Relationship Building

Do You Let Apathetic Kids Fail? (Ep. 045)

No matter how good you are as a teacher, you undoubtedly are going to have a handful of kids who just don’t care. So how do you start trying to get them passionate about making art? How can you create a challenging, engaging environment where students enjoy learning? Andrew and Tim talk about pushing students by tapping into their interests (9:00), building student confidence (12:30), and how to get kids past their apathy without doing the work for them (19:15). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I don’t care. Those three words can easily cause the most experienced of teachers to become so frustrated. Apathy can be the most difficult thing for a teacher to deal with, and it seems like it’s happening to younger and younger kids every single year. When we ask that question, do you let those apathetic kids fails? The answer needs to be no. I’ll be honest, you’re not going to reach every kid, you just can’t, but you can get through to a majority of your kids and you could help them find at least a little bit of success, and hopefully get out of that apathetic mindset.

The question is then, how do we reach students who give off the vibe that nothing matters? First of all, I think we need to come to an understanding. We all know that it’s never as simple as students just “don’t care” and we need to remember that. There are some students that are afraid to fail, there are some students that have issues with home lives, that are dealing with peer pressure. As much as I hate to say this, in a lot of educational environments, students have realized that they can get by without working hard.

When it comes down to it there are hundreds of reasons why students don’t try in school. It could be anything, and that’s part of the reason that teachers have such a tough time dealing with apathy. What do we need to do? How do we make a connection to our kids that’s going to help them find some success? That’s our challenge for us as teachers, to connect our kids’ interest and their lives to what we are doing in our classes. They need to know that we care about what we are teaching, and more importantly, they need to know that we care about them.

So many other classes throughout the school day are just watch this video, do this worksheet, read these pages, and you can’t make a connection there. There isn’t a lot for kids to get excited about when they’re dealing with a canned curriculum in five or six of their classes, and that’s going to lead to, naturally, just a lot of apathy. We can do something different in the art room, and we have the subject matter that can engage our kids, get them working, talking, collaborating, get them excited about learning.

We have to have our passion and we have to find ways to deliver that passion and give it to our students as well, because once kids are passionate they can start to work. It’s not just about doing the work, we need to show them how to do the work that we are expecting. You hear all the time about having high expectations and holding kids to standards, and eventually kids are going to work to meet those expectations, and that’s true.

What gets overlooked far too often is that you’re probably going to have to show them the way. You need to have high standards but you can’t just have high standards. You need to go back and meet kids where they are. I hear teachers all the time talking about, “Oh, I gave sketchbook assignments to my kids and they never do them, they just, they don’t know how to work in their sketchbooks. They-they don’t care, they don’t wanna do it.”

Think about it this way, have you taught them how to work in their sketchbooks? Kids need direction, they need guidance. If you want to get them to this place of high expectations, you need to show them the path, you need to work with them on the way to get them. The way we do that is through making those connections. We create amazing lessons, we expect good work and we get good work out of kids. That’s how we’re going to solve this problem of apathy.

It comes down to this. As much as we care about our kids, we can’t do everything for them. We don’t want or need that burden and that responsibility as teachers of having to do everything for our kids, but we can meet them where they are. We always do these sort of things with one eye on the fact that, we know that unfortunately, there’s a good chance that the blame is going to fall to us, the teachers, when the kids fail. It’s not just about us, we need our kids to do that work along with them and we need to show them how to do that.

We can start them on their way to finding some modicum of success there, because when we connect and when we tap into that passion, hopefully we can get kids out of that wrath of apathetic behavior and onto something bigger and better. There’s a lot of ways to do that, and I want to bring out Andrew right now to talk about some of our best strategies.

All right, I am here with Mr. Andrew McCormick. Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: Hey, I’m doing good man, it’s good to be on.

Tim: It’s good to have you. We got a big discussion tonight about apathy, and we’ll dive right in. I talked in the intro a little bit about how there are teachers who don’t do a lot to get kids excited about learning. Even if you do, like no matter how good you are as a teacher, you’re still going to have those apathetic students which to me, kind of shows that the problem goes way beyond the scope of what we can do in the classroom. I’m going to ask this of you, what do you think breeds this type of apathy? Is it caused by something in school, something with parenting, something with society, or maybe all of the above?

