School Climate & Safety Opinion

Engagement of Every Student Is Shared Work

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 09, 2016 5 min read
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It seems we all take for granted that, unless a child is disabled in some way, by the time they are five years old, she or he can both walk and talk. They understand basic language and they can follow simple directions. We expect that there are variations in the capacities of children to accomplish these but also expect that they all can do it in some form. These days in addition to walking, talking, understanding, and following directions, some can read a bit and use technology. They also have some social skills and a developing code of conduct. How did they get there? It takes hundreds or maybe thousands of attempts. What motivates the little ones? And how can we, as educators, capture that tenacity and use it to keep those youngsters trying and trying, working at something until they get it?

Unless someone challenges a child to do what he or she currently can’t do, the child won’t try so hard. The little ones were challenged. They couldn’t crawl or walk or talk, yet those around them could. They were encouraged to try and excitement followed for all. Determination and encouragement prevail.

Encouragement is one facet of pre-schoolers’ success. The wide eyed “Yay!” they receive, the applause and celebration, the hugs and kisses when standing from sitting, when managing to crawl or scoot, when taking those first steps, when saying their first words and first sentences make all the difference. Encouragement and praise, even exaggerated praise. There is every expectation that they can do it. No one believes it won’t happen. There isn’t a doubt. And one day, they do it. Yet, why is there is an expectation that the dogged persistence those youngsters have shown will fall away as they become learners in our schools? How can we capture that resilience and persistence and keep fueling it for continuing success?

Engagement First
Before growth and achievement can occur, we must master engagement. When students enter their early years in school, they come up against their first comparative failures. They are asked to accomplish something. They may not be able to grasp what they are being asked to do, or they do it less well or less quickly than the child sitting next to them. They know it. They see the reinforcement for the other child and the rewards for success. For a few perhaps that is motivational to try harder but for many disengagement and disappointment begin. Their paper does not go up on the wall. Their work does not get the coveted check mark, or whatever indicator that teacher uses for praise. Many years ago there was a movement to allow every child to “win”, praise everyone, put all papers up on the wall. We have seen that empty praise has failed to have any effect in encouraging students, or adults, to do anything. Even children know sincerity.

A problem exists in that teachers themselves do not like to stand out, one compared to the other. It is a slow and arduous process but gaining acceptance that teachers who do something well can be recognized for their talent. EdCamps and Un-conferences are helping in that regard. Teachers who do something well, something that other teachers want to learn, are accepted as “experts” who will share their knowledge with their colleagues. Learning is shared with those who are interested. But other than a single teacher winning state or nation wide recognition, teachers present themselves professionally as equally talented and equally successful. Yet in their heart of hearts, they know it isn’t so. This results in unintended non-action where celebration of each others’s successes or stepping up to help in a failure is tricky. This may trickle into their decisions about how to work with students.

Leading Soul Searching and Creative Thinking
If the long term goal for all k-12 educators is to engage students no matter their age, no matter their abilities or disabilities, no matter their socio-economic status, or race or even their personality, then some soul searching and creative thinking is needed. The question of whether we treat all children with the same level of expectation, support, and encouragement, must be answered. It is not a classroom-only question; it is a leadership question as well. How do the policies and programs support the idea that each child is given the opportunity, encouragement, and support to become engaged in their learning? Ask,

  1. How do we work within the expectation that student engagement is essential for successful learning?
  2. How does every child experience encouragement from their teachers? Are here days or weeks when a child may receive none?
  3. Are the standards for success different for different children? If so, how are those differences decided upon?
  4. What types of support do teachers need in order to engage every student in their learning?
  5. How can structure, policies, schedules, supports, and professional development opportunities support teachers in their work toward relentless optimism and determination that each child will be engaged and experience success?

Simply asking or expecting teachers to help develop each child without a district or school-wide understanding of what that means, what it takes, and how it can be accomplished is unrealistic and unfair. Student engagement is a system responsibility delivered by one teacher at a time. Relevancy to the child’s life matters here. Unless the system is organized around possibilities for all children, allowing and expecting teachers to develop learning opportunities that are engaging and motivating for all students, teachers will continue to struggle, each, silently, in their own classroom, to ignite each child. Of course, it requires that they, too, be ignited by their passion to do the work with every child before them.

Student engagement is invoked when curriculum and instruction focus on inquiry, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. It is invoked when the school and classroom environments are replete with positive relationships and risk taking is encouraged and regarded as exciting. Leaders address how the school and district systems can create opportunities for teachers to join together with them in the development of an environment that allows teachers to encourage and invite students into engaging learning opportunities. In that way, there is hope that those talented walkers and talkers who cross the threshold into learning environments at five years of age will find schools that will have know how to engage children within an environment that calls them to keep trying. The methods will be different from their earliest of experiences, but it is the job of schools to figure out how to draw from that model and keep inviting students into learning experiences in which they are invested and engaged in learning.

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Photo by Cathy Yeulet courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.