Please, Stop Calling Students Lazy.

I hIMG_1712ate it when teachers call their students lazy. Or when they refer to having the class from “Hell”. When teachers say that do they really know what they’re saying? I’m offended when I hear that. I think a student’s parents would be offended to hear it. What about the students themselves?  If a teacher thinks that poorly of their student or class, do we think that can be easily hidden?

I’ve actually never met a lazy student. Bored? Yep. Disengaged? Yep. Unmotivated by irrelevant academic hoops? Yep. But lazy? No.

The truth is I was one of those kids. Most of my marks throughout elementary & high school were pretty dismal. Usually it was because I was bored. Worksheet after worksheet. I skipped most of high school. I even skipped most of University. One can only handle so many lectures.  It wasn’t until Grad school that I began to flourish in academics. Most places, things haven’t changed a lot, so let’s not blame our students.

Yesterday, I FaceTimed with my 10 year-old. School had been boring, except for Gym. Yet, the one thing she talked animatedly about was her upcoming school science fair prIMG_0946oject. She loves the project fair. Why? Because she can study things she cares about. For as long as I can remember, she has wanted to be a marine biologist. Poor girl. We live in a land locked province. Two years ago her project was on dolphins. Last year, sharks. This year the coral reef. She’s excited about designing one. Bored? Yes. Lazy? No. She reads voraciously. She’s read the Harry Potter series. The Hunger Games. And is just finishing the last Percy Jackson book. She just turned 10. But she never talks about what she reads in school. Is she lazy? No. Bored? Yes. This is the same girl who figure skates 4 times a week; twice a week this requires her to get up at 6:30 in the morning. She has a variety of interests, but school rarely touches on them.

That’s not to say as a teacher I haven’t had kids with challenging behaviours. My students learned very quickly that I wouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, but I cared about who they were and what they need. At the same time, I use to rant about kids who wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. And that’s really the key. It’s what I wanted them to do. For a long time I didn’t take into consideration the voices of my students. However, once I started to, the whole dynamic in my classroom changed.

Too often teachers are the ones who value academics that don’t really matter. I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought lately. Is it crucial to anyone’s life that they know what a synecdoche is? How many of you reading this need to Google it to know what it is? Yet, your life has probably gone on quite fine, maybe even better, without knowing what it is. No. I’m not going to tell you. I’ll make you do the work.

How often do we major on the minors? I’ve never taken calculus. I don’t understand it. I don’t want to. Does that make me lazy? Unmotivated, sure. But, lazy? Most people who know me would not choose that as an adjective to describe me.

Let’s think really carefully before we label kids lazy and classes from Hell. Yesterday I tweeted out how much I hate when teachers call students lazy. Another educator responded:

A teacher at my gym bragged about posting article showing area test scores to remind his class about “how lazy they are.” WTH?

In turn, I responded:

Wow. If area test scores were posted to show how lazy teachers are, there would be outrage. At the very least.

And I know that happens too.

I think what teachers mean when they talk like this is kids who aren’t compliant. Who won’t jump the hoops or play the right game. And yet, often as adults, these are the innovators who are lauded for their ability to go against the crowd, think differently, and not be dissuaded by public opinion. Sometimes these are our heroes.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at. I fear too many are judged by if they’ll do what we “want”.  And if they don’t, they’re lazy or they’re labelled as the class from Hell.

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

And if we don’t do that. We can’t blame our students for not engaging. So please, stop calling students lazy.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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29 Responses to Please, Stop Calling Students Lazy.

  1. Brilliant post Shelley! It speaks to engaging our students and in order to do that we need to change our teaching practice, assessment practice and school and system practices!!

  2. howard zugman says:

    Hi Shelley,

    Another insightful bolg!! I continue to believe that you really get it and am thankful that I ran across your blog years ago. We need to have many more people like you – and not just in the educational arena.

  3. grizman83 says:

    Well said Shelley! Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts once again! I enjoy reading your thoughts and perspective on issues that effect all of us as educators!

