A Game Called School


Every fall across Canada, close to 5,000,000 students and over 400,000 teachers return to kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms. There, for the next ten months, they all play a game called “School.” While there are several ways to play this game, I will describe two ways that I have seen it being played throughout my many years as a K to 12 teacher. Let’s call these Version A and Version B.

In Version B, at the start of the first class, the teacher explains the rules of the game. Version B teachers tell their students something like this, “Look, we’re both stuck in this class together, so why don’t we agree to make the best of it. My job is to teach the curriculum, your job is to learn it and pass. And here’s what you need to do to pass. I expect you to come to class with the necessary supplies and with your homework done. I expect you to be cooperative with me and not interfere with my teaching and the learning of other students. Lastly, I expect you to hand in your assignments and that these are done to a reasonable level of achievement. If you do these things, you will pass this course.” In other words, be compliant, don’t give me a hard time, do a reasonable amount of work, and you can win at this game called School.

It’s understandable why some teachers choose to play Version B of the game called School. There are students who come to class unmotivated and indifferent to learning; teachers experience students whose primary purpose in the classroom seems to be to annoy the teacher and impress their friends; there are students who want to be entertained rather than be engaged in the hard work of learning. If those are the realities of a teacher’s classroom, Version B looks pretty good. If the majority of the students comply with the rules of Version B, the teacher gets through the term with minimal stress.

What does Version B look like from the student’s perspective? Listening to the rules as described above, most students interpret this to mean: a) I have to show up to class with my stuff, but then all I need to do is sit quietly. Class participation is optional; b) I shouldn’t challenge this teacher, even if I think s/he is wrong; and c) I need to hand in most of the assignments, but I don’t have to do my best work because this teacher won’t insist on that. Good enough will be good enough. In other words, Version B looks pretty good from the student’s perspective as well. It calls for minimal work and guarantees a passing grade. The downside? It virtually guarantees minimal learning.

There is another option—The Game of School Version A. It looks similar to Version B in some ways. Teachers and students still go to classrooms, the curriculum still gets taught, and students’ work is still assessed. But at a fundamental level, Version A is a very different game.

I have heard many teachers claim that the most significant problem they face is that their students come to class unmotivated. That statement is incomplete. I have found, after decades of teaching at the elementary, junior high, and senior high school levels, that almost every kid I ever taught came to my classroom highly motivated. Virtually 99% of the close to ten thousand students I have taught thus far have come to my class highly motivated. However, the problem I faced was that often they were not motivated to learn what I had to teach or motivated to do the work I asked them to do. They were highly motivated, however, in other aspects of their lives. Activities such as mastering a video game, posting TikTok or YouTube videos that got thousands of views, or being a star player on their soccer or hockey team.

Once I recognized this, the question for me became: How could I channel this outside-of-the-classroom motivation into the work we were doing in the classroom? I knew that the answer to that important question could only be found in one place—with my students. So I asked them a simple question: “Think about the best teachers you have had up to now, the ones that you liked, respected, and, most importantly, the ones that you learned the most from. Now, in point form, describe to me what made these teachers so good at teaching you.”

Their answers were not really surprising. Here is a small sample of how my students described their most effective teachers:

• My bio teacher was so passionate about what he was teaching that I couldn’t help but get excited as well. It was like a virus that I caught in his classroom.

• My junior high social teacher really cared about me. I didn’t like school much and never got good marks, but he saw something in me and he kept encouraging me to do better and wouldn’t let me hand in mediocre work. He kept saying I could do better until finally I did. I worked so hard on this one assignment and got an A+ grade. He was thrilled, and so was I.

• My Grade 4 teacher made the whole class feel important. She greeted us at the classroom door every day with a huge smile and told us how happy she was to see us. I knew that she meant it. I felt like I mattered to her, and I didn’t want to disappoint her by misbehaving or doing poor work.

• I had a teacher in high school who knew all of our names and one thing about every kid in the class by the end of the first week. He told us we were important, that our learning was important, and he promised to come to class every day with his “A game” and he expected the same from us. I never worked very hard in my other classes, but this teacher always gave his best, so I did as well.

• Teachers lie to students all the time. They give us back assignments and say, “Nice job” or “Good work” when I know I only spent 20 minutes doing the assignment and I knew it sucked. But I had this one teacher who called me out on my poor work in the first month of school. She passed back an assignment and then asked to see me in the hallway. She told me, “I know, and you know, that you are capable of so much more than the garbage you just handed in. From now on, I will accept only your best work. I will take a quick look at what you hand in, and if it isn’t your best, I won’t mark it. I will give it back to you until you do the kind of work we both know you are capable of.” She didn’t wait for a response, just walked back into the classroom. I never handed in anything but my best for the rest of the year. That was Grade 6. I never forgot that, and to this day, I am grateful to her. That doesn’t mean I always do my best work now, but I am very aware of when I don’t.

