When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” ~ Author Unknown
A common response, when people find out that I work with junior high school students, is an eye roll and a comment to the effect of, “I could never do that.” The thought of spending five days a week with nine-hundred teenagers is enough to make most people shudder, but I love this age group and the challenges they present. Our school serves a high percentage of students from low SES households–something that presents additional obstacles to the goal of providing every student with high quality educational opportunities.
Lately, our staff has struggled in their efforts to make connections with students who are disengaged from the educational process. These are kids who are seemingly apathetic–they don’t participate in class activities; they don’t complete assignments; they frequently exhibit poor behavior and they are frequently absent. For all intents and purposes, these students have lost hope in their educational future.
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks, looking for suggestions, and thinking about how I might advise our staff in one of the most difficult challenges in the teaching profession: motivating the seemingly unmotivated. While I don’t make any claims to be an expert in this regard, here are 5 suggestions I have for re-engaging the disengaged learner.
(1) Make it Personal – take time to visit with students and learn about their personal interests. Better yet, give them opportunities to tell you about their passions (see Identity Day by George Couros). If they don’t think they have a passion, help them find one. Most importantly, allow students to apply what they are learning to their personal interests. Allow school to be about them!
(2) Search for Celebrations – be constantly vigilant for celebration moments. Trust me when I say that this isn’t always a personal strength and that I realize the school day isn’t all daffodils and candy hearts. If we are looking for reasons to be frustrated or discouraged, we will undoubtedly find them. Instead, search for the moments that making this profession rewarding. Catch students making good decisions, using sound judgement, meeting expectations, working diligently, enjoying school…and take time to recognize these behaviors. Make “celebration moments” the focal points of daily instruction.
(3) Give Every Student the Opportunity to Succeed – it is unfortunate, but some of our students have not tasted success for so long that they have lost hope–no longer possessing the self-confidence, or will, to invest in what they see as a wasted effort. One way to overcome this sense of helplessness is to plan opportunities for every student to experience success. This will mean different things for different students, but by designing lessons, activities, assignments and questions that will set students up for success we can begin to repair student self-esteem and open doors for greater challenges.
(4) Reflect on class assignments and homework – in spite of our best intentions, we frequently set our students up for failure by burying them in assignments that do not serve a clear purpose, or that students have little chance of completing. The issue of homework has been widely debated in education circles (check out the post entitled Homework, by David Truss). Regardless of your position on making homework assignments, I would hope that all educators recognize the importance of making ALL assignments purposeful and relevant. If you are making assignments, be sure to ask yourself (1) what is the purpose, (2) is it a good use of time and resources, and (3) is it in the best interest of students? (see 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework, from ASCD)
(5) Try something different – if things don’t seem to be working, do something different. There are rarely easy answers when it comes to motivating struggling students and keeping them engaged, but doing the same thing over and over without results makes no sense. As problem solvers, we have to shake things up, employ new strategies, and be on the lookout for opportunities to challenge students to be active participants in their own education.
There is no easy answer to the issue of disengaged students. No magic bullet. No single program or strategy that will be a definitive “fix” for every student. As professionals, we must meet this challenge head on, maintain a positive attitude, and search for ways to instill confidence and hope in all of our students. Our kids deserve nothing less.