When an adopted student (or any student) is struggling academically, we consider things like learning disabilities, emotional issues and school fit. As teachers, parents and practitioners in their lives, we use IEPs and learning centers to learn and support them. All the while, we’re trying to develop an understanding of them, the student. Why won’t they try when they’re clearly bright and capable enough, at least in our eyes? Why are they so disdainful and rejecting of the school administration? And, why won’t they just get their act together and do their homework at night? Why would they limit their future opportunities? And, why are they so resistant to getting help?

Those are our questions.

But, often when I talk with adopted teens who are struggling in school, the conversation goes very differently. It doesn’t start with their IEP or squandering their future potential. No. It starts with their teachers.

A teen might say a variation of something like this —

“My teacher is so stupid. She doesn’t even collect the homework. She doesn’t give a s___. And, get this. We were talking about Oliver Twist, you know him? Well, some jerk classmate said something about him not being that important because he’s an orphan, and she didn’t even correct him! When I went to ask her a question, she didn’t even look up! I just stopped doing my homework. She means nothing to me. She doesn’t know me.”

For us, those complaints might sound more like excuses than legitimate issues…. and there might be some truth to that.

Many of us have responded by saying something like, “Sweetie, your grades are your responsibility. Don’t use your teacher as an excuse not to do your work. If you would just apply yourself…” at which point the conversation quickly escalates, or completely unravels.

Or, we might choose to side with the teen, “That’s not right. The teacher never should have…”

But, in truth, both reactions miss the mark. It’s not really about the teacher. It’s about the adopted teen’s relationship with authority. 

For adopted teens, If they don’t respect their teachers, they can’t trust them. And, if they can’t trust them, the don’t want to work for them. You see, working for them puts them in a vulnerable position. The adopted teen feels vulnerable because he or she has basically agreed that his teacher’s assessment of his work is important to him or her.

Why is respect so central? Let me explain. In the adoption story, the narrative, adults in their life could not do what they were “supposed” to do. The parents who birthed them couldn’t raise them. They were in an extremely vulnerable position, and many who were in their same situation didn’t make it through. Because of this, adoptees have a certain vigilance when it comes to adults who are slated to teach, guide or protect them. They’re looking for certain signs, red flags that their teacher isn’t up to the task, isn’t engaged or invested in them.

They might ask  —

Are they competent?

Do they really care about the students or are they just doing it because they have to?

Are they burnt out? Unreliable? Do they do what they say they’re going to do?

Will they become overly invested or not invested enough in my academic performance?

Are they hypocritical? Fake?

Do they know themselves as well as they think they do?

How much can I get away with?

These questions might sound logical and appropriate but I want to emphasize the vigilance in answering these questions. For the adopted underachiever, any minute sign that the teacher could be compromised will not be lost on them.

I’m not suggesting that teachers deserve this level of scrutiny and am not justifying these perceptions. But, what  I am suggesting is that the conversation needs to change. And, I’m not suggesting that teachers should start talking with their adopted students about how they don’t trust easily, etc.

But, the more that teachers can recognize that for underachieving adopted teens, it’s more than just learning style or low self-esteem or oppositionality, the better. If you can earn their respect over time, you’ll be doing your part in helping them to achieve their academic potential.