• The best teachers I ever had were funny. I had one teacher in elementary and one in high school who had this way of using humour to get us to behave and to do good work. The high school teacher told us on the first day that the one thing we could never do in his class was put down other kids. He called it his “taboo.” He told us that one kid a long time ago had violated his taboo, and they were still searching for the body. He smiled and we all laughed… but at the same time, we knew he meant it. These two teachers could make fun of themselves as quickly as they would make fun of us kids. We never took offence because we knew they really liked us and cared about us being successful—in school and outside of school as well. I knew I mattered to those two teachers, that I was important and that they wanted me in class and wanted me to be successful. I did my best work ever for those two teachers.

Schools are incredibly busy places, and teachers work in an environment with unlimited demands and limited time and resources. It is easy to get caught up in marking, preparing, taking attendance, fundraising, and getting students ready for exams and to forget to listen to the voices of our students, to ask them what they want, and what works for them.

So, what does the game of school look like when you play Version A? Only your students can tell you the specifics, but I suspect that you will find these common elements in their responses: they want you to get to know them on a personal level, to like them, and to genuinely respect them; they want you to understand the world they live in, to remember that they are not adults like you and that you need to be both patient and understanding when they do things that may look dumb to you as a teacher but that are completely age-appropriate from their point of view; they want you to know the material you are teaching and be excited and enthusiastic about teaching it because the “stuff” you are teaching is very important and really cool; they want you to show them the relevance of what you are teaching in the classroom, to show clearly why the material they have to learn is important; they want you to come to class well prepared (you want that from them— sauce for the goose…); they want you to have a sense of humour and to be able to make fun of yourself and admit when you are wrong; they want you to be honest with them, honest in what you teach, honest in the feedback you give them in regard to their work; and they want to know that they matter to you, that you know them to some extent on a personal level, that they are important to you, that they are special because they are your students, and that their success in school and in life matters to you because they matter to you.

Here’s Version A of that same first-day speech: “Look, I chose to be a teacher, and I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else with my life, and I’m glad to be here. This is how I see my job as your teacher, and these are the commitments I am making to you for this term: I will come to class every day well-prepared and excited to be here. I will bring lots of energy, and I hope you do the same. I will make the material as interesting and relevant as I can. If I am ever teaching something and you wonder why, just ask. If I can’t give you a good answer, we’ll move on to something else. I will get to know each of you as individuals as well as students. Your success in this class and in life matters to me because you are my students, and I have a responsibility to help you be successful. I take that very seriously. I have written your individual names on playing cards, and I will call on you to participate by drawing a card. Participation in this class will most often be by random draw and is not optional. I will be kind and patient when you mess up… the first time. I will also be very demanding about your in-class behaviour. This classroom is a safe place to ask questions. I will not tolerate any student making fun of another student in this class. That is taboo. Also, I expect your best work, and once I get to know what your best work looks like, I will accept nothing less. We will laugh, we will learn, and at the end of the year, both you and I will be very sad that this class is over.”

What does Version A look like from a student’s perspective? Listening to the rules of the game as described above, most students interpret this to mean: a) I have to show up to class ready to learn and prepared to participate; b) It’s safe to challenge this teacher and ask why we have to learn something; c) I need to hand in all of the assignments, and I have to do my best work because this teacher won’t accept anything less; d) I can’t make fun of other kids in this class; and e) I’m going to have to work in this class. This won’t be an easy ride.

In other words, for the student, Version A looks kind of good and kind of bad. The upside? They might learn a lot and have some fun. The downside for some students? They’re going to have to work.

Please don’t think that you have to choose either Version A or B. This is not an either/or choice. Some teachers play the A version while teaching their favourite subjects and then go to the B version in subjects they are less passionate about or with classes they don’t enjoy as much. You can blend aspects of A and B together and create your own game. At times, I have played the A game and the B game with the same class. Hey, we all have off days. Be patient with yourself.

I conclude with this suggestion: If you really want to excel at the game of school, if you really want to do well by your students, if you want to look back at the end of your career and be able to say you gave it your best, then I encourage you to bring your A game to school as often as you can. Both you and your students will be the better for it.


Dale Ripley
Dale Ripley teaches in the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. The author would like to acknowledge the ideas that were used in the development of this article originated in The Passionate Teacher by Robert Fried. Dale is the author of The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, Solution Tree Press, 2022.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.

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