Teaching “engagement,” ignoring discouragement

Thank God we keep finding teachers with enough energy and exuberance to blow right through all the problems and resistance, and they conduct their classes just the way they’d imagined back when they decided to become teachers.

Sadly, they’re fewer than ever.

More and more, the interaction between a teacher and his or her students is a seriously complicated matter, with many stakeholders – not all of whom have a direct personal connection to any of the individuals in that classroom. (More about that later.)

“Engagement” is a concept from the clinical realm, and is increasingly a pedagogical principle: good teachers engage their students, and that engagement overcomes all the barriers and resistance to learning. Sounds right, even obvious, but what engagement actually is can be incredibly difficult to define, teach, or accurately observe – let alone sustain if you get it going.  Many idealistic, wonderful people have walked into class totally geared up to “engage” the students, but have instead been stunned at being rebuffed by hostility, negativity, or – most often – indifference and apathy.

True, teachers are usually warned about some of what’s coming, and may think they’re prepared for the standard resistance and opposition they remember from their own student days, but now feel ready to take on.

What increasingly happens these days is that teachers enter a classroom subculture very hard to put their personal stamp on, where students instinctively gauge – not just how much energy the teacher has – but how much energy the teacher is trying to extract from them. “Energy” isn’t the precise term, but it’s more than just the teacher insisting on the formal course requirements – the reading, the class participation, and the homework; it’s about how “exposed” the students will be.  It’s things like being called on randomly, being forced to reveal whether or not they’ve done the reading, whether the teacher banters with them or draws a line, and mostly whether they’re going to have to pay attention – truly – or whether they can get away with just winging it.  Authentically being curious about the subject, wanting to please or impress the teacher, or actually caring about having a good class – more and more that’s socially unacceptable.

Teachers sense this whether they think about it consciously or precisely the way I’ve just laid it out or not.  It’s the emotional toll I see that worries me – not just when a particular class day doesn’t go as planned, but the moment when a teacher realizes the students are shutting, not “buying it,”  not allowing themselves to be engaged.

The honesty, courage, and resolve brought to that challenge can make or break educational careers. I haven’t had tons of teachers for clients, but I’ve had a few.  The shock and distress can be heartbreaking.

To be continued….

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