What I never want to hear….“school sucks.” Or even worse, “my school sucks.” I don’t believe that teenagers are naturally apathetic. I think apathy and disengagement are learned behaviors or defense mechanisms deployed out of necessity. When children start school, they have dreams of what their lives could be. If they lose hope by the time they enter high school, there may be several causes but the implications are all bleak. Here is what the academic literature tells us about student engagement:
- Student engagement is generally associated positively with desired academic, social and emotional learning outcomes (Klem & Connell, 2004).
- Student engagement is considered the primary theoretical model for understanding dropout and promoting school completion. School completion is defined as graduation from high school with the academic and social skills to necessary to leverage postsecondary educational options and/or the world of work (Christenson et al., 2008; Finn, 2006; Reschly & Christenson, 2006b).
- Engaged students do more than attend classes or perform academically. They also put forth effort, persist and self-regulate their behavior toward goals. They challenge themselves to exceed and enjoy challenges and learning (Klem & Connell, 2004; National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine [NRC and IoM], 2004).
- Engagement is thought to be especially important for apathetic and discouraged learners and those at high risk for dropping out, but it is truly relevant for all students (Brophy, 2004).
That’s the academic language. Now let’s get practical. Any school administrators out there try to have a pep assembly in the context of a disengaged or apathetic student body? Any school leader felt pressure to improve attendance rates and find themselves really searching for answers on how to get students involved or interested in their school? Any parent, grandparent or concerned adult ever scratched their heads when a young person in their life said they hated school?
Yes, I’m sure we can relate to one of these scenarios or some variation. So, what do we do?
First, the old adage says the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Teachers frustrated with your classroom performance, environment, sense of community or behavioral issues, maybe it’s partly due to students who don’t feel engaged. Have you asked them? Have you surveyed them? Have you given them a chance to express their voice in assignments, discussions, free writes? Have you given them a chance to discover relevancy and interest as part of inquiry and passion in your classroom or have you talked at them and said, “You will need to know this for life.” I admit. I told them that as well. In fact, I can hear myself saying, “Well, no, it may not be on the test, but you’ll need to know this in your future.” I don’t think they believed me (did I believe me each time I said it?) Administrators frustrated with a lack of school spirit or low attendance or lack of student motivation and achievement on standardized testing, maybe the answer isn’t more “drill and kill” exercises in the classroom. Maybe it isn’t a new test prep software program. Ok, so if that doesn’t fix it, what will?
There is an incredible principal at a neighboring district and her staff committed to creating a school environment where students hate to not be there. She leveraged “FOMO” or the Fear of Missing Out. Kim Coody leads Glenpool High School and the Oklahoma Association of Secondary School Principals and was named Oklahoma’s Principal of the Year so she knows her stuff. Here are a few of her thoughts on a blog post for the National Association of Secondary School Principals as well as a link to a podcast with Will Parker, our state principal association’s Executive Director, on the same topic.
Basically she and her staff started seeing things from a student perspective. She even “shadowed” a student throughout the day, from the morning bus route to the trip home. I bet you don’t have to do that too many times to start noticing things you hadn’t seen as an adult in your school.
So what can I do this week to start to work towards a school experience for students that is more inviting, exciting and engaging? First, I need to get out of my office. The chance of me seeing more than a fraction of my school’s 2600 students while sitting behind my desk is small. I need to be in hallways between classes, in the cafeteria, in classrooms, at plays, concerts, ball games, awards assemblies, community events. Yes, I need to balance my own life, priorities, health and family, but engaging in relationships with students takes effort, time and intentionality. I don’t go to every athletic contest we have, but I go to at least one or more contests for each team. I’m not only visible, but more importantly I’m fully present.
Secondly, I need to look for opportunities to say “yes” to students. Students are a great source of ideas on what works (or doesn’t work) at school. My local auto repair shop follows up an encounter with a customer service survey. If they do that when I get my oil changed or my brake pads replaced, why wouldn’t I want to hear what the students in my hallways have to say? I can’t promise that every idea they have is feasible. I don’t agree with every thought they express (just like my teachers don’t agree with every thought I express). But, if my first response to every proposal, thought, idea or inquiry is “No!” then guess what….they won’t keep coming to me.
Lastly, I need to review my individual practices as well as those of the teachers I work with and search for those examples of student excitement, self-discovery, true inquiry and passion and celebrate those. I need to let other students know about them. I need to let other staff members know about them. I need to give staff opportunities to try (and fail) as they stretch for excellence. If we play it safe all the time and never think outside the box, we will never get anywhere other than where we are. We know if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten….students who are frustrated, bored, apathetic or disengaged.
This week, I intend to focus on those that appear disengaged. I’m pledging my best efforts to do it for them. I hope you will too. Because we know there are great benefits for our schools if students are engaged, but more importantly we know there are greater benefits for our kids!