In a compelling blog post, ‘The cost of neutral‘, Seth Godin says,

“Not adding value is the same as taking it away.”

Quote by Seth Godin, image by Son Jong Beom

The short, poignant post is directed to you, the individual reader, and urges you to step up, participate, and do more than what you are expected or told to do. Godin is essentially delivering a message that teachers give to students almost every day!

However, when teachers deliver the message, they must face a group of students who will not all embrace the idea. They must face the students who, despite our efforts, choose to do little; the very minimal; and in some cases nothing at all. And so in trying to inspire and uplift all students to do their best, and to extend their learning beyond a lesson, textbook, or learning outcome, teachers find themselves investing a disproportionate amount of time on students who do not participate and meaningfully contribute. Meanwhile, other students are doing exactly what they are supposed to do (and sometimes told to do), and no more. And still other students are taking flight with new thoughts and ideas, soaring to new heights!

The cost of neutral is a great cost in a classroom or school. So is the cost of disengagement. What I’m struggling with is how to combat this? The easy answers are to empower students, give them choice, make the learning relevant, let them follow their passions and interests. Each of these will work with some students… But not all.

“Not adding value is the same as taking it away.”

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Related post: School 2.0 Participant’s Manifesto


6 comments on “Godin – The cost of neutral

  1. Here’s the thing that comes to mind as I read your post: in order to add value, you have to believe that you have value to add.

    I’ve noticed that it’s easy for most people to assume that everyone would understand and feel that they have value. If you don’t doubt your worth on a daily basis, I think it’s hard to imagine that others do…

    The kids you mention that teachers spend so much time on – the ones who do the minimal or nothing at all. I urge you to look at their (lack of) output as a symptom. In fact, the more anyone pushes these kids to achieve, the more they may disengage or become defiant. It’s rubbing salt in the wound. Of course they will withdraw – it’s painful to be reminded again and again of what you fear the most (that you’re a failure, that you can’t do it, that you’re disappointing everyone around you).

    If there’s no output, then they need something from you – not inspiration to do the projects you want from them, but first they need inspiration to care about themselves, to see themselves as worthy and capable.

    I firmly believe that you can’t START by trying to “get” more output from them. You can only start by caring and connecting, by giving them a safe space to trust that they’re cared about and can depend on you. That may be the only way they’ll learn to care about themselves and be independent.

    Sometimes, the only way to get output from them is to stop expecting or demanding output from them. May seem backwards, but addressing the symptom is never a long term solution. We have to address the underlying cause. You can’t build an amazing structure without a solid foundation – it just won’t work!

    Only with that foundation of care will they be ready to take on the challenges we expect of them. And, to begin with, those challenges have to come with our support, with conscious thought/planning for how to help them stay in their zone of proximal development. Whether we think they should be capable of something or not – look at the evidence of their behaviour and offer support whenever you see them falter.

    As you mention – so much effort can go into a small group of kids, who obviously need our support. I just fear it’s energy that is misdirected (and will therefore always be frustrating). Direct that same energy in the right direction, persistently – and I think we’ll see very different results…

  2. I struggle with this and I guess if we had it all figured out we wouldn’t have kids disengaged. Trying to get to the story behind each child is hard enough in elementary school with 30 kids… let alone in a high school with sometimes over 200. Having said this, we must continue to try to build those connection and build those relationships.

    Heidi, the challenge is knowing what the right direction is – some days I think I am building in the right direction and then, bang.. a barrier goes up and I am back to square one and sometimes even further behind – I agree with you but it is often so difficult in a system in which we only see kids for a short amount of time. We do need to work to find the underlying cause… the challenge for me is that kids, due to a variety of reasons, block me out because of my role or because I have had to talk to them about a concern. And this is happening in elementary school… you can imagine how these underlying issues grow and grow until they get to the point where there is a feeling of defeat.

    I feel Dave’s and your frustration – we have too many kids with too many struggles without the resources to do or provide what we think is best or that might help. Kids need us… and some days I just feel like there is not enough of us. Having said this, when you do figure out the symptoms together with a child and you start to experience success – it is all worth it.

