Most teachers are passionate about their subject matter, but few join the ranks simply based on their love of knowledge. No, most of us have a deep-seated drive to become change agents: We want to connect with others and make a difference in the lives of young people; we want to show them how much they know, not how much we know. A big part of engaging students means injecting a little personality into our pedagogy. To help you do this, we’d like to share five tips from Stella Erbes’s book, What Teachers Should Know But Textbooks Don't Show.
Pedagogy with a personality: 5 Ways to Start Engaging Students
Start attending school activities
After a long day in the classroom, we might wonder if we have enough stamina to hang out for another hour and a half for the baseball game or band concert to start. Understandable, but attending school activities has a big payoff that can help strengthen your relationships with students both inside and outside the classroom.
Here’s a personal example: In high school, there was a math teacher who I did not particularly get along with. One evening, I saw him sitting on the bleachers during our baseball game. The next day, he approached me in the hallway and said, “That was a really great game you played yesterday. You throw quite a curve ball.” This one encounter completely transformed our relationship. I still struggled through his class, but I started working harder, asking questions and staying after class to talk with this teacher simply because I respected him.
Acknowledge the staff as a part of the team
Let’s face it, we need the staff—librarians, counselors, athletics directors and secretaries—as much as our students do. The office staff keeps track of our attendance records, relays messages, delivers our mail, guides and counsels our students, and the list goes on and on.
Given that, we must treat them, as Stella Erbes puts it, as “equal contributors in the educational enterprise.” This means promptly responding to their requests, returning paperwork in a timely fashion and doing everything possible to dismantle hierarchy (if it exists). We are all members of a community and we must unite for the common good of our students.
Be purposeful about spending time with your colleagues
Our friends and spouses do the best they can to listen and understand our lives in the classroom, but they lack the context, the “in-the-trenches” experience, that truly allows them to relate.
Once you’ve settled in and identified the colleagues that you connect with, try organizing (or joining) a bi-weekly group. Meet during planning periods or at the end of the week at a local coffee shop. If, as Erbes puts it, “the school year is to be viewed like a marathon, then reaching each mile marker throughout the year should be celebrated.” Find creative and relaxing ways to connect and encourage one another as you conquer the school year together.
Nurture the self-esteem of students
Although we should nurture self-esteem in all of our students, Erbes reminds us that those with special needs can “easily enter a downward spiral that leads to negative self-esteem if they are continually unable to meet the expectations of a regular classroom.”
We may have the best intentions when we ask students to stay inside for recess so we can give them extra help on their work, but students often see this as punishment. Some students may always need extra time to complete a task, even if it appears simple to us. Asking students to stay after class or skip recess will do more harm than many teachers realize. Erbes suggests finding “learning outcome[s] to suit the capabilities of individual students”—things like correcting in a non-threatening color, offering short, but encouraging comments along with your constructive criticism, and allowing students to go to recess even if all of his/her work is not complete.
Vary your lesson plans
Most of us know that rehashing the same teaching format can dry up our students’ (and our own) enthusiasm. Along with varying your lesson plans and teaching strategies, try rearranging the room. Rows of desks may be suited for test days or lectures, but try rearranging the room in a circle so that you are sitting with your students. Have a classroom discussion, put students into groups of four or five, or place a large blanket on the floor and conduct your classroom activities right there on the floor. Students will welcome these changes.