  4. Johblogs says:

    Well said Shelly, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

  5. You are spot on. Our goal as teachers is to reach the heart of each child prior to teaching the curriculum. By doing this we speak their language. When we come down to their level and share in what they are truly enthusiastic about you will rid a class of these “lazy” students. They feel valued and important in the classroom. This leads to them being engaged. An engaged student who feels worthy of being part of a positive learning community and worthy of the idea of meaningful learning will not slouch over in the back of the room but will take risks and flourish. Get rid of the lazy student stereotype and instead teach to their heart! The idea of reaching these “lazy” students should motivate a teacher to get out of bed. If not I question the teachers motives. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Interesting, I just had this conversation on twitter last night. I was wondering if it ever was appropriate to call a student lazy.

    I agree, it’s an overused, generic term we put on kids who don’t perform or comply and often does nothing to resolve the issue. I also agree that as adults we have to step up and work towards the ideals and environment you describe and have lived. On the other hand, if we’re going to create an education where student ownership is valued and encouraged we also have to allow for them not only to “fail” in the sense of not being successful but also to disengage. To me the better word and focus should be responsibility. The notion that learning should be a shared responsibility for all learners and leaders means that we have to acknowledge when we’ve not done our part. It can’t be entirely up to the teacher to create these welcoming, inquiry based environments, if the students are part of this community, they have to play a role too. What I fear is that as we place so much responsibility on the teacher and school to be successful we relinquish the right of the student to engage or disengage. They should have that choice. Again, I want to be clear that doesn’t mean it’s a “take it or leave it” proposition but one that’s inviting. But invitations have to be accepted willingly.

    I guess I’m talking about developing honest, trustful relationships where we don’t focus on “blaming” when things go wrong. Instead we focus on responsibility and sometimes the adults aren’t as responsible as they could be and sometimes the students aren’t. Calling them lazy, probably doesn’t do much to help but asking them to take more responsibility for their learning might.

    • I completely agree. I don’t think everything is the teacher’s responsibility or the students. What I found worked best was when there was trust and back and forth honest conversations. As a teacher, I had to be willing to hear that students weren’t necessarily interested in the things I found fascinating. I think especially as high school teachers we pick majors and minors based on things we love and figure everyone should love them too. We might take slight (or great) offence when they don’t.

      I’ve also found that if you bring kids to a topic that is broad enough all of them have an interest in it somewhere. I think that’s why our Holocaust museum worked so well. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t have some interest in what happened. By allowing for them to choose, they took ownership, and by designing it together, we co-owned it.

      I’ve also had a class where all of the kids were gung-ho about a project, except two. The rest of the class desperately tried to modify the project so that they would be interested. No go. Finally, I looked at the two girls and asked, “is there anything we could say that would interest you?” No. Alright, then we’re moving on with the original idea, and you’ll just have to pick something to do. And they were told that wasting theirs or anyone else’s time would not be tolerated. So invitations sometimes are declined. And they did help on certain parts, but we need to give them the freedom to not engage. That’s respect.

  7. Cindy Spidle says:

    I haven’t taught in public school for many years but what you write about was true then and is obviously still true. Considering that children are with teachers for so many hours a day, what a difference it would make in their lives if they encountered more who felt the way you feel about them and about your role as a teacher.

