work-related out of your mind —I do think it’s healthy to think about strategies during the day.

Instead of blaming or judging the kids for being disengaged, or for beating yourself up for not being able to reach them, ask yourself, What other strategies can I try to teach my content effectively?


Throw all your energy into creating really dynamic, relevant, meaningful lessons for kids. Don’t overthink the behavior management piece and the motivational issue: focus on discovering as many effective ways for kids to learn the content as possible. That’s going to benefit all your kids, including the ones who DO want to learn.

You can’t spend 90% of your time worrying about 10% of your class. That’s really not fair to the other kids, and it’s going to frustrate you because that 10% is probably not where you’re going to see a lot of gains and lightbulb moments that motivate you to keep going. Stay focused on being a really effective teacher, and making your classroom a safe, comfortable, engaging place for kids to learn. Who knows, over time, you might find that a disengaged student can’t help being drawn into the activities. Don’t judge your success as a teacher on whether or not that happens, now —but stay optimistic that it’s never too late, a child can have a breakthrough at any time, and you never know what lesson might be the one to get him or her engaged. Today could be the day!

Also keep in mind also that teaching a disengaged, apathetic student is not a waste of time, even when it feels like it.  I shared in episode 9, which was Avoiding Discouragement in a Thankless Job, that I was a terrible student and drove all my teachers nuts. I talked nonstop, I was lazy, and I was incredibly irresponsible. Just because I was disinterested in school and appeared not to be benefiting from their work does not mean their efforts were wasted. Look at me today! I’m sure none of my teachers imagined that I would accomplish the things I have.

If you only look at the results you’re seeing right now in front of you in the classroom, it’s easy to feel like there’s no point in trying to motivate kids who just don’t want to learn. But remind yourself: “I have no way of knowing what the future holds for these kids, and I refuse to stereotype them or judge them. I’m going to give my all and trust that my efforts are paying off in ways that I can’t see.”

Start off each day by visualizing yourself being completely in touch with your students’ needs and responding to them with just the right words they need to hear. If you believe in prayer, ask God to give you opportunities to reach these disengaged kids. Ask Him to open your eyes each day to new ways you can hook their interest or help them tap into their inner motivation.

When you start your day off with this sort of mindfulness, you will be highly attuned to every opportunity throughout the day and will be ready to seize each one. At night, you can replay those positive connections you made and feel a sense of accomplishment, instead of focusing on all the times you weren’t able to reach them.

You’re doing this work, on this day, with these kids, for a reason. You can do this, and remember —it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

The moment you think of giving up, think of the reason why you held on so long. Click To Tweet

What are your struggles are with apathetic students right now? I’m happy to help you brainstorm in the comment section.

Next week: How use summer to re-energize your teaching and yourself

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