Andrew: Yes, I think it’s probably option D, all of the above. It’s probably multiple reasons that the kids have gotten to that point. I do have to say I kind of take exception to what you said about how it’s maybe more than what we can do in the classroom. It’s a lot to try to undo that when you think about what are the root causes of these things, but I do think that good art teachers are still going to give the best effort that they can to try to do or undo some of that stuff.

While it may not be something that was in the official job description which is to get kids to give a crap again about anything, I do think that the good art teachers out there are really going to try to get to the bottom of it and try to rekindle that fire and get them to care about stuff again.

Tim: Yes, I think that’s good. We can dive into that a little bit too. I want to ask you something … I don’t know, just what we’ve talked about before. Let me break this down into two parts. You’ve talked a lot before about how you really hate the traditional school day, like eight classes, 45 minutes each, move in from bell to bell. First part, do you think that’s part of the problem? Does that routine create that sort of apathy?

Second part, do you think that a different schedule or a different approach to teaching could help kids break out of that monotony and explore some new ideas, new interests and maybe find that joy or that passion that’s missing from so many different kids?

Andrew: Yes. The game of school, the 43 minutes, the 28 kids per class, the bells, and we do it on A day, B day to be opposite of PE. There are so many structural practical sides to school that I just really think it’s like … It takes all of the spontaneity, and creativity and fun out of learning. I’m middle school, you’re high school, by the time you get a kid in seventh grade, eighth grade, they’re pretty jaded to the way the whole system works, and a lot of kids know how the game work. I definitely think that that’s a part of it.

Now I’ve been joking a lot with my students lately that one of these days I’m going to win the lottery and I’m not going to retire, but I’m going to build a school where all you had to do is take classes that you wanted to take. It would be the job of the teachers to teach certain core competencies in all of these classes, because I think that’s what kids want, they want to feel like they have some choice, they have some freedom, they have some autonomy to do the things that interest them.

Rarely do I think that kids are ever asked, “What are you really interested in?” Even when they are asked by adults, I kind of think that they know they’re suppose to say the things that the adults want to hear like, “I’m interested in math and science, and I’m interested in …” I mean there are some, but most kids are into snowboarding, and video games and football. I don’t know, I mean if you give kids some choice and some autonomy during the day, that’s a really good way to rekindle their connection with learning.

Tim: Yes, I think that’s good. Let’s talk more about that actually because you mentioned some of the things we can do, some things we should be doing. We do need to look at it pragmatically because we’re not winning the lottery anytime soon, we’re not revamping the school system. If we dive into it, what can we do to bring the kids’ interest into that? What can we do in the art room to create that environment that fosters passion, and joy and gets kids aways from being apathetic?

Andrew: I’m a big advocate of choice, and on the choice spectrum like wherever you lie to give kids more freedom and autonomy to show you what they’ve learned I think could be really, really helpful. I’m at a new gig this year that … My students have grown up with not a ton of choice because when I’ve given them some freedom, and they’ll ask me these questions like, “Mr. McCormick, can I, can I, can I do it like this? Can I draw it this way?” I’m like, “Yes, you can do it that way.” They’re totally shocked, and then I’m shocked that they’re shocked.

It’s like, “Listen, I’ve given you this kind of idea, and I’ve given you some parameters, anything you can do creatively within that, if you’re excited, I’m excited. Like if you’re excited to do it then so am I.” Given that freedom, that choice can really ignite a lot of people. I do think that there’s a fallacy out there that like, “Hey, if you’ve got apathetic, you know, kids or kids that don’t want to work hard, all you gotta do is go tab or go choice.”

It’s not that simple, it’s not like a switch that you can just flip and then all of a sudden these kids who have been totally disinterested and unchallenged for like nine years of schooling are all of a sudden going to be making wonderful stuff. You’ve got to have some baby steps, some scaffolding to get them back into it. I always used to tell parents at parent-teacher conferences like, “Listen, part of my job as a middle school teacher, ’cause I get kids and then I pass them on to the high school, is to get your son or daughter just as excited for school as they were back in kindergarten.”

