THE BLOG
09/09/2015 10:28 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2016

Why do Some Teachers Take Irresponsible Students so Personally?

You know you've felt it, or at least know someone who has. As you're checking in homework, that same student fesses up that they forgot to do it again. And then it happens. The reddening of the neck, the pulsing of the vein, the steam emanating from the ears. You turn to the whiteboard and write the student's name underneath some heading like "The Breakfast Club" or something. Your heart is pounding in anger, all about a kid who didn't do the homework.

Sounds silly, right? It is.

I teach middle school. And while the transition to middle school asks a lot from students in terms of independent learning, the fact is that while 1/2 of them may seem ready by high school for more academic independence, that leaves the others still in need of parents or guardians to see that the homework's been done, gotten into the backpack, and the backpack has made it to school.

And yet, how many teachers do we know still give detention for work not done? How many teachers give additional work, like reading logs or writing paragraphs, as punishment? How many teachers do we know risk their own heart attack over some kid's questionable decisions?

According to a 2006 study on the topic of recess detention, 81 percent of principals polled still permitted the practice for any number of reasons.

However, the fact is there are many legit reasons why some kids just can't seem to follow through with assignments. That doesn't mean you don't ask it of them, but it does mean you shouldn't take their irresponsibility personally.

Besides, you don't want students to do work for you because you'll get mad if they don't. You aren't developing independent learners that way.

We talk a lot about the outside factors that are far more immediate and urgent to many of our students than schoolwork. Poverty is huge. Abuse and food insecurity trumps all need to do homework. But another reason deadlines sometimes don't stick is simply due to brain development.

Is the student brain really wired for responsibility?

Developmentally, many students, middle schoolers in particular, simply aren't wired for responsibility yet. That doesn't mean you don't assign it; it means it isn't worth getting all red-hot about. Irresponsibility is actually right on schedule.

When we look at a kids' brain, for instance, we see that different sections develop at different times.

For instance, according to neurologist-turned-teacher Dr. Judy Willis, the Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that we ask most of as teachers, makes up only 17 percent of the brain and is in charge of judging, analysis, categorizing, organization, deciding on fact or opinion, connecting the dots between how concepts relate to each other, and making calls on what is valid information and what isn't. It also plays a huge role in empathy and self-awareness. Yet this is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, and as such, still in flux and able to be influenced. But because the tween brain is not yet fully developed, hormones and emotions easily manipulate the prefrontal cortex.

So in other words, just when we're asking them to judge and show relationships, evaluate, and analyze, the middle schooler's prefrontal cortex can be sidetracked in a big way simply by a note slipped to them during the passing period. Now just imagine if that student also has the stress of taking care of cousins after school or just discovered that someone said something insulting on Snapchat for all to see. Those other elements in his or her life definitely bump homework down a notch.

Then there's the Automatic Brain. This is also known as the reactive brain and makes up the remaining 83 percent of the brain, according to Willis. Just as the word "automatic" implies, it's the part of the brain that automatically reacts to the world around it. In other words, when a student is stressed, depressed, angry, or just plain bored, information gets filtered into the reactive brain, not the prefrontal cortex, possibly dooming that information to the short-term memory, temporary storage.

Therefore, when we think about middle schoolers, we know that for many of them: stress, depression, anger, and boredom can be completely out of whack and disproportionate, so it becomes essential that we design lessons which help coax information into the prefrontal cortex. To do that means we have to make sure our lessons are engaging and meaningful.

What a teacher can learn from taking it personally.

That's where taking student irresponsibility personally can actually be a constructive thing for a teacher. Sometimes students not doing your assignments are a direct blow to your teaching ego because it can be a mirror to how students connect to your material. As Bill Ferriter says, "Maybe it's not that they are bored, but that you're boring."

We DO owe it to our students to make sure they understand why an assignment is necessary. You can't make them believe you, but explaining how your content and your assignment connect to the real world is a part of your job. Communicate to students how an assignment, particularly homework, is necessary, and if your answer is "because it's on the test," drop it from your lesson plan or revamp it so it is meaningful. Besides, according to a recent Stanford study, the benefits of homework are questionable to begin with.

So the next time a student shrugs off an assignment in a seemingly indifferent way, stay calm. See it as feedback. Reflect on why that student continues to "forget." Is it something you can do something about in your lesson design, or is it simply a reflection of the brain development of the child?

Regardless, just know that it isn't worth the coronary. Chill out. Have a sip of water. Count to 10. Recite Pharrell Williams' "Happy" in your head. It isn't personal. It's frankly right on schedule.