A few years ago I was visiting a high school and had the opportunity to observe a class and watched the following story unfold. While the teacher was starting class, with a lecture (yawn), a student walked in tardy. What I found interesting is that this teacher did not acknowledge the student’s presence in any fashion and continued on with the lecture. The student, who seemed very disinterested, slowly made his way to what appeared to be a random open seat, slumped down in the chair, and literally stared off to the side of the classroom. Still, the teacher kept on with his lecture. I watched for 60 minutes while the student remained in this position the entire class. He never opened his backpack, took out a pencil, opened his chromebook...he just sat in that seat looking off to the side of the classroom. When class ended I asked the teacher about this particular student. He had very little to say and made it clear that the student had made the choice not to engage in his class.
As teachers, we have to be careful in our approach with students who appear to be disinterested. I believe that all students want to be successful and experience success. I also believe that all students want to feel cared for. There are a multitude of reasons why students struggle, but if they struggle long enough, meaning year after year, I have noticed that they lean away from their education. They exhibit behaviors that suggest that they don’t care about learning, their education, or their future. Actually, what they are manifesting externally is not what they are experiencing internally. It is our duty, as educators, to help students write a new narrative wether or not they are currently successful academically. This thing called "education" is a human-to-human endeavor, when we miss that connection we miss the core of what it means to teach. A self-defeating prophecy is powerful, but we can help. The mistake I saw that this teacher made was that when a student is allowed to opt out it means that they are invisible. It is as if they don’t really matter, to the teacher or otherwise.
Therefore, we need to have what Doug Lemov refers to in Teach Like a Champion, a “No Opt Out Policy”. In fact, of his 49 strategies that put students on the path to college, the “No Opt Out” is listed first, and for good reason! For students with a fixed mindset, those who believe they cannot succeed, not trying, or opting out, is the safest route. If they do not engage then they cannot fail. I am curious if the student I observed in that class was acting the way he did because a similar narrative was playing in his head.
“A teacher’s beliefs about students’ chances of success in school influence the teacher’s actions with students, which in turn influence students’ achievement. If the teacher believes students can succeed, she tends to behave in ways that help them succeed. If the teacher believes that students cannot succeed, she unwittingly tends to behave in ways that subvert student success or at least do not facilitate student success. This is perhaps one of the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching because it is typically an unconscious activity.”Robert Marzano - What Works in Schools.
I could not help but see this student differently than his teacher saw him. I saw a disconnected and disenfranchised person. I fundamentally believe that no one wants that experience. I saw a student who appeared unmotivated and disinterested, but I don’t think that was the case. Either way, what I do know is that this student seemed not to matter to this particular teacher - and that is tragic. While I observed the class I wondered if this student felt the same way in other classes. Imagine being a young person going through each school day and experiencing little to no real connections. This student, like every student, yearned to be noticed. He wanted to be cared for, he wanted to matter, to be a part of something. Even if he arrived late. Even if he struggled academically. Even if he exhibited distracting behavior. It is my hunch he longed to be noticed by his teacher.
A No Opt Out policy is a way to communicate to students that they matter in the world. A thriving classroom is the sum of all its parts. Learning communities do not function the same if everyone who is part of that community is not present and engaged.
When Organized Binder is implemented as intended a no opt out policy becomes a tangible reality. Student’s physical binder is a necessity for engagement and learning. It is how we start class, how we end, how we transition, where we organize our thinking and our work. It is the living foundation for learning. I have told my students for years that you must arrive to class with your binder in hand or you will be unable to engage with the class community. I have always appreciated having a resource that I can rely on to make a “No Opt Out” policy a daily reality. It allows classrooms to have this policy without the teacher having to be authoritarian.
This work matters. Students learn better when they feel cared for. When educators construct lessons that, by design, do not allow for opting out, students are more likely to feel cared for and they are more successful! It is as if teaching are saying, “You matter too much in this world to not be a part of this community.”
What are your thoughts on not opting out? How have you made it work without a battle?