  8. Hi Shelly, love this article. I’m writing on schooling from a student perspective and your message completely resonates. Students do know each other and can be good friends when a teacher or ‘authority figure’ declares that, or simply acts with the belief that, a student is lazy. I have thankfully never been at the receiving end of the ‘lazy’ label but my friends and family have and, for someone who knows people as real people, this shocks me; “My friend is not lazy!” Let’s assume that no one aims to be lazy and no one deep-down wants a life of laziness… so, what good does that label do? Worse is when a whole class is labelled. My class was the “most disruptive class in the school” and as soon as this was our distinction and we found that new teachers were warned against us, you’d better believe we played up to their expectations! It was our stupid game in response to a stupid mass label. In later school years I’d concluded that school is all about getting the grades in exams/assignments that matter… so the effort I chose to put into all other homework was optional, as long as the piece was in on time. Not a single teacher knew all of what I was trying to do outside of school time to better myself and so several warned me against my apparent ‘complacency’. As a happy child I lightly assumed they were referring to my occasional requests -polite ‘complaints’- for more challenge, more conversation, more freedom to discover and explore my own interests during school time. My made-up meaning was wrong. ‘Complacent’ is actually quite a horrid thing to be accused of so thank goodness I was selectively lazy in respect of looking up the actual meaning of that particular word until adulthood. I feel breathless at the thought of authority figures making sweeping and seemingly rigid declarations of a persons character based on fleeting contact. To add to your article I’d like to emphasis that students may decide themselves who’s assessments of their work and themselves as people they choose to care about. On a broader note this ‘lazy’ labeling does unfortunately occur in adult-world office environments too; it seems to be a ‘person’ thing as well as a ‘teacher-student’ thing. Thank you Shelly for this article, you are sharing important insights.

  9. Jim says:

    Sorry, but there are lazy students. Yes, some may be bored, but there are those who don’t want to learn the basics – and yes they are requirements and yes they will have problems and be less successful at many thing in life if they don’t know how to write or do basic sums.
    At the same time, children do better when they are engaged. Two of our three did IB from primary onwards. They loved the ability to dive into things that interested them. The other child wanted the structure of the standard program. “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it”. Different learning styles for different kids.
    I do think that “lazy” is overused in regards to students, and ocassionally underused in regards to teachers. We need to make sure that the students are engaged by teachers who want to be there. Happy to personally see my property taxes go up (even though we don’t have children in the system any more) but I’d really like to see the system do what it’s supposed to do and train our kids to succeed as they graduate.

  10. I was also one of those kids and now I’m a teacher (elementary in Ontario). I think we can make things a lot better in our classrooms with inquiry (as you have) particularly in Science & Social Studies (and math to a degree). I’ve been really interested in the Summerhill School model where students follow their interests and there is no curriculum. Don’t you think we would need to abandon a curriculum for all students to be truly engaged? Or at the very least stop grouping them by age?

  11. rwhite3787 says:

    So at what point would you say that the term “lazy” can begin to be applied to people?

    • rwhite3787 says:

      Let me clarify what I mean. I think we could agree that the word “lazy” exists because at some point in history, it has described some people. So are we saying that this is only a condition that begins to exist at a certain time after secondary school? Because that seems illogical to me. I’m not arguing against any points, but I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that there are no lazy students.

      • Hi, I like that Q, here is my take: ‘lazy’ describes a persons state that is always the result of something else such as disinterest, fear, exhaustion e.t.c… A person may even develop laziness as a habit, but the cause is always deeper. With this in mind it is not accurate to use the word ‘lazy’ as if you are describing a pre-set character condition from which ‘lazy’ actions arise. What I mean is that there will always be a real answer to this question; “I notice you are being lazy, why?” Therefore defining a whole person as ‘lazy’ (although easy) can only be described as an unwillingness, possibly a laziness(!), to attempt the hard/scary/insightful work of ‘diagnosing’ what their ‘lazy’ is a ‘symptom’ of. P.S. All the above is said with a big question mark. I’m playing with my own thoughts on all these ideas… but great question and thank you for the ‘thinking’ opportunity 😀

      • Sean says:

        Laziness is a behavior. No matter the underlying contributors the behavior that is manifest and acted out is laziness. I fear that always giving our kids a pass, and saying there is no such thing as laziness, is negligence on our part as educators. My students have a lot of stuff in their lives that contribute to this behavior, but the behavior is still laziness none the less. I believe that some students will battle laziness throughout their education and it is not just about be disengaged, not challenged, or uninterested. It may in fact start out with those things, but once it grows into the behavioral habit of laziness, that can be a very difficult thing for students to overcome even when they are being engaged, challenged and very interested in the subject matter. I think teaching students how to learn new work habits is imperative to helping them overcome this destructive behavior.

