One of my biggest motivational drivers in the business of education is to see a student wake up from the doldrums of disengagement and become a truly invested and positive learner.
It is possible to do, but it isn’t simple. There is no elixir. There are, however, some very promising pathways.
I’ll start with three standard mistakes teachers make when it comes to disengaged students, then I’ll outline the roads that we need to be travelling down in order to turn these kids around.
Mistake #1: The failure to detect disengagement. Teachers need to see that a student has checked out—tardiness, failure to do the homework, inattention in the classroom, misconduct, a sudden drop in performance, negative attitude—the list goes on. Teachers need to spot these things, but they also need to refrain from one of the biggest mistakes:
Mistake #2: Punishing the disengaged. What teachers are seeing in these students may match one of the student handbook’s bullet points on conduct that is frowned upon by the school, but taking a punitive approach is always disastrous. Dishing out negative consequences will only invite more bad behavior, or if the punishment is coercive and severe enough, you might achieve a short period of miserable and resentful compliance, but you certainly won’t get real engagement. What you will get is a student who is further alienated from you and the learning.
Mistake #3: Just going about your business. You need to care about your students. Don’t just plow through your lesson plans that you printed out last summer. Kids will detect your disengagement in a flash, and you’ll end up throwing gasoline on the fire with more students who are checking out.
So let’s get on the right avenues and start moving in a positive direction.
First Avenue: Build relationships. This is perhaps the most important approach to reaching and activating the disengaged. You need to cultivate the relationships with your students. Learn what they care about, what activities they pursue after school, what sports they participate in, what music and movies they like, what books they read. The teacher-student dialogue should be a constant flow of references to student interests and activities and strengths, so that all the students feel that they are valued and that the teacher knows them and cares about their lives beyond the classroom. Gathering this kind of biographical data at the outset of the school year can be a very effective means to ward off eventual disengagement, as students will feel much more personally connected to you, and consequently, more embracing of the subject and the skills you are aiming to teach.
Second Avenue: Determine relevance. Keep purpose always in the forefront of your mind as a teacher. And don’t be afraid to share this relevance with your students. “We’re going to learn about the origins of the Civil War today in order to better understand the polarity existing in our electorate today.” Our math unit today will actually help you plan your own personal financial planning. Our study of different layers of rock formation will help us appreciate the species of animals still alive today. Good writing habits right now will add significant value to your career prospects. Students always want to know: Is the work just a series of hoops to jump through, or, is the work feeding my areas of interest? How does my learning contribute to my community and the greater goodness in the world?
Third Avenue: Offer choices. Choices work very well for all ages. Read from this chapter or look up this particular topic in one of these websites… Read this printout or take notes on this slide show on your laptop. Almost every classroom step can be converted into a choice for students, especially your more disengaged students. They are likely to see choices as less of an imposition, and even if they reject the choices, there is more of a chance that they will come through when asked to propose their own course of action.
Fourth Avenue: Individualize instruction. When teaching is stale and one-size-fits-all, disengagement will fester. Better to find ways to accommodate learning styles and patterns, so that individuals can shine in the ways that reflect their strengths and appeal to their interests. Learn what each student cares about, collect their range of interests, and act on this info accordingly. Bend the topic or assignment to incorporate that student’s hobbies or after school involvement. Change the pace or the timing of assignments or due dates in order to accommodate a student’s needs in their areas of difficulty.
Fifth Avenue: Assign Responsibility. Students are very likely to snap out of their disengagement if they are assigned roles that matter to the classroom proceedings. All students should feel that they matter. The best way to achieve this is to assign roles so that everyone plays some adult-like role for the class. This can be something simple like assigning a chapter and page captain, who will announce to the class where to turn in the textbook for the day’s lesson. Or assign vocabulary or background captains—these students would research meanings or historical background as context for the topic at hand. How about a clock captain? Someone needs to remind the class that a transition is coming up in one or two minutes, so that there is time to clarify the homework. The assigning of roles is endless with responsibilities that range the quick and easy to the more involved and complex.