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"Why Do I Have To Do This?"

Whether you’re a new teacher or a seasoned veteran, it’s a question you know you’re going to hear time and time again: “Why do I have to do this?” It has the tendency to come at very inconvenient times: in the middle of a mini-lesson, during a complicated transition, or moments before, during, or after a detailed presentation. But have you ever really thought about how important—or how complex—that one question really is? The truth is, it’s one you should be able to answer, and answer well. Today, Education World deconstructs “why do I have to do this?” in hopes of revealing what it truly is: an earnest and reasonable call for meaning.

You see, they might not even recognize it themselves, but when a student asks “why do I have to do this?,” they are often asking you a series of inquiries—and because education has been such a prolific institution in our own lives, we tend to forget how important it is to have them answered. When your student is asking this question, they are really asking you:

1. Why do I have to go to school? Believe it or not, this question is not always clear to every student—and not just your troublemakers. “Because you have to” really isn’t a reasonable motivator, either. Are your students aware of the history of education as a public institution? Many can’t imagine a time where school was not a mandatory part of life. Can they imagine a world without an educated public? What would that be like? Why would society choose to fund public education, given the alternatives? We’re not saying you need to dive directly into a “history of education” lesson at the drop of the hat, but recognize that to a child, it might not make sense, because they’ve never thought about it!

They might also not quite understand the correlation between education and power in our modern world. Sure, going through the steps of public education does not automatically yield lifelong success. No one will hand you a high-paying job with unquestionable security and a beautiful home on your graduation day. But they should be aware that no matter how you cut the pie, they are statistically way better off with an education than without. Unfortunately, correlation does not mean causation, but students benefit from knowing that more than anything, you want them to have as many opportunities as possible. It’s why you do what you do. And they’ll appreciate that honesty.

2. When will I ever use this? Why this skill? Why this content? The answer to this question will vary from course to course, or even unit to unit. Just remember that not all of your students are passionate about your field … “because it’s important” will never satisfy a skeptical student. Try to give specific examples from everyday life (personal examples work incredibly well). For each skill and concept, students need to see the connection to their dreams. They need to “follow the string” from your daily objective to their better future. So before you go into the school year, think about your answer to this question for each unit. If you find yourself saying, “because it has always been taught this way”, pay attention to that. Dig deep. Figure it out. And if necessary, maybe you need to speak up. Certainly, if you are not sure specifically how your course content will help your specific student population, they won’t either.

In a more general sense, however, it’s also important to share with students the importance of being well-rounded. The truth is, the world changes fast, and you’ll never know what skills you’ll need to survive in tomorrow’s world. Not so long ago, “typing” seemed like quite a superfluous academic skill! Imagine trying to navigate our current world without it! And although it’s tough to convince a student of this, you never know where you’ll end up professionally. In fact, many college graduates don’t even end up working in the fields they pursue a degree in! It all just goes to show that having a broad variety of skills makes you more marketable, and once again, allows you more choices for your future.

3. Why can’t we just relax and have fun? Don’t take this one too personally, but it’s always good to note it. Having discussed the importance of the skills and content above, now we’re talking about how students learn.... Education isn’t always fun. Sometimes that’s just the way things are. But can the student imagine being taught these same essential skills in a way that they could connect to more actively? If so, why wouldn’t you want that sort of feedback? You might be surprised by what your kiddos come up with! And throwing this question their way encourages them to be an active participant in their own education. That’s a win-win. 

The other end of this conversation (more common with younger students) is the discussion about what life might be like if we all “relaxed and had fun” all the time. Is that a world they would really like to live in? For some, this could yield an easy “aha” moment. But be careful! The resilient jokester can derail this conversation through mere stubbornness.

4. Why try hard things? Frederick Douglass answered this quite simply in 1857 in his West India Emancipation speech in Canandaigua, New York: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It’s not an easy concept to internalize, and one many of us struggle with well into adulthood. But each and every year of a student’s academic life should help answer the question: why try?

One way to encourage “trying” is to really celebrate failure and mistakes. Yes, celebrate. Your classroom should be a place for experiments. And just like in the science lab, every failed experiment teaches you something new (sometimes even more than a success). How can you make that “the norm”? It’ll take a lot of very conscious work. Many of us still live in a world where “failure is not an option” and even our youngest students might have to unlearn some of that. This is where the heartwork comes in. Be present. Be encouraging. And find ways to allow them to revise and show you what they can do.

On top of that, if your students are going to attempt and risk the aforementioned “struggle,” they are going to want to see the progress. It’s too complicated to simply rely on a potential payoff for all the hard work at some point in the future, especially for younger students. Now, grades might not be a motivator for all of your students, but being timely and targeted with your feedback does wonders, across the board. At their developmental stage, if they don’t see the fruits of their labor immediately, the struggle will feel senseless. And for those that still don’t seem to respond to your feedback, it’s time to do some investigative work: what will make it worth their while? Meet them where they are, and take it from there.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.