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Are You Tired of Low Student Engagement?

Feb 23, 2021

Who would have known almost a year ago that we would all have experienced such a monumental change in our lives that showed us just how important and effective having students in the classroom with us is for student engagement.  Who would’ve known?

Somewhere in the middle of my second year of teaching, I vividly remember a moment when I realized, it’s got to get better quickly - meaning, I’ve got to stop engaging more and working harder than my students when it comes to understanding the content.  I’m not the one taking the test and I care a whole lot more than they do.  Side bar - of you course you do, you’re the teacher in the room, but feeling exhausted at the end of the day because of all your hard work just to have black screens or non-engaged students is not what’s going to keep you going in this career field.  

No matter how long you’ve been teaching, this year and your experiences with distance learning have probably left you feeling the same way.  “Students have got to engage more, they’ve got to care more about their success and their learning.”

It’s no news to you and the other teachers listening that student engagement is at an all time low.  We could spend hours talking about the reasons why, but I’d rather spend more time on a topic a bit more uplifting than the glaring student absenteeism occurring right now, and that is on how to improve it by means which we, the teacher, can control.

After listening to this episode, you will feel empowered, rising above that nagging sense of helplessness, because you’ve learned how to increase student engagement which will allow you to take your seat as guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage.  Welcome to episode 11 of the Sustainable Teacher Podcast.

Are You Tired of Low Student Engagement?

Oftentimes within episodes on this podcast we’re focusing on “the steps to… xyz,”  for instance “3 Steps to Sustainable Grading,” or “3 Steps to Organization in the Sustainable Classroom,” etc.  In this episode, I do have steps for you, but they are not necessarily ones that you must take in succession.  Really they are more like my teacher-friend advice than they are steps.

Think of this episode like this… you are exhausted.  You are so drained by absolutely loving what you do and yet having no one to reciprocate that love on a daily basis when it comes time to delivering your work.  Meaning, students aren’t there to enjoy and/or thrive in what you’ve built for them.  That’s like a home builder - let’s just say Chip and Joanna Gaines just for fun - designing and building one of their beautiful, custom-built homes, and then the home owners either have no emotion when they see it for the first time or don’t even show up to the reveal.  

So you come to me, your teacher-colleague-friend for some advice.  We’re sitting in one of our classrooms, students are at lunch or one of their specials, and we get a moment to just chat - teacher to teacher.

This episode is a compilation of what I would say in that conversation.

First up…

You are not defined by the level of your students’ engagement.

I’m starting out with this piece of advice because this is a rather emotional topic for teachers.  Or at least teachers can feel very emotional and sometimes not see clearly through the fog of that emotion when needing to address the issue head on.

It’s important to understand that even if no one shows and no one does well, you are still a kick-butt teacher when this year has been as crazy as it’s been.  And, although of course you need to be able to engage students in order to get their buy in and increase their performance levels, you still don’t need to define your value as an educator by it.

The fact that you are concerned about and willing to do something to increase means that you ultimately will over time.  Things will get back to some kind of normalcy, and I’m certain we’ll come out on the other side of this as better.  So for now, keep your blinders up - keep your eye on what you can control.  Keep showing up for the kids who are there and showing them your teacher-love.

Own your teacher personality

Everything you do in your classroom - particularly the delivery of your content - should scream your personality or at least your passion for the content.  Don’t have a passion for the content - find it.  Find it in some minuscule, yet foundational detail of what it is to understand what you teach.  Then when you go to plan a lesson, make a flipped video or in-class activity… your students will know it’s yours and that you created it tailor-made for them.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock avoiding all teacher responsibilities, I’m pretty sure every  teacher in at least the US has made at least one video of themselves explaining something to their students’ within the last ten months.

Although you may have despised every minute of teaching through a video, I’m here to tell you how liberating it can be.

Think about the most fun you have ever had delivering content.  You were jazzed up about some aspect of the topic and couldn’t wait to share it with the kids.  You had prepared something creative, wonderful, or otherwise intriguing for them to learn from, and your personality, quirks, and passions shined brighter than ever.

Guess what… the kids then did too.  Sure they may have thought you were a total nerd for geeking out on a topic, depending on the topic of course, but they probably paid better attention and fed off of your excitement.

You can now share that excitement with all of your students for the next three to six years (depending on how soon, or not so soon, you want to remake your videos… I’m fine with never if you are) simply by making one video.

No longer do you have to say the same exact thing, give the same overzealous performance time and time again for every bell (or every semester or year) that you teach that particular topic.