    Although hard, it is important to remember these successes and build on them.

  3. Thanks for commenting Heidi & Chris,

    Heidi, your point(s) couldn’t be better taken. I want to share details here, but we are still a small enough school that I need to be careful to respect the privacy of my students and their families. I’ll share 2 anecdotes and then look at what you and Chris are both saying.

    1. A student teacher Faculty Advisor has been a Teacher on Call for a few times in the last 6 weeks, (he can do this as a teacher in our district whose university contract ends before the school semester is over). I know him and I asked him, “Ok, so you’ve been to our school a few times now, you’ve seen what we are doing and trying to do… tell me what you think?”
    His response was about the amazing connections between students and staff. He said that the last time he was in, two of our teachers were playing board and card games with students during lunch. He said, that you just couldn’t underestimate the power of those kind of connections. I’ve seen these really pay off in the last couple weeks, especially with one student in the anecdote below.

    2. I have two students that have been LESS academically successful than they were last year, but say that they just can’t go back to a ‘regular’ school. I won’t go into details, but I think this speaks to our focus on what the students need and not pushing them to meet ‘our’ criteria. It also speaks to my concerns about the time and energy we spend trying to accommodate student needs that don’t necessarily fit with our goals as a program. Do we spend this time? Yes. Is it easy? No. Does it take away from our focus on what we really want to spend our time on? Yes.

    Heidi, you mentioned the idea of helping students get into their zone of proximal development… and I think you are looking at social-emotional needs as a priority. Makes total sense. ‘Esteem’ before ‘Self Actualization’ on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would be a way of looking at Vygotsky’s scaffolding. Provide the social-emotional scaffolding and the learning will come… then remove the scaffolding. Maybe this is what you mean… maybe I’m putting words in your mouth. My point is that what you are talking about with respect to helping students “care about themselves, to see themselves as worthy and capable”, is extremely important. It’s also a potentially monumental task for a school.

    First of all there is the point that Chris mentioned: “Kids need us… and some days I just feel like there is not enough of us.” This year more than any, I have seen that the social welfare cuts (and school cuts) have (and will continue to have) a profound affect on all of our schools. There are a tremendous amount of students needs that have been ‘passed down’ to schools.

    Secondly, although we need to work together, we can’t forget that teachers and parents have different roles. At home, a kid not doing work is still a parent’s kid. At school, a kid not doing any work is no longer a teacher’s student. It’s more complicated than that. But understand that one of the primary connections a teacher has to a student is learning… learning opportunities, feedback, guidance, teachable moments. Take the learning away and a big part of the relationship-building, connection and meaningful engagement is lost.

    I ended the post with ‘the cost of disengagement. What I’m struggling with is how to combat this? The easy answers are to empower students, give them choice, make the learning relevant, let them follow their passions and interests. Each of these will work with some students… But not all.’

    Heidi, you say, “If there’s no output, then they need something from you”. You are right. My point is that when there is no output, we have a harder time knowing what a student needs. We don’t stop trying, but teachers do best when they get to be… teachers. That takes nothing away from the other things we do as my anecdotes above demonstrate.

    And Chris sums things up really well, “Having said this, when you do figure out the symptoms together with a child and you start to experience success – it is all worth it.”

  4. No, you’re not putting words in my mouth. Or the words fit well, in any case, so let’s keep them! 🙂 Look after their social emotional needs and their academic (and life) success will follow.

    But I question your second point. I don’t understand how a teacher’s obligation “ends” if a student isn’t producing work. I don’t disagree that teachers and parents have different roles and responsibilities. I don’t think it’s fair to add to the responsibility of schools/teachers – to expect them to solve all of society’s (and parents’) failures. But I also don’t think any child deserves less of our effort by nature of their birth. So rather than a legislative requirement, I’m talking about a moral obligation to all of our children.

    I will never advocate for teachers being punished for kids failing to learn – things are just too complex to make a direct correlation between teaching and learning. I’ve seen master teachers, doing everything right, and still unable to reach some students. There are things that are beyond a teacher’s or school’s power to overcome. There are times when the barriers are at home. Or simply too large for a school to handle alone, with the resources and systems we have in place (which speaks to the importance of increased resources, “alternate” programs and “out of box” thinking). I do, however, believe we ALL need to hold ourselves accountable for striving to reach every child – to never give up on any of them!

