3 Practices to Transform Student Engagement

3 Practices to Transform Student Engagement


Ritch Hochstetler | February 25, 2022 I was teaching in a freshmen class when a student in the front row asked, “What’s that smell?” By this time all the students were looking around the room, and as I glanced up from my notes, there it was!

I was teaching in a freshmen class when a student in the front row asked, “What’s that smell?” By this time all the students were looking around the room, and as I glanced up from my notes, there it was!

On a normal morning, I stood at the door as students were entering the room to personally greet them. But on this morning, I was running late and feeling not quite ready to deliver the lesson, so I was hunkered down at the desk instead of greeting students at the door. The impact of my shift in practice was a bit shocking. Two young men who were normally very engaged in the fist-bump routine we always practiced when they entered the room decided that they needed a substitute to get my attention… so they started a small fire in the back of the classroom by burning their notebook paper.

No worries. As soon as they were discovered, and chastised by the whole class, the “fire” was quickly extinguished and we went on with the lesson. No harm, no foul, right? Over dinner that night, as I shared with my wife what happened, and expressed thankfulness that I would not be held responsible for burning down the school, I found myself scratching my head about what happened and how it was pointing to the inherent power and necessity for connecting with students as an essential component of the educational experience.

Gallup’s research has shown that there’s a drop in student engagement every year from grade school through high school. In a survey of nearly 500,000 students in grades 5-12 in public schools in 37 states, they found that 8 of 10 elementary school students reported that they were engaged. By the time these same students reached high school only 4 of 10 reported that they were engaged, a drop from 76% down to 44%. It’s been a few years since this study, but anyone with a pulse who is watching or working in education today recognizes that these percentages are getting worse, not better. Dealing with COVID has put an exclamation point on all of this.

So where do we go, other than to our counselor to deal with the depression and anxiety that all this produces? Is it a pipe dream to think that we can retool our practices to increase the possibility of re-connecting with students in this current reality? Though not a silver bullet, today I am going to suggest three simple practices for your consideration.

Practice #1: Notice! Notice! Notice!

In light of everything you have to deal with as an educator or youth worker, the most expeditious thing to do is to stick to your script or lesson plan and hope that something gets through the walls of boredom or the plethora of attention sucking devices and developmental distractions. The problem is, if we don’t look up and listen up regularly enough or long enough to know what gets students’ attention, then we miss both the subtle and not so subtle cues that build interpersonal connection. Without this connection, we are like the constant hum of a fan running at high speed in a room – you hear it and feel some of the effects, but it fades into the background and you eventually don’t even notice it’s there.

Over the years that I have spent teaching, mentoring, and facilitating experiences with youth people, one of the biggest mindset shifts that I found essential through the art of noticing is to reframe “distractions” as opportunities. Rather than being bothered by noise or pushback or inattentiveness, this means shifting from irritation to curiosity. Curiosity leads to open ended questions like, “What is being said (literally or figuratively) in the moment about what students are experiencing?” and “How might I change or adapt what I am doing or join with students in what they’re doing in order to create or maintain their connection?”

Practice #2: Embrace Developmental Awkwardness.

When I was in high school we had an exchange teacher from Germany. He was an awesome person, and obviously knew the material. However, he struggled mightily with a group of 12-15 senior boys who were more interested in girls and having parties than eating German torte. One day, as we were joking around, someone in our group contributed a uniquely deadly emission of flatulence into the environment, upon which the united cry went up, “Who died?!” Though I was not the source of the vile odor, several of my buddies pointed at me, and since the class was totally disrupted by this point in time, I was escorted to the principal’s office and informed that I could be suspended for farting in class. I ended up repenting, though my conscience is clean in telling you that it wasn’t me, and stayed in school that day.

What our German teacher wasn’t able to do was to calibrate the way he communicated and the emotions he felt to the rambunctious, awkward, and I’m sure at times disrespectful developmental psyche of adolescent boys. His serious affect was a mismatch for the spirit of fun, adventure, and yes, adolescent humor that permeated our beings. I still wonder to this day what would have happened if he would have shared an epic story of (der Furz or die Blahung) German flatulence that would have put us in our place, or made a word lesson out of it. Would we have become totally dialed in to the lesson that day? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding, “yes!”

Embracing developmental awkwardness means stepping out of your adult mindset to at least make an attempt to attune to what’s going on social emotionally, cognitively, socially, and physically in students. Though there are times and places for “zero level” voice expectations, it’s not normal for kids to be mice that silently scurry about as we sprinkle crumbs of cheesy wisdom. When we become curious and engage with students, moments of attunement become opportunities to channel learning though social emotional bandwidth sufficient to handle the load.

Practice #3: Honor Personality Differences.

In the 1920’s Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, came to the conclusion through his research and practice that people displayed innate “functions” that fell into one of four areas: Feeling, Thinking, Sensation, and Intuition. Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Meyers studied Jung’s research in the 1950’s and expanded his work to include 16 personality types. American Psychologist David Keirsey identified four temperament types in the late 60’s and got together with Marilyn Bates to publish “Please Understand ME” based on these types. In the late 70’s Don Lowry studied Meyers/Briggs and Keirsey/Bates and developed the metaphor of True Colors that divided the 4 types into blue, orange, gold, and green as distinct personality temperament drives that fuel learning styles, communication preferences, values, strengths and weaknesses. Lowry’s model made personality assessment much more accessible, not only for adults but for students.

True Colors® is a simple assessment tool used to help students and adults understand more about themselves and others by identifying their own personalities using the color metaphors blue, orange, gold and green. This allows students and adults to learn the differences in the motivation and communication styles of the personality temperaments, and celebrate those differences. ULEAD’s facilitators have been trained and are certified True Colors Facilitators.

It’s important to check your motives when you seek more information about the way students are wired. If the purpose is labeling them and putting their way of thinking and behaving in a box, then then you should check your character meter. However, if you are truly seeking to honor and celebrate each student’s uniqueness, True Colors is an excellent tool.

ULEAD’s True Colors Student Teambuilding Program

In a nutshell, students with a primary Blue temperament shine brightly in relationships where they experience compassion, empathy, cooperation – opportunities to express their uniqueness and celebrate the uniqueness of others. Students with a primary Orange temperament shine when they have the opportunity to be spontaneous, to compete, to be active, or to take charge – opportunities to have fun and perform. Students with a primary Gold temperament shine brightly when they are “on task,” checking off lists, following the rules – opportunities to plan, organize, be responsible. And finally, students with a primary Green temperament shine brightly when they are called upon to solve problems independently, to be creative, to have visions – opportunities for intellectual stimulation and to show their competency.

In the True Colors model, everyone has the full spectrum of color temperaments in varying degrees. The differences lie in which colors are primary or secondary and which require more energy to access. The research shows that there is a positive correlation between honoring a students True Color Personality spectrum and positive behavior and achievement. Regardless of where students are on the learning curve, tapping into a student’s unique personality temperament helps educators engage and motivate learners on all educational levels. It assists in building rapport, opens lines of communication, increases self-understanding, and brings out the best in everyone.

Noticing, embracing developmental awkwardness, and honoring each student’s unique personality temperament may not dissolve all the barriers to engaging with students. However, these three simple practices are signposts on the pathway that, when joined with humility and a commitment to be a life-long learner, turn into moments of connection and discovery essential for the learning journey.

Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD

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