“Most students do not learn how to succeed in the American education system; they spend most of their time learning how to survive the American education system.” ~ Sharon Rose Sugar
Today was a challenging day. My motivation level was inversely proportionate to the time of day. It was one of those days where I was just looking to survive. So what did I do? I shut my office door and retreated to the classrooms – a reprieve from the daily minutiae and an opportunity to recharge where things are happening. However, in doing so, it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one hiding out in the rooms I was visiting. There were kids in some of those classrooms who were on the educational lamb. Disappearing within the confines of four walls, hoping to survive the school day.
Every educator knows it happens. In fact, we coin phrases to describe it – disengagement, lack of participation, etc. – and we see it represented in movies, like this famous scene from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.
There are obviously many factors that influence a student’s state of mind and their level of interest in school – prior experiences, home life, economics, emotional state, etc. It would be naive to think that a teacher is the sole, or even primary, influence when it comes to getting students actively involved in their education, but the fact remains that it is our job. At the very least, we must take steps that make it difficult for them to “disengage.”
Here are five ideas for helping students get beyond “surviving” school, and helping them succeed:
(1) Model Creativity
No one likes to do the same thing over and over. Not only do we need to encourage creativity in our students, we need to model it as educators. That doesn’t mean that every lesson needs to be a Broadway production, but we do need to be cognizant of how engaging our instruction is and we need to provide students with opportunities to create–helping them develop a sense of ownership in their educational outcomes.
(2) Work Collaboratively
Don’t be a sage on the stage. Providing students the opportunity to work with their peers is a great way to enhance engagement, but go further by actively collaborating with students on the things that go on in your classroom. Give them leadership opportunities, allow them to teach others, and create a climate in which they feel comfortable challenging your teaching–in a respectful manner.
(3) Connect and Personalize
Know your students. Kids need to feel like they belong–that they are known and respected as individuals. Acknowledge the diversity in your classroom and help students understand how divergent thinking contributes to the learning environment. For each student, identify strengths, weaknesses and interests and then find a way to individualize instruction (hint: technology can help in this process).
(4) Account for Students on the Fringe
We know there is a percentage of our students who are self-motivated, eager to please and who will remain involved because it is the right thing to do. But what about the others? When planning lessons or activities, be sure to take these “fringe” kids into consideration. How can you make learning purposeful for them?
(5) Develop a Sense of Accountability
Let students know that you believe in them and, because of that you, are going to hold them accountable. I don’t mean this in a disciplinary sense, but students need to know that someone cares enough to prod them when they don’t feel motivated, to encourage them when they feel overwhelmed and to hold them accountable for what they learn.
Obviously, this is not intended to be a recipe for student success, nor is it an all-inclusive list. It is just a starting point. I truly believe that good teaching is one of the most difficult professions in the world. Accomplishing the five tasks in this list would be a challenge if you had one student in your classroom–doing it with twenty-five or more seems a near impossibility.
Don’t allow students the opportunity to retreat into the recesses of your classroom. Move them beyond survival mode, actively engage them in learning, and allow them to see the success that comes from being fully invested.