    I don’t see learning as limited to academic processes and output. I also don’t agree that learning has ended if a student isn’t producing the work products a teacher expects of him/her – how do you know that they’re not learning anything? They don’t stop being a student (or a child in need), do they? If our commitment is to raising healthy, contributing citizens of a democratic society – then tending the emotional soil is just as important as teaching them about history and science and mathematics or logical thinking.

    Though let me be clear – I don’t think we can reach every child. And yet, it’s not only the successes we should feel good about and celebrate. It’s truly not the outcome that matters – what matters is trying to connect. The caring. The listening and hearing. The looking and seeing. The believing. There is magic in reaching out, even when it seems we have no impact.

    I truly believe we can never know what seeds we have planted (or when they will bear fruit). So we simply have to keep trying and have faith in time and maturity and the power of touching a heart.

    This morning, as I left my son’s school, I saw one of his classmates sitting by the office. I smiled at her, then almost walked right by. I had meetings to get to. Work to do. But something about her eyes made me stop. “Are you okay?” I asked. She nodded, but said nothing. Again, I paused. “Would you like a hug?” She silently nodded, got up and walked straight into my arms, burying her face in the crook of my neck. I held her for a moment until she pulled away and went to sit back down. That was it – nothing further was said. I had no idea what was going on and I didn’t ask. I felt her need, and I responded.

    My daughter came home from middle school one day and said “A teacher I don’t even know came and sat down on the bench with me at lunch. I don’t know why. He just sat and talked with me for a minute. I was sad, but I felt better after that…”

    These are little things, but I sense that they matter. And IMO, no act of caring is ever wasted.

    I’m also learning that it’s okay not to know. As adults, we feel the pressure of knowing the answers. We’re supposed to teach. We’re supposed to solve problems. But human beings are complex and we can’t always be in control. Sometimes, there are no simple answers or obvious ways forward. Like when a student won’t engage…

    At those times, it’s okay to stop. To sit down and quit pushing so hard to make them learn on our schedule. To simply be with a child and care.

    It’s a hard thing to do – to let go of all the “should” and “supposed to.” There is the fear that if we stop pushing, it will only get worse. That we won’t know when to let go vs when to step in. What if we make the wrong decisions?? There is this enormously disconcerting gap between doing what we feel is right, and seeing any results. Sometimes, we DON’T see results.

    So it’s truly an act of courage to run schools like both of you do – following your instincts and nurturing a culture of care for everyone (teachers and students alike). Thank you! Please keep doing what you’re doing – especially when it feels fruitless. What you’re doing matters!

    Indeed, this is the moral contract we have to make with all children whose lives we touch – whether at school, in the community, in families, or anywhere: to trust that if we help look after their hearts, the rest will follow – even when we can’t see how…

  5. Very well said Heidi!

    I completely agree that a teacher’s obligation does not end if a student isn’t producing work. I’m merely stating that when work isn’t being produced it is that much harder to make meaningful connections… that much harder to fulfil the objectives of a school… that much harder to be a teacher.

    Learning isn’t limited to academic processes and output… but whether it is teacher-driven, or student initiated, the role of a school and of school teachers is one of sharing learning experiences… measurable learning experiences that we are mandated to assess and share feedback on.

    I’ve seen situations where a student is permitted to opt out of what the class does: It partly feels like accommodating needs, it partly feels like the teacher is (inherently but not explicitly) saying, ‘I have high standards and expectations, but you don’t have to meet them’. That’s a different experience than a student doing their best, not meeting grade level, but the teacher still making them feel like a million bucks for achieving what they did. Good teachers push every student to do better than even the student thinks they can. However, when a teacher has to say at the end of a year, ‘I have not seen enough evidence to warrant giving you a (passing) grade’… that’s now a failure for both student and teacher.

    “Not adding value is the same as taking it away.” ~That’s where this conversation got started! 🙂

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