“You can’t care too much.”

This was one piece of advice given to me by my mentor when I began student-teaching. It is something that I struggle with constantly. When I check in with students as they work on practice problems, I often see blank pages in their notebooks. Sometimes I haven’t provided enough instruction, so they have no idea how to start. Other times, the kids choose not to write anything down or attempt the problems. I spend the time to talk to most of them, asking why they haven’t written anything down. The response is usually a blank stare and a shrug. I quickly attempt to get them on task, which works until I move on to other students. Then, the off-task behavior continues. Most of these students are failing my class, and they don’t seem to care. Should I?

A couple days ago, I had a student re-teach a concept to the rest of the class. While she was explaining the concept, the entire class was silent. Until then, I hadn’t realized that was possible. Not to undermine the student “teacher,” but her explanation of the concept sounded almost exactly how I had explained it. Maybe hearing it for the sixth time would help some students understand it. Apparently not. After she was done, the student “teacher” asked the class, “How many of you actually get this?” No more than ten students out of thirty-eight raised their hands. The student “teacher” looked at me and said, “See Mr. Huang? Just so you know.” I’m guessing she didn’t realize this, but I knew that less than a third of the class understood the concept. My informal assessments told me that much. What I didn’t know was why so many students in my class chose not to try.

Another teacher once told me, “Most of these kids believe that they will be working for the rest of their lives after they graduate. Why would they want to do more work now?” In private conversations with several of my students, I found this mentality to be true. Some of these kids come to school knowing that they will be working jobs that don’t require post-secondary education. Thus, school is a stop-gap before they join the work force. Socializing with friends becomes the main priority while education takes a back seat. With this mentality, many students choose to not work. Hence my dilemma: should I care that they are making this choice?

When I started the year, I didn’t care that a lot of my students were off-task in class. I respected their decision to not work. However, I quickly saw that their behavior was affecting students who did want to learn. I couldn’t teach because of all the disruptions. It got to the point where I went to the administrators to ask for help. They told me they would provide support. For the time being, I have resorted to telling students who are disrupting the learning environment to stand outside my door. There is the belief that the students who are sent outside are the ones who need to be in class the most. While I tend to agree, I consider the other students in my class. It is not fair to them to keep a disruptive student in class.

I want to clarify one thing: I do care about my students. I go see them at school events outside of the classroom. I talk to them about non-academic topics that interest them. I take time in class to do weekend wrap-ups. I understand that they have lives outside of math class. I do care about their futures. What I struggle to care about are the decisions that they make. Even though I think they are making the wrong choice, they clearly don’t see it that way. I don’t know how much I should try to change their minds.

The fact that I went to the administrators for help means that I care. The fact that I had to change my classroom policies means that I care. The fact that I am struggling means that I care. Despite this, I am inclined to believe that I should care a little more.