I think I’ve brought that up on a podcast before. I really do think that that’s part of my big job is get them excited about learning again because by the time I see them they’re so too cool for school, they’re just jaded, you know?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. Actually I want to dive in a little bit deeper with one of the things you said there. Let me phrase it like this. Once you figure out where your kids are with their learning, with what they’re excited about, with their interest, how do you translate that into getting them to put forth the effort they need? Do you have specific strategies? Once you get them making choices and making work, how do you get them to continue to be excited? What are some of the strategies that you have that combat that type of apathy?

Andrew: I think this came up on a podcast a couple of episodes ago, but there’s this notion of building competency and building confidence in student work, and I think that that’s a big part of it. I’ve always believed it’s way more acceptable for kids to be kind of like a badass instead of a dumb ass, pardon my French, but I really do believe that. It’s more cool and there’s more cachet.

I just call on my students on that, I’m like, “Listen, I see your bluff. You say that you don’t put forth effort because it’s a defense mechanism, because you don’t want to admit to the fact that like you’re not very good at this. I see right through you. I wrote the book on that okay? So number one, let’s start there, that I see through you. Let’s start building those confidences. Let me show you some tips and tricks that you can actually make your drawing, or your painting, or your sculpture better.”

When they start to exhibit like, “Hey, like I finished this mug and it’s not awful” and, “Hey, this is like way better than I thought I would ever do.” I try to give them lots of praise and lots of very specific praise like, “Hey, I’m really proud of you for the fact that you did that whole painting without, you know, complaining to me that you were no good at this thing.” I just try to really help them out. I think that’s one of the biggest things.

For some weird reason, by the time kids get to middle and high school, they’re convinced that they are not good at art. I always ask them like, “Well wait, who, who told you that you were not good at art?” “I did.” “Okay, what do you know about anything?” “Nothing.” “Don’t listen to yourself, listen to me. Art is teachable. Um, if you put forth some effort you’re going to get better and better at it.”

I’ll even break it down like this, I’ll just say, “Listen, like it’s really sexy to be like good at stuff. Like no one wants to be like basic, and boring and like uninterested in stuff. Like, if you want to have like cachet after high school and like be a cool, interesting person, you’re gonna have to get good at something. So you better put forth some effort now.”

Tim: Yes, exactly. You have a lot of great things on there, I want to mention a couple of them. One of my big motto in the art room just for teaching is to celebrate every success no matter how small it is. I’ll say if 95% of that drawing that that kid just did really sucks, we’re going to focus on that 5% that’s really good and you build on that, and you need to build the confidence or your kids and get them excited about what they’re doing.

Like you said, you need to kind of go meet kids where they are and be able to scaffold up from there. I try not to rant about this, but one thing that you always hear as a teacher is you got to hold kids to a high standard and they’re going to work to meet it which is great advice, and you and I both know that’s always true and it’s going to lead to a lot of success.

Too often, I think teachers make the mistake of assuming kids know how to meet that standard and how to do that work, and that’s not always the case. Their kids can’t meet that standard right away, teachers just throw their hands up and say, “They just don’t want to do the work.” The reason is maybe the kid doesn’t know how to do the work. Isn’t there something to be said for figuring out what your kids know, what they can do and then differentiating your instruction so you can meet them where they are?

If you have a kid who’s really struggling with stuff, personally, how do you meet them where they are and how do you get them raised up to where you want them to be? What are some strategies you have for that?

Andrew: My simple strategy is just tough love, and calling it like I see it and being honest with them, and also saying, “Listen, I’m not mad at you because like I find your work ethic or your investment in this to be substandard.” I want to just to make sure that we differentiate like … I think what you’re talking about with differentiating our expectations is kind of like as a finished product.

I have students in my classes who bust their butt and try super, super hard, and their drawings are just like not that great. Let’s just be honest, they’re starting with a fewer cards in their hand, lower levels of prior talent, but they’ve tried really, really hard. I’m totally fine with that kid, like, “Great job, you did the best you can, I know you did.”

