Teaching

Do Teachers Have to Be Entertainers? Here’s What They Say

By Elizabeth Heubeck — August 30, 2023 5 min read
A teacher plays the guitar for students during the first day of hybrid instruction at Jason Lee Elementary School on April 1, 2021, in Portland, Ore.
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The term “student engagement” is used so frequently in K-12 education that it’s beginning to feel somewhat cliché to some. But educators can’t simply retire it.

That’s because there is no learning without student engagement, defined as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education” by The Glossary of Education Reform.

And student engagement, especially in the higher grades, has been disturbingly low for some time. In a 2013 Gallup survey of approximately 500,000 students, most elementary students (8 in 10) reported feeling “engaged” in school. By high school, just 4 in 10 said they felt engaged. A Gallup poll conducted five years later resulted in similar findings: three-quarters of 5th graders surveyed reported high levels of engagement in school; by high school, just one-third did. And that was before the isolation of the pandemic and the ubiquitous use of cellphones contributed to students’ further disengagement, according to their teachers. So, what’s the answer to widespread student disengagement?

The obvious solution would be to make classes more engaging. This puts the onus on teachers to up their performance game, in addition to the other responsibilities many say have been placed on them in recent years. Is this fair, and does it work?
We turned to educators to find out what they think of doubling as entertainers. Here’s what they shared.

Changing times, different expectations

High school teacher Rachel Murat, New York state’s 2020 teacher of the year, is approaching her 28th year as a teacher at Maine-Endwell Central school district in Endwell, N.Y. During this period, she said she’s seen a drastic change in students’ attentiveness.

“There is a clear difference now regarding what engages kids versus when I started or even as recently as before the pandemic,” she said.

“Decades ago, the expectation was that when you go to class, you pay attention,” Murat explained. “There weren’t the distractions there are now, other than the bulb in the overhead projection going out,” she said. “Now, there are so many [distractions].”

For instance, Murat said she’ll commonly do a quick six- or seven-minute activity before switching to another activity or lesson. Similarly, she’ll teach using class participation, then change to direct instruction. “I’ve had to completely change how I’ve done things,” she said. “Engaging them through different activities will help keep distractions at bay.”

The fine line between engaging and entertaining

Murat acknowledged that she does her best to bring energy and positivity to her classroom and to make her instruction engaging. But she stopped short of describing her strategy as entertaining. Other educators, however, do make that leap. Aaron Bishop, a longtime history teacher at Rancho Cucamonga High School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is one of them.

Entertaining comes naturally to Bishop, who, when he’s not trying to connect with teenagers in the classroom, works as Tremor, a dancing dinosaur and mascot for a minor league baseball team. “I’m on stage here and I’m on stage at the baseball stadium,” Bishop said. “If I’m flat in the classroom, the students are going to be flat.”

Bishop has developed quick activities with catchy names, typically conducted at the start of the class period, that grab students’ attention. Wake up Wednesday involves everyone in the class stretching and making other active movements. In Fun Food Friday, students are called on to share their favorite food to accompany given settings.

Relationship building

Although Bishop acknowledges that entertainment is a big part of his role as a teacher, he has a deeper goal in mind than simply making students laugh: He’s looking to connect with them. “Individual attention changes things in the classroom,” he said.

Murat agreed. “Engaging kids starts with your relationship with them. If you have a good relationship with them, they know you care about them, they are going to be so much more engaged,” she said.

Teachers have different ways of building relationships with students, and, for some, being an entertainer isn’t a natural part of that equation.

“Teachers must be present and authentic, but they do not need to strive to ‘entertain,’ especially if that is not their natural disposition. In that case, they will come off as fake, which is the kiss of death in the classroom,” wrote Marilyn Pryle, Pennsylvania’s teacher of the tear 2019-2021, in an email.

“Being one’s genuine self, being present to the students, being passionate about learning and content, and working to make the content itself engaging—that is the formula for strong teaching,” she added.

Meeting students where they are: online

Regardless of how teachers attempt to engage students, most agree that they face intense competition from the near-constant access their students have to social media. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of American teenagers, a significant percentage reported almost continual usage of various social media platforms: 19 percent of teens were on YouTube, 16 percent on TikTok, and 15 percent on Snapchat.

Chris Dier, 2020 Louisiana teacher of the year, decided to follow the advice of his students and take to TikTok and Instagram. He now creates engaging mini-lessons on obscure historical events that aren’t covered in the history textbooks his school provides. Dier, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, has amassed more than 160,200 followers on TikTok. But popularity isn’t his goal.

“By embracing these innovative mediums, I strive to engage with the digital generation while respecting their attention spans are influenced by the pervasive presence of digital media,” Dier wrote in an email.

Dier explained that none of his videos replaces lecture-style lessons or other teaching methods; rather, he uses them for supplemental purposes. He acknowledged that his TikTok creations have benefited his students who are naturally visual learners, as well as those accustomed to consuming information in video format. Dier hosts a website on which he’s published a list of his history-related TikTok videos, spanning from 1491 to 1945. Topics range from Deborah Sampson and Gender Nonconformity during the American Revolution to Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre.

As the examples of Dier and other teachers demonstrate, the methods used to try to engage students vary widely.
“It’s exhausting,” Murat said. “But it’s worth it.”

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