Teacher Challenges: The Part of Student Engagement No One is Talking About

As a Teach For America alum and KIPP teacher of seven years experience, I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I can honestly say I’m no longer fucking this job up. For a few years in a row, I’ve been able to look back and see definitively (whether you judge by state tests or by other less tangible means) that my students have learned quite a bit with me in front of them. During the journey, I’ve seen many, many teachers burn out for various reasons, and either move on to other professions, or (worse) hang on and deliver bullshit in the classroom, content with the benefits, decent pay, and their own excuses for why students don’t learn.

A lot of these people worked harder than I ever have at various aspects of our craft. I can count several who aren’t burned out yet, but are well on their way from burning up countless hours of their lives, agonizing over lesson plans, trackers, data, and student engagement. This is especially true among our brethren who are trying to do right by underserved kids who live in poverty and often arrive in our classrooms years behind. As a veteran of those same classrooms, I salute their effort and I feel their urgency, but I don’t like the tone of embitterment and victim-hood I hear from a lot of them after time spent in the grind.

“So many hours! I have no life! I can’t get them to understand that education is important!”

I shake my head at this stuff.

Education in recent years has become very results-focused: have the kids measurably learned? This is a very good thing in general, but I think we can get so wrapped up in it, that we forget the human element in this game. Ultimately, we are a part of the village that is raising the hundreds of kids whose lives we touch; these kids are not little learning machines that churn out high numbers for our own sense of personal validation.

Along that line: nearly all of the kids know very well that ‘education’ is important, as a big picture concept. Ask any one of my middle schoolers what they’ll be when they grow up, and the ones who don’t say some kind of professional athlete (a subject for another blog), will almost always say some career that requires a degree, and will talk about college as a way to get there. They’ll say that even as an English Language Learner who is four years behind in reading comprehension, nearly that far behind in math, and not even close to being on track for entry into college. Why? Because they don’t truly comprehend the process of how they’ll become these things. After all, they’re kids. The day-to-day work they have to put in for a far-away life goal is completely beyond most of them. Even me: I was a pretty smart kid who understood the importance of education, but as a young teen if I could get my mind off girls and sports long enough to truly connect with school for even a little while, it was a win for my ‘education.’ I can’t imagine how much harder that would be if I were facing the same challenges a lot of my students face.

Duh, ‘education’ is important. Do your kids know your subject is important? Do they know that it’s awesome? Do they know that out of all the things you could do with your life, you chose to come and share it with them? Do they know that you are 100% invested in what you are teaching them– not whether you are invested in them necessarily, or education, or student achievement, but invested in what you are teaching them?

Hell, do you know that your subject is important, awesome, and every bit a worthy addition to their lives?

I can’t tell you how many reading and writing teachers I’ve met who neither read, nor write– not really. Blowing through a YA novel once every few months and reading a series like “50 Shades of Grey” every couple of years doesn’t count, by the way. Then they want to bitch that their students aren’t invested in reading. Kids always respond to modeling, good and bad. Those of us in high-poverty education see all too often what bad modeling does for students in their home lives, neighborhoods, and classrooms. By contrast, kids who develop a genuine love of reading are rarely ever behind in reading comprehension, irrespective of their socioeconomic background; I’ve seen it every year I’ve been in this game.

When I taught English Language Arts, I read out loud with my kids every day: even 8th graders. I chose stories that I thought were awesome and powerful, and chose the moments to model the critical thinking skills the kids had to learn. The stories and the reading dictated when those skills were taught; not the other way around. I chose curriculum to fit my style and passion; not the other way around. If I didn’t have a class set of books for the stories I wanted, I set up a Donors Choose, explained why the stories were great, and got the ones I needed. Did this make teaching more fun for me? Yes! Did it make reading more fun for students and lead to higher gains? YES!

Look, I’m as skeptical of our current cultural focus on test scores as the next teacher, but I think we can all agree that they mean something, even if they certainly don’t mean everything. I’ve had classrooms full of kids with the full range of learners: everything from four years behind in reading comprehension to kids who were ahead. The 165 eighth graders I had one year, most of whom lived in broken homes below the poverty line and displaying this full range, grew an average of over two years in reading comprehension. Nearly fifty of them had failed their seventh grade state English Language Arts test (despite a pathetically low passing standard): 22 of that number passed or achieved an advanced score in their eighth grade year. The following year, in a similar class environment (and with some improvements in my teaching method), all of my 8th graders passed, with over a third of them achieving and advanced score on their state test (85% or higher). Many of my former students who will be graduating high school this year still keep in touch and talk with me about those stories and those authors. It lights me up every time!

A couple of years ago, I switched over to history and did even better from a state testing standpoint. I improved my targeted daily objectives and what exactly I wanted students to learn and practice every day, but honestly, my time spent working at school or at home didn’t go up. There is also the unfortunate fact that social studies education has been fucked over so badly here in Texas (thanks to 8th grade now being the only state-tested year in a true social studies class), that many students effectively get zero true social studies education before the eighth grade.Despite this, for two years in a row, my school earned a state “distinction” star in that category (putting it among about 10% of all middle schools in Texas). Why? My sadly under-used Word Wall and Mastery Trackers had nothing to do with it.

I can tell you right now that my student results (and the lasting relationships I built with my kids) weren’t because of some amazing lessons I had spent hours planning, or student investment in a complex skills-tracking system that I had made, or constant messaging of the importance of higher education, or my school’s investment in some program or curriculum. I sucked at that stuff. Real talk: although I’ve gotten better in some important and necessary ways, I still suck at it.  I love history and literature, enough that they are an active part of my life in and out of the classroom, and that definitely made a difference.

In my class, I geek out every day. History and literature are alive to me, they are important, and I am 100% invested in their stories and their relevance to today’s world. My kids experience that passion every day; they know that there is truly nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than sharing the awesome power of history and literature with them, every day. I’ve always placed modeling at number one on my list as a teacher. Actions speak louder than words, after all. If you don’t love reading (or at least do some actual reading of your own), how can you expect a different attitude from your students? If history isn’t truly important to you, how can you expect it to be so for your students?

Love and passion are some of the most powerful drivers in human achievement and fulfillment: far more so, I think, than rational appeals to good sense. Stop with the lectures about college and education. Slow down on scouring the internet and highly-reviewed books for the best “strategy.” Look in the mirror and ask yourself: is my subject awesome and fun? If the answer is no, get the hell out of the classroom, friend. You don’t belong (I’m looking at you, TFA climbers who are burnishing your resume for law school, even if it’s for ‘social justice’; you too, burned out public education teachers who think the world “owes” you for your service). If the answer is “yes, but…” then we’ve got something! Do you live how fun and awesome it is, in front of your students? Do you choose your favorite things about it, and make them an important part of your teaching? Do your students know that you are pumped to talk all about it with them? This is an incredibly powerful builder of that elusive thing we call “student engagement.” Don’t forget it.


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