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Getting Students To Complete Their Work

High School Teacher Applies Glasser's Theories

Found in: Classroom Management

Can we really make students do their work? No, say teachers in Glasser quality schools. They believe that encouragement and support are the approaches to use to help students want to complete their work.

I teach at a Glasser Quality High School, based on William Glasser's theories. One of the first principles of a Glasser Quality School is that everyone involved in the school - administrators, teachers, students, and even parents - come to an understanding that we cannot control the behavior choices of anyone else, no matter how many threats or criticisms we throw at each other. If we can't control others, then all we can do is encourage one another and support one another in the goals we have.

So what are the goals of a school? Learning! Graduation! And surprisingly, all students have those goals. In our experience, it's not just the students making the A's, not just the motivated, hard-working, focused students, but 100 percent of the students who manage to get themselves up and into school on any given day.

Knowing this to be true, when we are faced with students who have convinced themselves that they don't want to work, that they are being forced to work—by the teacher, the principal, their parents—then we use choice theory, reality therapy, and lead management to help the student really think through what he or she really wants.

I might ask the student who is procrastinating, or daydreaming (in a respectful way, with a calm, non-judgmental face):

John, are you okay? Do you need any help?

If John says he is fine and doesn't need help, I might say something like:

John, do you understand the assignment?

If John says yes, I'd probably say:

John, why do you think I came over here to talk with you?

Almost always, students tell the truth to a non-judgmental question like this. They'll say: "I know. I was daydreaming." Or maybe something like, "I'm just having a hard time getting started."

Then, that gives me the opening to say something like:

John, I know it's often tough to get an assignment started. I'm happy to help, but I'll give you some space right now, since you understand what to do. What can you do to help me know that you're alright today and that you really don't need help to move forward?

Usually, they'll say something like: "I'll be working. I won't stare out the window. I'll concentrate and you'll see me doing that."

Then I can say, "John, if I don't see you doing that, what do you want me to do to help you move forward?"

He might say, "Just catch my eye and I'll get back to work."

Then I can say, "Thanks, my dear. I'll give you some space now and keep an eye out to see if you need that extra glance. Do you know why I'm giving you a bit of a hard time about getting to work?"

Almost always, kids at my school smile at this question and say, very sincerely, "Because you care and you want to help me graduate!" Then we laugh and get back to work.

It sounds very simple, and choice theory is simple. It seems counter-intuitive, or against common sense. Many adults feel that it is their job to "make" John get down to work. They'll often resort to threats like, "John, if you don't get to work, you're going to fail," or "John, if you don't get to work, I'll have to call your mother."

They are trying to help John, but John often doesn't see it that way. His interpretation of these kinds of statements is often, "They're trying to make me do something I don't want to do and I'm not going to do it! What are they going to do about that!" And John doesn't do his work, or he does a mediocre piece of work, way below what he's capable of achieving, because he's in a power struggle with the teachers, administrators, and parents. In many schools, it's even become "cool" to resist, to act as if you don't care, to laugh when receiving an F grade, because it's a way to demonstrate that all the threats in the world can't make John do anything he doesn't want to do.

Because we have, as a school, committed to not wasting any time attempting to force John to work, we are often successful at helping John "choose" to work. We help him come to realize that he wants to do the work because he wants to graduate and the work is the way to get there. Glasser’s principles have helped us unplug the power struggle and join John's graduation team.

About the Author

Charlotte Wellen teaches at Murray High School in Charlottesville, Virginia, but she has been a traveling teacher in schools as far-flung as Sri Lanka, Colombia, Turkey, and China.  Since 1988, she's been teaching at the world's first Glasser Quality Public High School, where everyone is committed to working as a team to create a school of true quality.  Because it is a small high school, Wellen has had the opportunity to wear many hats - head of the English department as well as English, American Studies, and Social Justice teacher. And head of their Choices program, in which she helps students, teachers, and parents learn how to work together to create strong relationships and academic success. Wellen is completing her 29th year of teaching.

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