      • Hi Sean!
        I agree. I don’t think it’s right to call students lazy. Or to sit in the staffroom or staff meeting and trash kids, which I’ve heard done. A lot. Sometimes, as educators, we contribute to the problem. So when I see the behaviour, laziness, I know there’s something under it. As you’ve pointed out, it’s really important to deal with whatever that is. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s boredom. Sometimes it’s a whole host of other things. Regardless, trashing kids and writing them off as lazy, isn’t helpful to anyone.

  12. Ron Wright says:

    Very nice blog. You would enjoy getting to know Phil Schlechty and the work of the Schlechty Center. Aligns nicely with what you believe.

  13. Mary says:

    Love this post! T truly think no teacher should call a student lazy. This happened to my son in 9th grade. His teacher pulled him out in the hallway and told him he was lazy and did not study for his tests. This teacher did not have any right to call my son lazy. My son had Straight A’s.. I talked to the Vice-Principal, and he told me he did not understand why the teacher said this to my son. After I reported the teacher, the situation got worse. The teacher started knit picking on my son and I had him removed from both his classes. My son is an Honor Roll student and I think that this teacher should have apologized for his actions. He never apologized, and now my son has this same teacher again this year. The teacher, I feel, is starting in again. He cannot be moved out from this class because this teacher is the only one who teaches this subject. I do not want to talk with the principal or counselor because they are just as bad as the teacher. I tried at one point, but to no avail.

  14. Yo says:

    As an educator myself, I have encountered students who are/were in fact very lazy. The definition of lazy is being “unwilling to work or use energy.” I have had my fair share of students who have been unwilling to work or use any energy whatsoever to get their work done. Our school tries to present project based learning to our students in order to try and fully engage all students in the learning process and inspire them to learn. However, no matter what some of us do, it is never good enough. Some of our students are only interested in Pokemon, Power Rangers, Lego Nindrago, iPads, iPhones, iPods, etc. Certain students, no matter what we do, will always claim they are bored. All of us work overtime to try and present our students with a high quality of education. Most of us miss out on family events, parties, or other fun non-school related activities because we are planning, setting our classroom, or grading papers.

    Sadly, we are often blamed for a students lack of commitment to their academics. I do understand that some view “traditional” practices in education as “boring” and/or antiquated AND that such practices may not necessarily engage students. However, during my elementary school years there was one, maybe two or three students who struggled academically in a given class. Whereas today, I have personally had at least three to four per class. In one class in particular, I had ten struggling students, no lie. Please be advised that I DO NOT teach in a public school. I teach in a private tuition-based school. My point??? Well, I do not believe it right to call any child a name. I have children myself. I know words can hurt them. Nevertheless, I do believe in “calling a spade, a spade.” Lazy is as lazy does… Not all teachers are lazy. Some of us work incredibly hard to present children with the best education possible. Teachers can lead students to knowledge, but there is nothing we can do to make students acquire that knowledge.

    • Jay says:

      Absolutely not. There is an underlying reason these behaviors are coming to the forefront, and it’s usually because of lack of engagement or some underlying issue that can be addressed with positive behavior plans. Your ignorance of this is no excuse to call a child lazy.

  15. Danny says:

    Hello Shelley,
    I think there are two issues at stake here. 1) The respect factor in teacher to students. 2) The actual correct term for a person who chooses not to do work even though they are capable of doing that work (lazy person).

    I strongly agree that student bashing by teachers is inappropriate at best. Most public high schools are designed to have kids take a broad range of studies. What are your thoughts on students who do not “love” or is interested in a core class like Algebra I? I am struggling with a particular class where a high percent will sit and do nothing even when I am working at teaching them a difficult concept. I have researched most of their abilities and most are “capable” and ALL are capable of TRYING. Even though they are not interested even when I make it inquiry-learning based, they are not wanting to work. When asked to write down notes or good ways to remember a hard concept and a student does not do anything, when does that become “lazy” or “defiant”? When does work ethic(working well on things that are required but you are not interested in) matter? I am not in opposition to you but merely struggling with my efforts vs. students efforts.


