Pretending to work

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by bledsoe on December 31, 2012

One of the things a teacher has to do all the time is decide whether or how to address a particular incident of student behavior. Some behaviors need to be addressed directly (i.e., by directly confronting the student), some need to be addressed indirectly, and some need to be simply ignored. But how do you decide?

One of the types of behaviors I deal with fairly regularly is the student who doesn't want to do any work, and something that was helpful for me in addressing this behavior was answering the question, "What does it look like for a student to do the absolute minimum amount of work in my classroom?" And I needed to be able to answer that question in behavioral terms; that is, what exactly is this hypothetical student doing?

This hypothetical student is "Pretending To Work," which I define as follows:

  1. They have their assignment on their desk.
  2. They do not have their head down on their desk.
  3. They do not have any other books or assignments out on their desk.

(Notice that the Pretending To Work definition isn't intended to deal with students who are genuinely struggling with a particular concept or problem; it's intended solely for the students who simply don't "feel" like doing anything.)

Even though I don't explicitly share the Pretending To Work definition with my students, it's still very useful for me in determining what, if any, behavioral intervention I need to implement for a student who is not getting their work done. A typical Pretending To Work interaction with a student begins when I notice that they have put their assignment away in their bookbag or notebook, but it seems to me that they haven't actually had time to complete the assignment. Then we have an exchange that goes something like this:

Mr. B: Did you already finish the assignment?

Student: Yeah.

B: Can I see it, please?

S: Well, actually I didn't finish it, but I'm going to finish it at home.

B: Well, I appreciate that, but since we still have plenty of time left in class, I want you to take your assignment out and work on it right now.

Usually what happens next is the student sighs heavily, takes their assignment out of their bookbag, and reluctantly gets to work. Sometimes they just Pretend To Work, but that's okay, too; I'll sometimes make a note of it in case I need to explain to a parent or administrator why this student is failing my class, but as long as they're meeting my Pretending To Work criteria, they won't get hassled further by me (at least, not immediately).

Sometimes, of course, a student will refuse to even Pretend To Work, though this doesn't happen that often. When it does, I call for an administrator and they send someone to take the student out of my classroom. While it would be hard to call this a desirable outcome, it does have a number of positive benefits, the most valuable of which is that everyone in the class gets to see what happens if they try to get away with not doing any work in my class. They learn that the rule is: you have to at least Pretend To Work, or you don't get to stay in the class.

The reason this rule is important is that it has a big effect on the tone of my classroom. If my students get the idea that the things we do in class are optional, then they get the message that these things are not important, and then they have no strong incentive to work hard on them. I want my students to learn that in Mr. B's class, we work. If a student doesn't want to do at least the minimum amount of work, they have to go somewhere else.

Image by Unhindered by Talent via Flickr.

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