Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class: Comments from Readers

A month ago, a post I wrote on different kinds of secondary school students in classes I and colleagues have taught stirred an exchange between a number of readers. Mike Goldstein suggested I post the back-and-forth between Michael Merry, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), and me. Here it is. I also appended Mike Goldstein’s comment since he offers his views of charter school teachers  who wrestle with different roles to play in teaching compliant but disengaged students.

Michael S. Merry January 4, 2015 at 7:54 am

I think this is a fairly accurate description of three different student “types” and I recognize them from my own experience. And while I won’t pretend to have observed nearly as many classrooms as you, Larry, I’ve observed well above the average, having spent several years training student teachers and observing/critiquing their practices, but also (of course) having attended years of school myself (with more than my share of dull teachers), and finally, watching the experiences of my three kids in school, one of whom has now graduated. And while it is never “cool” to criticize teachers – indeed, one is branded a right-winger if you don’t unreservedly support teachers – one also has to say, I think, that in order to make sense of student engagement, it is alarming that only a small fraction of the engaged students (nevermind the tiny percentage of ALL students) could be categorised as being inspired by the teacher. You write that teachers are dependent on their students for their compliance and buy-in. Well, that’s true, and I’ve certainly taught the same way with two separate groups of students only to find that 1 group is seemingly more engaged than the other. The student mix does count for something. On the other hand, it is an open secret that a teacher’s knowledge, skill & enthusiasm in bringing a subject alive is crucial to student engagement. I would like to see – if you are inclined – a discussion on the reasons for so much uninspiring teaching. We might include the usual suspects (e.g., teacher training programs, school leadership, a test-driven climate, poverty, student mobility, etc.). Having this conversation does not mean that we scapegoat teachers. But if the issue before us is student engagement, I think it is completely fair to ask about the role of the teacher in this equation.


larry cuban January 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for the comments, Michael.These are fair points, in my opinion, that you raise about the teacher’s responsibilities for “inspiring” students. My hunch is that so little occurs–I agree with your observation–for the very reasons you offer: the outer environment for public school teaching has become increasingly toxic, the school workplace has become increasingly regulated,teacher preparation institutions too much out-of-touch with these conditions, etc. etc. These are powerful influences on teachers daily lessons, in my opinion. Insofar, as engaged teaching and the different groups of students who simply comply, buy-in, or become inspired, I have no measure that is reliable to characterize how much or how little engaged teaching occurs. Surely, the teacher is part of the equation, as you say, because teachers are dependent on students as surely as doctors are dependent upon patients, therapists on clients. But other factors–the chemistry of relationships among students,teacher expertise, and many others come into play making general statements about the teacher’s part nearly impossible to defend. What do you think?


Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 7:15 am

All of this is true, as it concerns non-ideal conditions in which teachers work – and these of course are not uniquely American problems. Further, the factors that you also name, Larry, which change the chemistry of any particular class, certainly have an impact on teacher effectiveness and student engagement. But now to touch upon another open secret, certainly to those who have watched year after year the folks who are drawn to the teaching profession, and that is this. While there are marvelous and resourceful and dynamic teachers in every cohort, in every school, and in every teacher training program, the painful fact remains that far too many uninspiring individuals – who, perhaps, are more compliant with the non-ideal conditions, finding it easier to yield to them – are drawn to teaching in the first place. Without minimizing any of the critique about schools, their inequitable structures, and the copious challenges that teachers face, it seems to me that we cannot deny this as being a significant part of the problem as it concerns lack of student engagement. This is not a “teacher slamming” moment so much as a lament. I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed? I honestly don’t know because there is always a demand for teachers, and students spend a lot of money getting their training, and hence there is a lot of pressure to simply give out licenses provided all the boxes can be ticked and all formal qualifications are met.

larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 10:37 am

Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. You say: “I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed?” I believe that you hold teachers to a higher bar than lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. your comments about “lackluster” teachers is not about ineffectiveness or mediocrity but insufficiently inspiring to gain student engagement. My research and direct experience with doctors, for example, show that many doctors have low levels of communication skills, offer little empathy, and have restricted listening capacity yet they are competent, make diagnoses, and know what they are doing in recommending treatments. My point is that in every profession I know,”lackluster” is commonplace–the bell-shaped curve, so to speak.It is teachers with expertise in subject matter, classroom moxie, and communication skills that are needed in every classroom. Whether they inspire students is a dividend, not a requirement.

Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

I agree, Larry, that I hold teachers to a higher standard, and that may be unfair. But while teachers can be competent yet uninspiring (like lawyers, doctors, etc.), only teachers spend thousands of hours with children and are in such a position to have so much (or so little) influence. Doctors and lawyers, conversely, can be uninspiring, but still provide you with solid medical or legal advice. (That doesn’t mean they always will, of course.) And, one is rarely with a doctor or lawyer for very long! But to reiterate, mine is a lament, and the problem of low student engagement – and its relation to uninspiring teachers – probably has no cure. Sigh.


larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for raising the issue of teachers inspiring students, Michael. The back-and-forth with you, I found helpful in my thinking.


Mike G commented on Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class February 5, 2015


I found the back and forth exchange in the comments between you (Larry) and Michael M quite provocative. Might be worth pulling it out as its own blog post. I think it goes somehow to the core of our educational debate.

Are teachers essentially to be like “personal trainers” in that they should precisely expect many clients who, like your compliant-but-not-that-interested student, will try to wriggle out of exercise? And that to become a personal trainer is to sign up for a job where you try to “flip” as many of us exercise laggards (I am one) as you can?

Or is the teacher job more akin to the doctor, who most typically will explain to you that you should exercise more, but does not expect to hound you, to really drive that behavior change?

In the handful of charters that are high-performing, I think teachers knowing sign up for the “personal trainer” gig — and that explains the 75 hour week. The school is up front about it. The teacher knows what he/she is choosing. 55 hours of being a regular teacher and 20 additional hours of “trying to flip reluctant students.” Then after 4 years or so, they go on to something else. The implied cost of this amount of labor at scale would be huge.




Filed under how teachers teach

10 responses to “Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class: Comments from Readers

  1. I feel compelled to comment mainly because I tire of the education debate dominated by men-who-do-not-teach engaging in back and forth speculation about what causes the impression of good or poor teaching. And I do think that classroom observations give only a fleeting impression of the quality of a teacher’s work. I doubt that an outsider would be able to glean any insight about my teaching from classroom observations. The 47 minutes I spend with a group of students on a single day, or even over the course of a few days, represents only an excerpt of the record of my journey with that group of students. More can be told from my individual goal-setting conferences with students, collaborations among school professionals designed to help struggling students, long-term progress monitoring, lunchtime conversations, after school tutoring, feedback on the student’s work, or even chance encounters outside the classroom that lead to personal connections with young people. Teaching is more than a performance on a scheduled day, and student buy-in can be demonstrated in more ways than class discussion and worksheets completed – or worse, standardized test results.

    I agree that the current climate in which we must teach repels many inspired and inspiring teachers. It is also true that in a group setting where most students are attending only because they are forced, we will probably never engage everyone all the time in observable and measurable ways. True measures of student engagement are multi-faceted and long term, though, and require input from all involved parties.

  2. Marie Stevens

    Thank you for an interesting discussion. I teach high school Spanish with many dedicated colleagues who want to be inspiring teachers. When we fail at that task, I think it is in large measure due to exhaustion. When you teach 150 students a day, in 6 classes, with three different preparations, it is hard to reach out to the individual students and accommodate their needs. And of course I want to. Also, there is very little time to prepare lessons or collaborate (50 minutes on a good day). Most of us come a full hour early, stay a full hour late, and work weekends to come up with interesting materials. I will say that I am a more inspired teacher after abandoning a textbook and looking for authentic materials that connect my students with Spanish and Hispanic cultures. And, one student’s inspiring teacher is another student’s biggest bore. Keep inspiring us with good ideas for reaching the students!

  3. I think that teaching is such a difficult profession that most people don’t fully understand the full depth and breadth of the challenges. That said, teachers should not be held as so sacred that they are beyond any sort of criticism. Right now the climate is such that teachers are constantly faced with criticism, and judging them based on a twenty minute sound bite observation made by an administrator isn’t fair or accurate or helpful to students (for that matter). Nor should teachers even be judged by one year of performance. It is an incremental process, and I commend all teachers who are able to stick with it with some modicum of idealism intact. In the end assessment should be something that is presented as something that teachers and students can use to create better learning conditions, not as something that will make or break their career. This can be done, but isn’t (for the most part) being done effectively. In order for this to be done effectively the element of fear for one’s very survival should be eliminated, otherwise assessment is not effective. Assessors should feel that they are on the same side as the teacher, and students should understand that the teachers who assess them are on their side as well. So a spirit of helpfulness is needed in the whole assessment mix.

  4. John Thompson

    Of course it would be great if teachers were all more charismatic and effective than any other profession, but I suspect we’ll always be limited to a certain percentage of superstars. I’d concentrate on creating a system where teachers don’t have to be superstars to be effective (which is the way it is in the inner city.) If being a good teacher was enough to be an effective teacher, I bet we’d have enough great ones to provide each student at least one.

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