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Why Students Check Out (and How We Can Check Them Back In)

Chris Holmes will be speaking about Becka and backtracking student empathy at the Day of Motivation and Inspiration at the National Teacher Leadership Conference this summer in Las Vegas. Find out more here. 

"When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion."

—Dale Carnegie 

I published a blog post last year about my experience at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, about the bravery displayed by the people I encountered, and about the bravery of the person I accompanied. I called her "Jane" in the blog, but her actual name is Becka.

The first step in AA's 12-step recovery process is to admit you are powerless over alcohol—that your life has become unmanageable. Becka made that admission on Facebook, just days after attending her first meeting. Not only did she publicly acknowledge her struggles, she also encouraged anyone else struggling to seek help.

"...Life is too short to not remember some of the best times of your life," she wrote. "So, please, if you feel like you need help, if you need to talk, if you need advice or a guide or anything, reach out to me. If I can do it, you can too."

That was Becka Roy. Even as she battled her own demons, she always wanted to be someone's angel. She was a beautiful soul trapped in an ugly world. For the next several months, Becka tried to follow her own advice—to seek "advice or a guide or anything"—but one night she stopped trying.

My heart aches for the friends and family who cared, hoped and prayed for Becka over the years. Those who miss her smile, spunk and selflessness, and forever feel tormented by the why's and what-if's. There are no answers to such questions. All we can do is...

I wish I had the words. Truth is, I don't. I don't know what to say or do or feel.

Becka sat in the back of my Journalism 1 classroom at Hazelwood West High School. Against the wall, where she felt comfortable. I can close my eyes and see her sitting there, big bright eyes, giant smile, sharp mind, yet already—at just 17 years old—plagued by the cruddy hand she was dealt. She wasn't alone. There was another back-wall girl in survival mode, and two more closer to the front, along with a smattering of disengaged boys. All good kids, all wanting to learn but preoccupied with more pressing concerns, all teetering on the edge of giving up on school, family, friends and life.


They represent so many of the students I came to know throughout my 17-year teaching career. Kids with enough cognitive ability to make it in this world—to earn degrees, make money, raise families—but without the emotional skills to find and maintain joy and happiness in adulthood. Some of them figure it out, usually with help, but most end up meandering through life confused and frustrated. Black and white. Wealthy and impoverished. Learning challenged and intellectually gifted. So many kids who lack the basic knowledge of self-regulation, communication and connectivity.

It's not that adolescents can't comprehend such things; it's that they were never taught how to recognize, process or apply them.

Becka's case is tragically extreme. Although I am heartbroken by her death, I am not campaigning for her, or for an end to teen depression or suicide. In fact, I am not campaigning at all. I have no agenda, ulterior motive, or preconceived plan when I speak of emotional dysregulation. I just want to help people thrive as adolescents and flourish as adults. I believe that is what most teachers want, and I believe teachers agree that the status quo curriculum isn't cutting it.

I also believe that students have the answers; they actually know why they give up. Becka did. She told me one day when we met at Starbucks to talk, just a few weeks before leaving us. For her, it was a lack of connectedness, a lack of autonomy, and a lack of self-efficacy. She felt alone, helpless, and insecure, and I wondered, as I drove home later that day, if other kids feel the same way.

Partly motivated by Becka but mostly by the growing number of disengaged, seemingly apathetic adolescents, I began asking my students why they stop giving their best effort, why they settle, and why they give up. Then I started asking their friends, which led to asking total strangers. I soon found myself obsessed with collecting stories about disengagement and apathy.

I finally decided to launch a formal, three-year research study called Backtracking Apathy. I will be conducting in-depth interviews with hundreds of teenagers throughout the country in an effort to better understand the phenomenon of student apathy, and more importantly, to discover what educators should be doing differently to prevent it.

Frankly, I am tired of reading about how to reach and teach the disengaged, apathetic child. I'm actually pretty good at that; a lot of teachers are. But that's little more than a Band-Aid on an open heart. We need to go to the source, ask questions, and listen. Students know.

Chris Holmes is the 2015 Missouri State Teacher of the Year, a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and a humanities teacher at Miriam Academy. After nearly two decades teaching a variety of adolescents—those at risk of dropping out, kids struggling with social and learning challenges, and scholars gifted with exceptional intellect—he realized they all had one thing in common: an element of apathy preventing them from fully engaging in the learning process. In 2018, Chris launched a project to identify the roots of student apathy and to learn what schools could do to minimize it. His phenomenological research study—in-depth interviews with dozens of teenagers throughout the country—is shedding light on how to maximize student engagement, learning, and well-being.

A journalism teacher by training, Holmes helped found a dropout prevention program at a large, suburban high school in St. Louis County. He left two years ago to help found the state's first private, non-denominational high school for students with learning disabilities. Every June, Holmes moves to the University of Missouri campus to teach at a residential academy for gifted high school students.


Photo by Megadeth's Girl, courtesy of Creative Commons.

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