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“I Don’t Care”: An Exploration in Three Parts

Five of my boys take home Daily Progress Reports, so that their parents can see how they behaved in the classroom that day. If they bring home an “S,” for Satisfactory, then they know their parents will be happy, that they will be able to watch TV, eat dessert, etc. Last week, one of my most troubled boys, let’s call him Cassius, was ramping up into the Red Zone, and I was using my entire arsenal to assuage him before he reached his crisis. “Cassius,” I said, “remember your S. You want to bring home an S for mom, right?” His reply: “I don’t care.”

Not, mind you, “I don’t care about the S,” nor “I don’t care what mom says, or what Mr. Arp says.” His idea was much simpler.

I don’t care.

“I don’t care” is one of the Gigantic Problems. It can be extended far beyond the practical concern of a beginning teacher. Cassius’ “I don’t care” ripples throughout the entire city, throughout our country. It has social and political implications, so let me be specific: how can a teacher make a child care? In the next two articles, I will look at two different, successful techniques that I have seen in my school. We will have to discuss, also, whether these options are viable for beginning teachers.

But first: what does “I don’t care” mean? There are two frequent answers in my school. The first answer is that Cassius does, of course, care. All children care about their friends, their work, their teacher’s and parents’ approval. His saying that he doesn’t care is a manifestation of frustration, and he needs to be re-introduced to success before he can care again. This is an exciting answer insofar as it encourages action on the teacher’s part: all you need to do is find a new way, a new approach, to allow Cassius to care. Then we simply catch the wind and keep on sailing.

The other answer is that Cassius, in these moments, simply does not care. His mother’s approval, my approval and the esteem of his friends feel shallow to him, feel less important than whatever it is he wants to do, be it play, run around or break something. This answer usually sounds like this: “That boy just doesn’t care. He does what he wants.”

I hear this all the time, and I have long struggled against it. It goes against every instinct I have with children. Of course he cares, I want to say. I want to steer back to that first answer. He is simply frustrated. But I have come to realize that “I don’t care” is a problem in my school even for the well-behaved kids. Even the high performing students, the readers and writers and listeners and sharers also often seem like they do not, in all earnestness, care. They read because I ask them to, they get excited about this or that project, or this or that book, but school is not, in general, a place to be passionate. It is not a place to channel their excitement or form their personality.

So when Cassius says “I don’t care,” what affects me is not so much his frustration as it is the window he opens up onto a general problem: how can I make my students care? I will look towards two teachers for answers: Ms. Mom and Ms. Ears.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.