  16. Michelle says:

    Hi. I agree teachers should try to remain positive, but to say that there are no lazy students or for that matter parents/caregivers or people in society is unrealistic. I have had parents tell me that their children are lazy. Also, in this child-centered nation, as children mature, they need to learn that some responsibilities are not fun. My students say that my class is the best and most engaging (they call it fun) out of the 3 they have each day, but I see a lack of work ethic in some students and some parents. Developing a hard work ethic is more important to the student than what I actually teach them in the classroom, because it affects them their entire life’s journey. Just my 2 cents.

  17. Jamie says:

    While I agree with the sentiment of the article–it is up to the teacher to provide engaging activities and a class full of excitement, it is up to the student to take ownership of his/her learning. It is absolutely impossible to expect one teacher to make every lesson exciting for every single student. Sometimes students must learn how to deal with being bored or disengaged for the day–and they still have to work. Can every teacher honestly say that every part of our job is incredibly engaging? Don’t we have to soldier through staff meetings–and other things that are not exciting? Dealing with boredom–and having the work ethic to deal with it, is a LIFE skill. Our students have to know that boring or not, engaging or not, they have to do their job. That is how the world works.

  18. Here’s a twist to the teachers calling students lazy issue – when students call teachers lazy. Recently a student wrote to me asking what to do about a lazy teacher and I was keen to explore this in more detail as I think it’s the hidden underbelly of this ‘lazy student’ conversation. The post and my audio reply are here – and, just a quick heads-up, if you’re a teacher listening to it please listen all the way to the end or skip straight to the last third. Particularly interested in your thoughts Shelly, if you have time or if a student has ever asked you for advice on what to do about a lazy teacher?

  19. Jay says:

    I think some students have a “lazy-brain” or more appropriately learned-helplessness because they have been taught that if the answer is not easily found (or fun) they shouldn’t keep looking for the answer but instead should look for an easier (or more fun) problem. Adults created this problem because they couldn’t deal with their anxiety of seeing children suffer and go through the process of trial and error. Unfortunately, you can’t delay the inevitable – and children grow up to be young adults who can’t problem solve or handle the uncomfortable feeling of not having the answer.

    • I think you’re dead on here. We see this when kids “check out” or refuse to fully engage. Sometimes it’s because of what you’ve mentioned here, which is highly insightful. Also it occurs worksheet after worksheet, when kids are bored and aren’t equipped to really deal with problems. Dylan Willam, an expert on assessment and feedback tells us, kids would rather be thought lazy, than stupid. I agree.

  20. penny says:

    I was interested in the comments above. I never call my students lazy – mostly I have unmotivated students. I work hard to build solid lessons to engage the students – but children being human sometimes choose a different path. Often in class, we are working and collaborating together solving problems and discussing issues. There are always children who are not participating even after talking to them and trying to interest them in some form of the discussion or project. They prefer to let their classmates take the lead while they sit back and take a break. Whenever I speak to them about their lack of participation I often get the response from those students where they actually say they are lazy and don’t want to do the assignment and prefer to take a lower score from their teammates. I have had students ask for a zero rather than have to participate. Whenever, I put the students who prefer to sit on the sidelines together as a group, they typically do not rise to the occasion and produce the product we are working on. I also have some that like worksheets because it is a safe assignment. Often the worksheets are what keeps the non-participating students from failing so I put those into my lesson plans. Children are interesting ! I enjoyed the blog and the comments and especially enjoyed the comments from the individuals who have students like mine that shared their thoughts. The best all of us can do is to keep trying to engage the students in our subject area. I never give up hope but I have learned to not worry too much about the non productive students, they will be ok in the long run. Because I believe they do have interests in other areas where they can shine just like some of you have said. My area may not be their thing and they are able to make their choices and live with the consequences. I also learned to keep the parents informed of their child’s decisions. Parents are wonderful people who can help their child have a different perspective.

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