Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday Maslow

A teacher calls an off-task student to attention, “Jack, please listen to these directions.”

The student continues to carry on his conversation with a classmate, so a little more directed the teacher says, “Jack, listen to the directions and you can talk after we get started.”

With a nod, the student acknowledges the teacher and verbally assents, “o.k.” but turns immediately back to his friend to finish.

“Jack, I’ve asked you three times already, you need to listen so that you understand the task, if I have to speak to you again I will move your seat.”

The student responds as asked. He stops talking, puts his head on the desk and refuses to participate for the rest of class.

Can anyone other than teachers identify with this?

For goal-directed individuals with high achievement motivation this is irrational behavior. “Better” students don’t do this. My AP-level seniors articulate as much every day. These students have no problem describing why they hate a given teacher (too much work, negative attitude, unfair treatment). But, their attitude toward the teacher makes no difference in their willingness to follow policy and work.

Two years ago I taught “Jack.” Jack was in my government class with his girlfriend, “Jill.” They both came from an economically disadvantaged background. At seventeen, they lived a lifestyle usually more likely to be associated with twenty-somethings. They lived together with extended family. They both worked to contribute income to the family. Jill missed school often. Jack would usually provide the excuse that one of the younger children stayed home sick and Jill’s mother had to work.

They rarely completed homework that couldn’t be finished in class. I could imagine why. Both of them worked and their income was needed to help with the family. At home, with smaller children, they were two of the three adults and with shift-work, often responsible for the children in the evening if not at work.

Neither of them enjoyed school and both of them saw it more as a burden that made life difficult than an opportunity to make life better. They were both very good people and I enjoyed getting to know them, but they lived in a world different than one that I understood.

After class that day, I talked to Jack about his behavior. I said something like this to him. “Jack, I don’t understand. When you get upset with me, you refuse to work as if not doing your work hurts me somehow. You’re only hurting yourself.”

His response helped me understand a little better. School was the lowest priority in his life. At seventeen, he already had financial obligations and commitments related to the basic priorities of life—food, housing, health care. While not the head of a household, both of them assumed a level of responsibility for the family unit. They weren’t married, but in their socio-cultural context, they lived as a committed couple, looking to a future together. He felt little control over the outcomes in his life, but here, in the classroom was the one place he could exercise this autonomy and control with little concern about the consequence.

We had a good relationship and I learned much from him.

I wish that reformers and policy-makers could learn more from students like this.

I know there are flaws in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs/Motives, but several examples are inarguable. If I need to go to the bathroom, that need trumps all others. If I need to eat, that need trumps all others. If I’m afraid, the need for security trumps all others.

If I feel alone, a search for companionship pervades my life. If I feel like a failure, the search for success drives most of my action. But if my belly is empty I don’t have time to worry about the loneliness or failure, I just want food.

Maslow’s Theory does not apply rigidly to all cases, but humans do prioritize the needs in their lives, striving to meet the most basic usually before even considering the higher goals of life. Isolated stories of overcoming the odds don’t prove the idea is wrong, it just proves that like most rules, there are exceptions.

Educators must do everything within their power to overcome the odds of poverty and life circumstances with the children in their care. We must approach every child knowing that he or she has the potential to achieve.

But we must never allow the public to believe the lie that education alone can level the playing field by creating the rising tide to lift all boats.

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