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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When Students Hibernate From Us

By Peter DeWitt — October 02, 2014 3 min read
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Every day you walk into class waiting for a few of those students to walk in. They sit, don’t really make a noise, but they do make an impact. You can remember the names of the students who came before, and most likely wish you had a bigger impact on their learning. Perhaps, you were the one who could have an impact...unlike their other teachers.

I’m referring to the hibernating students. In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change, Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso refer to students in hibernation as, “Having neither a future dream nor the inspiration to make any effort in the present.” Those students who often say, “What’s the point?”

Often they enter the classroom without making much eye contact. If they could, they would most likely wear a hoody so they could slip the hood over their head and disappear from the classroom. It’s the adolescent version of “Hide and Seek” only they do not want to be sought.

Quaglia and Corso wrote,

Those in hibernation are stalled--they have neither a picture of where they want to go, nor the energy for doing much in the present. Such people lack a sense of purpose and rarely experience a sense of accomplishment in anything they do."

Russ and Michael go on to suggest,

In schools, we have all met the student who puts his head on the desk at the start of class, only to be poked awake by a friend. We have witnessed student idly texting under a desk. Hibernating students appear to have no interest in the present they are actually in or in what it might mean for their futures."

Let’s face it, if you have any number of years of teaching experience you can probably name a handful of students who hibernated. They seemed like they had no direction, because they had no direction. The sad part is that we have seen those students in elementary, middle and high school.

Yes, even students in elementary school want to hibernate.

The Hibernating Student

Truth be told, I hibernated in junior high school and the first two years of high school. I wore plain or dark clothing, and did not participate in class. After being retained in elementary school and struggling to make it through each grade, I went to school to see friends, and learning was something I did when I had to. I was not bored. I was lost.

Lacking direction and confidence, I sat in the back of the class and doodled on my paper. When the teacher began cold calling for student participation, I would sweat a little bit, and then just realized that whether I paid attention or not, I was going to get the answer wrong. Why devote the energy to listening in the first place? So I sat and hibernated.

Of course at the time I did not have Russ and Michael’s research. I was a student who wanted very much to be left behind. And then, after a few years of high school I had two cross-country coaches that inspired me to do a bit more. They were role models for me, and I stopped hibernating as much.

My grades were still fairly poor but not as poor as they used to be. Although I graduated fourth from last in my class, I stopped hibernating the last two years of high school. As the years went on I did anything but hibernate. But reading Student Voice brought me back to those years.

Student Aspirations

Quaglia and Corso wrote,

Think of those students who come to your classes with little to no facial expressions or excitement. Recall those students whose names you barely know. Some students in hibernation do a minimum of work so they can pass under the radar through your classes. These students can be quite easy to have as often they don't bother anyone."

So how do teachers get the students to come out of hibernation? Quaglia and Corso wrote, “Educators need to ensure that during a class period every student is asked a question or somehow engaged in learning.”

They suggest:

  • Ask students regularly about their hopes and dreams.
  • Incorporate student interests in teaching. Even casual references to a hobby will engage students.
  • Don’t allow students to sleepwalk through classes. Involve these students in making classes more engaging.
  • Ride the school bus at least twice a year to understand students’ journeys.
  • Greet all students when they enter the classroom.

It sounds simple doesn’t it? You may even be saying to yourself that you have tried all of these techniques. Try them again. You never know when that one interaction will be the one that sets them on the right course. It certainly worked for me, and all students should have that opportunity.

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Peter DeWitt works as a Student Voice Advocate with Russ Quaglia and Michael Corso.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.