Think of it from a business perspective - as the owner of a company, if my employee or I myself am able to do something one time and it’s repeated in effective ways because of that one time I did it, that’s a better investment than if my employee had to do the same exact thing time and time again, day after day.

What this does is frees you up to do the harder parts of learning and teaching, which, you know it, is responding to the needs and learning abilities of the human beings in your classroom.

If you take out the content delivery, make it, for lack of a better term, packaged up in a nice pretty box that can be gifted time and time again without access time required from you, you then have that time to meet with, conference, guide, and respond to the needs of your students in authentic, true teacher fashion.

So what does it take to make a kick-butt video that serves your students (and you for that matter) year after year?  Great question - it’s something I dive into in my brand new Flipped Classroom Starter kit which you can get for free as of right now right here!  It’s a guide I’ve made to help you just get started without all the overwhelm of researching best practices on your own.

But my biggest advice here is that above all else, let your videos be you.  Be yourself.  Share your passions, your personality, and your quirks.  Who cares who's watching?  Or better, care more because of who’s watching… your students.

Realize Your Students’ Choice in all of this

When it comes to student choice, we’ve got to get rid of or somehow otherwise overcome the mundane of what we do.  I’m not saying everything you do is boring.  But just think of all the fun that’s been cut out from under schools and classrooms recently.  And even before distance learning, think of the topics that were like pulling teeth to get kids to engage in.  Why do we keep beating essentially a dead horse with the same topics, the same lenses in which to view them, and the same techniques in which to teach them?

Now, this is a larger issue for education than it is for any one teacher because you’re not the one writing the standards for your course, but I digress… 

More than ever, a majority of our students are CHOOSING not just IF they care, but if they’ll even show up for our class.  And while I’m not saying you have to dress in drag and do the hula to get their attention, I am saying that we’ve got to pick up our game a bit when it comes to how interesting we and our courses are to our students.

Now, I don’t have the silver bullet answer to this one.  Really there is no such thing as a silver bullet with anything, especially in education.  You know, that one thing that solves all problems.  Nope, not happenin.

But I have done this and seen other teachers do this in flipped videos by, like I said in the last piece of advice, infusing my personality, but also by incorporating a few very simple video editing techniques that are simply for the viewing pleasure of my students.

If teachers have felt more and more over the years like a jack-of-all-trades - I know, it can get exhausting - I’m here to say that video creation has got to be one of your top skills as we witness the paradigm of education shifting right before our eyes.

I’m not saying you have to be the next YouTube star - although you could make millions so go for it if that’s you, boo.  But I am saying we need to remember that our students will choose whether or not to pay attention.  So basic best practices for video recording and editing are a must.  And they do NOT have to be complex.  In fact, the more editing and adding of extras in your video can be more distracting and a total turn off for students.

It’s about balance, and like I said earlier, letting your passion and personality shine through.

Alright, my last piece of advice.  Ready for it?

Delivery of content can not be the only thing we do.  

Kids have GOT to engage deeper with what it is they are learning, but most often we teachers feel like we don’t have time for that. We can barely get through the content, especially this year with half the time, let alone do engaging and more interesting activities in class.  

Not anymore.  

This is the foundation of what is flipping your classroom.  Taking the content and  putting it in a space that allows students to move through it at their own pace (hello differentiation) when they are not necessarily in front of you, needing all of your attention, and then saving the harder parts of learning (which are often the more engaging parts) for when you are there so that you can support them as they dive deeper and engage more with the content.

I have to admit that the control freak in me reared its ugly when I debated the changes I needed to make in my classroom in order to increase student engagement.  I debated things like a completely project or problems-based approach.  It just didn’t sit well with me in the current standards-heavy and high stakes testing environment.

But flipping my classroom - now that was more attractive to me and my ugly control freak side.  I would be able to cover the content and still have time to help my students dive deeper into the content??? And, because of the way I was delivering content, a higher percentage of my students would in fact consume it because of its accessibility and availability???

Sign me up.

So I did.  And I never looked back.

Student engagement doesn’t have to be some mythical, mystical unicorn that we hunt after with every new possible innovative way of peaking our students’ interest.  Phew - that’s exhausting.

It’s about building relationships.  Wait, hang on, no.  It’s about having the TIME to build student relationships.  And in the current hustle to get through the content, there’s got to be a way to get the content in front of them while also allowing the time to engage them with it.

So if you haven’t yet, go grab the Flipped Classroom Starter Kit.  Give it a look see, and I’ll see you in our new episode coming up next week.

By the way - if you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you don’t miss some upcoming bonus episodes we have in the works.  While you’re at it, rate and review the podcast which will help me get our message in front of more teachers needing a bit more sustainability in their teacher-lives.

Until next time,

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