Engaging students in learning does not start or end at school

Engaging students in learning does not start or end at school
Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Student engagement is a popular subject in education. The questions teachers hear the most include the following: Are you using engaging activities in class? Are you ensuring students are fully engaged in the learning process? The missing ingredient here is the students themselves.

Being engaged can be defined as being involved in an activity and being greatly interested. To truly engage any human being, especially young people whose brains are still developing, is a tall order for one teacher or one school to do alone.

As summer winds down and I prepare to meet the teenage students for whom I will be responsible to teach during the 2018-2019 school year, I reflect on how I will approach the learning process and how I will engage all students to be active participants in that process.

Most teachers I know go into the new year with new ideas, strategies, and a lot of excitement and hope for a successful year. Teachers want to help students realize their potential. They want to put in place plans and activities that will help a variety of learners to learn and be successful.

Teachers also spend a great deal of time brainstorming ways to engage students, so that they gain the academic skills they need to evolve as thinkers, readers, and writers. One teacher cannot make all of that happen by him or herself, though most of us work hard to figure out how.

There is, however, a prevailing opinion that teachers should be able to do it all: instruct, counsel, help test scores improve, facilitate skill growth, problem solve, be fun, be informative, and ensure total engagement when students are learning content.

It was no surprise to me when educators lashed out at a well-known education researcher earlier this summer when his Twitter feed suggested that the classroom teacher is responsible for engaging students of any age and level, and that there is zero reason students should ever be disengaged, bored, or inattentive. To simplify, it is the teacher’s fault if students are disengaged.

When the tweet starting making its way through the social media universe, the backlash in the teaching community was loud. While the individual who tweeted the information did apologize suggesting that the tweet included information taken out of context, teachers continued to react and post commentary.

As I read over the comments, I wondered why it was that educators and those who love them felt so hurt and angry regarding the notion that teachers can be solely responsible for student engagement.

I tried, at first, to look at the situation from both perspectives as I teach my students to do. While teachers do have a great deal of power when it comes to engaging students, they cannot do it alone. I think those who do not teach but are passionate about analyzing educational issues and policy want to be respectful to the soldiers on the front line. I think also that researchers discover great tools to help guide teachers.

I also know from experience, however,  that researchers can lose sight of how their words and ideas are oftentimes clear and easy to follow when on paper, but that in a packed high school classroom filled with different personalities, skill levels, and behavior issues, those words and ideas do not translate in real time.

The reactions to the tweet make perfect sense to me from a teaching perspective. The job of really educating individuals can be a massive enterprise. Teachers step in front of their classrooms every day and take on the job. It helps to have parental, societal, and administrative support.

It might be easier for teachers to weather criticism like the tweet mentioned above if perhaps teachers were seen as what they really are and can be: critical stakeholders in education as a whole, from policy to the development of curriculum to lesson plans to helping offer a true perspective of the challenges of educating young people.

It always amazes me when I talk to other teachers, regardless of what age or level they teach, and they have the same concerns prior to the start of a school year: Will I be respected by my administration, parents, and the public? Will my ideas and concerns be heard? Teachers are game for facing challenges in the classroom; it is the perception outside of the classroom that can be hard to navigate.

I was walking my dog the other day and ran into a dog lover. The conversation went from discussing our mutual love of Labrador Retrievers to our occupations. This fifth grade teacher talked about having been in her classroom the week before in an effort to get her room ready and to create effective lesson plans.

This year she has 32 students scheduled to be in her class up from 25 students last year. She said 25 was nearly impossible. She struggled to really reach them all. How is it that anyone thinks 32 individuals will get the individual treatment they need to meet state standards?

How can all 32 students improve skills, achieve the grades they want, become truly literate, and, on top of that, learn how to be collaborative and respectful? I venture to guess the decision to cram 32 individual minds into one classroom was not one that relied on a teacher’s perspective.

The majority of the teachers I know face the challenges of the job with humor, resilience, and passion. I think the reason one tweet from one educational researcher can cause such a stir among teachers is because it becomes tiresome for conclusions to be drawn and decisions to be made without teacher input.

While teachers are seen as being at the front of the classroom, in charge of our young people’s achievement, they are not consulted as much as they should be when the country, districts, or schools are making important decisions about educating individuals.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic that examined how salary is not the main reason educators experience burn out or leave the profession. Educators who leave the profession have felt largely ignored in terms of shaping education policy either at a school level, district level, or national level.

“People should talk more to teachers,” said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute and one of the authors of a report about the teacher pay gap, which is a main focus of the article. “Teachers have to feel they have a voice on the job.”

While that article was published nearly two years ago, the ideas in it fit perfectly with why I believe that one tweet regarding student engagement being solely in the hands of teachers caused so much outcry.

I love teaching. I love working with brilliant minds. My colleagues have the brightest minds of anyone which whom I have worked. We work hard for our students to grow as learners. This does not happen as soon as they walk into our classrooms, however. Being an engaged learner is a skill that has to be nourished before, during, and after students step into our classrooms.

As the summer days become shorter, I, like many teachers, start planning for the long game. The start of a new school year brings with it both anticipation and hope. I hope that I can guide my students to become engaged with their own learning processes.

I hope I can guide them to learn how to learn even as they struggle to remain focused. I hope that I, too, might keep my focus on that which really matters: teaching students how to improve as thinkers and readers.

If I come across another tweet that steals my focus from my end goals this year, I will work hard not to be derailed. I will seek to take the advice I have given students when they become sidetracked by the opinions of others. We cannot control the opinions of others, but we can control how we respond. 

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Filed under: Education, Parenting

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