Engagement: The Holy Grail of Teaching

Recently, a colleague asked me for recommendations of books about developing growth mindset.  He wanted to be able to recommend something to parents whose children are “apathetic toward school.”

Learners.  Apathetic.  Toward.  School.

Why may that be?

Okay, yes, I can collect some literature.  There are most certainly books.  (I always always always recommend Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? for starters).  AND, I always insist we consider the causes behind those apathetic behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves.  Treat the disease rather than the symptoms, amiright?

So why may learners present as apathetic toward school?

Here are four of my ideas – in no particular order – followed by some quick and easy ways to create interest for those apathetic learners.

  1. School (as in, the building and the people within it) is not welcoming, safe, inviting, accepting, or engaging.
  2. Nothing being taught is relevant in “the real world.”
  3. Anxiety and depression are real and are experienced by children in k-12 settings.
  4. What’s in it for the learner?  Can learners see any benefits from their participation in school?

I said no particular order but I do think #1 is a big one.  Maybe the biggest one.  Why should learners care about school?  Do schools care about learners?  I mean every single learner?  The difficult learner?  The apathetic learner?  The angry learner?  The defiant learner?  It is our job as educators to gain the cooperation of our learners and that often means we have to dig deep.  Forming relationships, human connections, is the critical component of gaining cooperation.  We cannot have successful teaching and learning spaces without meaningful relationships.

Ask that apathetic kid who s/he cares about at school?

Ask that apathetic kid who cares about him/her at school?

Does that apathetic kid feel safe at school?  Feel seen?  Feel valued?  Feel like s/he can contribute in a meaningful way?

Schools typically have one speed – busy!  There are a million things happening in every moment.  Kids, staff, administrators, volunteers, student teachers and practicum teachers, custodians, specialists, researchers, and more all moving within the walls of the school at any given time, quickly, late for the next thing, rushed, distracted, B U S Y.

Is it really so unbelievable that some learners may be overwhelmed, intimidated, exhausted, or shut down by that context?  By connecting with individual “apathetic” learners, we can determine what is causing their lack of engagement, their apathy, their distance and develop strategies to make school a learning environment that works.

#2 ahhh “the real world.”  Such a weird phrase.  What is the real world?  Where is it?  What about K-12 education is not the real world?  This term always strikes me as a flawed and there are just so many reasons why.

  • Loads of kids experience more “real world” before they get out of bed in the morning than I have in a lifetime.  Food and housing insecurity, poverty, and family issues are all “real world” experiences that kids navigate every day.
  • The idea that if we extend kindness to learners and reward the behaviors we want to see, we are not preparing them for the real world.  Right.  Because in the real world, I get paid to go to work . . . or I don’t go.  No one does anything for nothing in return.  Including you.  Including learners.  It’s “real world” and okay to reward hard work.
  • The real world includes loads of problems in need of solving.  Our K-12 learners can and should be tackling real world problems in need of solving too.

#3 Schools need help.  Teachers cannot meet the very real trauma and mental health needs learners bring with them to the classroom.  We need social workers on our teams.  We need counselors with actual resources to support learners, families, and teachers.  We need psychologists and psychiatrists with expertise in child trauma and early childhood/adolescent mental health.  We need resources.  Learners who disengage from school and disconnect from preferred people and activities need support.  What may look to some as apathy toward school may very well be a plea for help.

#4 School, in and of itself, is not super motivating.  Is it?  Teachers make all the difference in this regard.  The difference between a teacher a learner looks forward to seeing versus a teacher a learner dreads makes the difference in a learner’s day, year, future.  It takes ONE adult to see a kid, to really acknowledge their presence, their uniqueness, their humanity.  ONE adult can make all the difference in the life of a kid.  We have to be that ONE adult.  Not for every single learner, of course.  But if we all step up, we should be able to be collectively find ONE adult for every learner out there who is slipping through the cracks, ghosting through the school day, approaching learning with apathy.

What if we took responsibility for our apathetic learners?  What if we saw the onus of engagement in ourselves rather than in our learners?  What if we sought to understand the “why” of apathetic learners rather than just the “how” of their apathetic behaviors?

Talk to me.  What do you think?  How do you engage apathetic learners?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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