The kids that make me really invest a lot of time and energy in them is like, “Listen, you complain that you’re not good at drawing, and then I see you waste easily 60% of your time in class screwing around, not really working to get better at this.” That is what I would consider to be apathy, and that’s what I find pretty frustrating. With I try to talk about is like, I’ll just tell them, “Listen, this is not very good, I think you can do way better.” I also get the same reaction, “Well, that’s, that’s how I wanted it. I like it like this. I like it this way.” It’s like, “Okay listen.”

If they’ll say, “That’s the best that I think I can do, this is quality work” and it’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. Listen, your definition of quality work and my definition of what I think quality work from you is, like those are two totally different things. So let’s talk about defining kind of like that video reel that’s playing in our head of what quality work looks like.”

I try to get very specific like, “You didn’t shade this here. You know, this is all sorts of messy, you didn’t even pay attention to this, I talked about doing this.” I try to give them specifics not just like, “I think you’re really lazy.” That’s a message that when they hear it it’s just like, “Aw, forget you then old man, like I don’t wanna listen to you.”

Tim: Yes. I think it’s important to know that the words that you say to your kids have a lot of power. If you’re telling them, “Oh, this isn’t good. Oh, you know, you’re not putting enough effort”, yes, they’re going to take that at heart and they’re going to shut down. Again, if you’re celebrating those successes and you’re letting your kids hear over and over like, “You can do this. You know, I believe in what you’re doing, I appreciate that effort”, they’re going to start to believe at themselves and you can really change the mindset and change the attitude. Teachers really need to be mindful of how we’re talking to our kids.

Andrew: Yes.

Tim: I’ll ask you one last question and, again, I have a lot of thought so this is probably going to take me a little while to get to you. When I first started teaching I have that savior mentality where every kid is going to be come this passionate, lifelong learner, and I was going to do everything I could to reach them. Time after school they’re coming in making art, visiting counselor, phone calls home, the whole nine yards.

Let me tell, that burns you out really quickly if you’re trying to do that for every kid. After I’m feeling a little burned out, the pendulum starts to swing the other way and I started getting into this really poisonous mindset of like, “If my students don’t care, why should I care?” and, “If they don’t want to put forth effort for me here for in my class, I’m not gonna put forth effort for them.” Obviously that’s not doing anybody any good either.

I guess my question for is where should our mindset be? How do we find that balance of doing what our kids need from us but not doing too much? How do we get kids to break free of their apathy without doing all of the work ourselves?

Andrew: I think I end up having a lot of really meta conversations with my students where I let them in behind my ultimate game where it’s like … I know I said this a couple of weeks ago on a podcast, it’s like, “I don’t really care if you ever get super good at shading with like chalk pastels. The end game is that you learn how to be passionate about something and you’re just kinda practicing with-with chalk pastels.”

I think about it like this. Your students are not going to leave in seventh grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade being fully cooked amazing human beings, they’re still going to be young adults. If you can think about like I took the ball, I ran with it, I moved it forward a little bit and I gave them as much as I could, and I filled them up with as many skillsets and demeanors and abilities as I could. I let them run with it next, or maybe then it’s the next teacher who gets to run with this kid with all the skills that I’ve filled them up with. That’s just what I think it is, like I’m just moving them forward. As long as I can do that then I’m feeling good.

That’s the analogy of running with someone, if not just like, “I’m gonna do this all on my own. Come hell or high water, we’re gonna get this done.” You’ve got to do it with them. That’s why with some kids I mean like … I’ve had students where it’s like I can tell it within one day of meeting them, they’re gonna be that special kid in my class that really requires a lot of work, but then they are a tough nut to crack.

You’ll have others where it’s like, “Okay, I got you figured out pretty quick.” Those kids who are tough nuts to crack, it just takes time. I’m hearing things 13, 14 weeks into the semester from kids where I’m like, “Oh, that explains a whole lot about why you’re so resistant to this sort of prodding or this sort of cajoling. I get it now that’s why that wasn’t working.” That just honestly takes a lot of time. The unfortunate thing is sometimes as middle school and high school teachers you get kids for a semester, you finally start to unravel them and know what buttons to push and it’s like, “All right, see you later, I hope. I hope you have a good life.” It’s funny.

