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Learning at its Best

When to Be Lazy

Sometime around the seventh grade, I moved into a phase I assumed would be temporary.  I quit trying so hard in math, because I saw the stacks of worksheets as irrelevant to my life.   I set up a system where ten of us each did three of thirty problems and then copied our answers from each other the next day.  I snuck Salinger and Camus into the long lectures on chemical reactions.

I threw myself passionately into what I enjoyed.  No, that’s not entirely correct.  I threw myself into what I loved.  I pushed all of school into a “Will this help me to think better about life?” filter and then managed to cut corners on all the rest.  Throughout high school, I missed out on scholarships because I “didn’t apply myself,” meaning I didn’t play the GPA game.  I earned a 3.4 average, but I wasn’t part of the race to the top.

While others learned to manipulate the system, I worked outside of it most of the time and then re-engaged when it seemed relevant (often history and English).  The crazy part?  I felt guilty about this.  I began each year telling myself to grow out of this phase and do what’s right.  Work hard.  Get good grades.  Get a scholarship.

I get it.  College is expensive.  I could have earned a free ride.  Then again, four years of college do not equal four years of my salary.   And you couldn’t pay me forty thousand a year right now to go back and fill out worksheets.  If that’s the case when I’m thirty-one, why should I have worked harder in high school?

I recognized, even back then, that it wasn’t worth giving up four years of my life just to earn a scholarship.  I knew, at the time, that there was no free ride; that kids would give up an education in exchange for a scholarship and to me, even as a confused high school student, I knew better.  I remember reading Twain and wondering if I was like Huck Finn.  I’d silently question whether my rebellious “laziness” was, in fact, not morally wrong or even morally neutral, but actually the right thing to do.

So, here I am now.  I write, but I don’t sell many books.  I teach, but I don’t earn much money.  I blog, but I don’t have a ton of followers.  Yet, I recognize that it’s not about being “at the top.”  So, I cut corners in paperwork so that I can play soccer in the back yard with my kids.  I spend time in meetings drawing sketches that reflect my geeky humor.  I abandon the pre-packaged curriculum and passionately throw myself into the subjects I love.  I paint murals with students instead of filling out referrals.

I’m recognizing that I never grew out of “that phase.”  It became a part of me to begin each action with, “Does this matter?”

I could never articulate this as a high school student, but I see it now.  Life is a vapor.  Do something meaningful.  Work hard at what matters.  Follow your passion.  Then half-ass it on the irrelevant urgency that tends to block out the important.


John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


6 thoughts on “When to Be Lazy

  1. Right on!

    Posted by bridgesburning | April 9, 2011, 1:20 pm
  2. This sounds a lot like how i approach school…. though my energy often was spent doing theater, art and starting a film club…. and film festival and working…. lots of working.

    you know I hate to say this….but scholarships are really a racket…. most go to those how really don’t need them and those who just know the right people or way to game the system….

    Hard to say it, but most of the students in my school who got the big scholarship were far from the most intellectual students….often they were merely popular and had helicopter parents who did much of the paperwork and actually work needed to jump through all the scholarship hoops.

    I like your idea of focusing our energy on these we love, and just get through the rest as best we can.

    Thanks for this.


    Posted by dloitz | April 9, 2011, 2:33 pm
  3. I agree with you and dloitz! I refused to join (dun dun dun) THE NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY! My parents were sick about this. I thought it was a club of cheaters (and it was). It was full of the GPA addicts who didn’t care about learning anything but got straight A’s on everything. I loved Dance, Theatre, writing, math, and FBLA (ha!) because they were authentic to me and provided meaningful learning experiences. I am one of a few people I know who still knows the capitols of all 50 states, writes for fun, and chose every opportunity to speak publicly. I soaked in every bit of knowledge I could in the classes, and more importantly with the TEACHERS, which mattered. I played tennis and swam, even though I had no hopes of getting a scholarship in either. I went to college with no scholarships because they were so specific and some even had stipulations about how to spend the money or what you needed to study or become. What a crock! And now, I teach much like you. I try to work around all of the government mandated initiatives, and constantly ask my co-workers to consider what is best for OUR students. I have been called “Jerry McGuire”, a nickname I appreciate, but its also frustrating because so many other teachers are too afraid to speak up, support me when I speak up, or they just don’t care anymore because they feel hopeless. How do we abandon the failing ship without abandoning the students?

    Posted by Amanda | April 10, 2011, 10:11 am
  4. So my question for John and Amanda: why did you become teachers? Why did you go back into a system that you felt was inauthentic and alienating?

    I ask myself the same question.

    Posted by Kirsten | April 11, 2011, 3:11 pm
    • I wanted to be an artist in the factory. I wanted to offer something meaningful surrounded by something so fake. I knew from experience that the system couldn’t crush quality teaching and I found my inspiration in a few amazing teachers from my past.

      Posted by johntspencer | April 12, 2011, 8:49 am
  5. Hey John,
    I know this is not what we’re supposed to be advocating as teachers – the part about not “applying yourself” enough to get a scholarship – but sometimes I find myself wishing I could say these things to my students, even at grade 2. Instead I focus on following your passions, doing what you love, not just enjoying something but really having the time of your life at it and of course, learning a ton at the same time. In some ways, you learned to work around and through the system and you came out unscathed. This isn’t the case for some; the system is so strong that it can cause damage that takes a life time to sort through. As teachers we need to help our students find their passions and stick with them. How many times have you heard that before? How many times do we do this?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | April 16, 2011, 11:46 am

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