It’s incredible that we keep finding new teachers with the commitment and optimism to walk into today’s classrooms, and who succeed at conducting their classes just the way they’d always imagined back when they decided to become teachers.
They’re becoming more rare – sadly.
More and more, that fundamental interaction between a teacher and his or her students has become a highly charged, politicized matter, with many stakeholders – not all of whom have a direct connection to any of the individuals in that classroom. (More about that later.)
“Engagement” is a concept from the clinical realm, and is also now a pedagogical (teaching) principle: good teachers engage their students – an essential precondition to subsequent successful learning. Sounds right so far – even obvious – but what engagement actually is can be incredibly difficult to define or measure, perceptively observe, let alone actually teach and sustain.
Many idealistic, wonderful people have walked into their class totally geared up to “engage” the students, but have instead been stung – rebuffed by hostility, negativity, or, most often, indifference and apathy. Somehow they have apparently not successfully engaged their students.
Most teachers “sort of” know and are even directly warned about it, but hope and idealism tend to override that. They’re ready to handle whatever comes their way – they want to teach! What they encounter is an interpersonal “mini-culture” 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” may not be the precise term, but it gets at the combination of work “required” – the reading, the class participation, and the written homework – and how “exposed” the students will be: things like being called on randomly, being forced to reveal whether or not they’ve done the work, whether they’ll be evaluated rigorously, whether the teacher needs to be liked, banters with them like a friend, or draws a line, and – mostly – whether they’re going to actually have to pay attention or whether they can get away with winging it. For 21st century kids in school, being curious, wanting to please the teacher or their own parents, putting earnest effort into learning in class – that’s seriously risky business. And it’s the reality teachers must “engage.”
Teachers know this – whether they think about it consciously, precisely the way I’ve laid it out, or not. I’ve had new teachers as clients, and it’s the emotional toll I worry about – not just when a particular class doesn’t go as planned, but when a teacher senses that the students are shut down, not buying into his or her efforts to engage them. The honesty, courage, and resourcefulness brought to that challenge can make or break educational careers. The loss of idealism is painful.