One of the things that I’ve been doing a lot lately is I’ll just sit down next to a kid who’s got a lot of apathy and maybe isn’t working that hard. I’ll just sit and draw with them for a whole class period while still being attentive to everyone else. You’ll just hear things that they’ll say and it’s like, “Oh okay, you’re starting to like kinda let your defenses down and I kinda get all of the years of like not being held accountable and not, you know, being challenged, and not being pushed, and not being supported and being told this, that and the other. I can see why you’re apathetic and kinda checked out.” Then you can start to unravel some of that stuff.

Tim: Yes, I like that. I think investing time in your kids is really important. The more you can do that in a class the better to really get to know them. Like you said, figure out the right buttons to push, figure out what’s really going to interest them. Like you said, work along with them, you can’t do it for them but you can do it with them. I think that’s a good place to close it out and that’s some really good advice. Thank you very much Andrew, we’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. I appreciate you coming on.

Andrew: My pleasure man, as always. Talk to you later.

Tim: See you.

Andrew: Bye.

Tim: A big thank you to Andrew for coming on and hashing out some of these ideas with me, and I have a lot more to say, surprise, surprise. Before I do that I want to talk to you a little bit about the Art Ed Now Winter Online Conference for art teachers. The Art of Education puts on an amazing online conference a couple of times a year, and I feel like a lot of the ideas we’re talking about tonight are actually hit on with some of the presentations that are going on at the conference.

We’re talking about student engagement, and positive experiences, and all of these great things that you can do in your classroom. New ideas to engage your students to get them working, to get them excited about art. If you are looking for some strategies to help kids get away from that apathy, get away from that apathetic mindset, I would definitely suggest checking out the Art Ed Now Conference. It will be worthwhile for you, it will inspire you, and in turn it will allow you to inspire your kids.

If you want to see what it’s all about, check out all of the awesome presentations that are happening and see the price. It is It is an amazing deal, it is affordable, and there are all sorts of incredible presentations that you are going to love. Check out and see everything that’s coming your way with that conference. It takes place on February 18th and I think you’re going to love it. Make some time to check it out.

We’ve talked a lot about what we need to do to break kids off apathy and how we can do it, but where do we start? I think the first thing is to recognize that you have a lot of power with your words with your kids in almost every interaction that you have with them. From the moment you first started talking to them you’re giving them an almost constant stream of feedback on themselves, and more importantly, their sense of what they’re capable of.

When they’re hearing over and over, “You can do this, and I believe in you, and I know you can do this”, they’re going to start to believe with themselves. We as teachers need to have that growth mindset because kids are capable of so much more than they think they can do, and our job is to try and develop those capabilities. Also, we talked a couple of times about standards, and we need to hold kids to those high standards and those high expectations because you do believe it’s possible for them to grow into those standards and to be able to meet those expectations.

Kids start to believe they can do so much more than they originally thought possible. When they find success they start to change the way, not only they see the world but they start to change the way they see their own place in it. Having someone in your life who holds you to high standards and holds you accountable, and most importantly believes that you can achieve these things is so critical. We as teachers can do that too.

Holding a kid to those standards is actually saying to them, “I know you can do more than you think you can.” With that type of attitude, you can start to break them out of that apathetic mindset, helps them believe in themselves and believe in their capabilities, and that growth that you’re looking for is going to begin to happen. You may not see it immediately, it may not fully happen until long after you’re done teaching them, but every step counts, every step helps.

It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s going to take a lot of effort and no one denies that. You really do need to focus on keeping your own passion burning, because your passion is contagious and it helps your kids grow, it helps your kids learn, and it helps your kids develop in ways that they didn’t think were possible. It’s a slow, sometimes a very slow process, and it’s a difficult process. If you can break kids away from that apathy and help them create a passionate mindset, it help them become a lifelong learner. Even if you can just help create one passionate lifelong learner, all of your efforts will have been worth it.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education, with audio and engineering by Michael Crocker. You can see more from the podcast on where you can also signup for the weekly Art Ed Radio email. Like I said just a little bit ago, if you’re looking for more inspiration, more ways to reignite that passion for teaching that you want to pass on to your students, make sure you check out Thank you as always for listening and we will see you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.