As noted recently, I’m currently reading James Nehring’s wonderful book Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School. It’s a fascinating book, written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style that focuses on one day but jumps back and forth between the (somewhat) hypothetical events of this single day and the very real issues that affect teachers, such as groupwork and leading discussions. I’m enjoying it immensely.

I wondered when looking at the title if Nehring would discuss that dreaded question – “Why do we have to do this?” – and I wasn’t disappointed:

In my first year of teaching I would have regarded this question as profanity. In my inexperienced teacher’s mind I would have interpreted the question to mean, “This stuff is bogus, it’s a waste of time,” and for anybody to suggest that the lesson I spent three hours preparing the night before, laboring with care to create as an exemplar of instructional technique, is “bogus,” and for anyone to suggest that what I spent six years in college and graduate school studying, and which the adult world recognizes without question as important and meaningful, is “a waste of time,” well, it just shows what an idiot that person is.

Of course, what I did not appreciate in that first year was that it was my job to cure kids of their idiocy, i.e., their self-absorption, by showing them the world has a bearing on their lives. Anyway, I now take “Why do we gotta learn this stuff, anyway” at face value because it is, after all, a forthright question. (pp. 38-39)

I have long despised this question, mostly (I think) because I want to presume that students understand the chain of authority responsible for instruction: from school board to superintendent to principal to me, all of us agreed that this material is an important of our curriculum. Well, no, and even if they do understand it, I think that many students try to question that authority – and frankly, I think that I do want them to learn that questioning authority is a good thing when done in appropriate ways (and that is often the kicker).

At any rate, I’m beginning to think that Nehring is right on the money here. There might be some students who ask this question to distract from what is happening, to get them out of work or whatever, but that ought not to be the presumption of the teacher. What can a student do if you give her a reasoned argument about the relevant purpose of why we study what we do? Deny your argument and continue to disagree that it’s useful? Oh well, they can take their complaint to a higher authority, then; until then, the area between your ears is my responsibility, and I will continue to insist on a course of action that I think is the most appropriate, listening to reason where it is proffered.

The only problem is that it can be so exhausting…and I don’t know really how to combat that. Maybe it would be prudent to ask the student to express their complaint in an alternate setting, such as after class or school, so that complaints can be diminished within the strict instructional setting. I would be open to ideas.

Another possible solution: Try to be so proactive that students are constantly aware of how any given material is directly relevant to them. If there are any teachers out there who can pull that off, leave me a comment  – I will want to subscribe to your newsletter (and witness this miracle for myself).

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