Why Are My Students Disengaged?

By Pernille Ripp

I used to think that when students were disengaged it was their own fault, and while sometimes that is still true, I have found in my years of teaching that a lot of the fault lies with me as the teacher.  Yet, realizing that I may be the cause of my students disengagement is hard to swallow.  It certainly has not done wonders to my self-esteem, and yet, there is something liberating about realizing that while I am a part of the problem, that also means that I can fix it.  Or at the very least fix the things I control.  Student disengagement is something I can do something about.

But why are students so disengaged?  What lies behind the restlessness, the misbehavior, the bored stares?  Every year I survey my students throughout the year, and particularly on those days where nothing seems to be working.  I ask them simply to explain what is going on and they share their truths with me.  So here are their truths on student disengagement.

Students become disengaged, because..

They feel no connection to you.  I often notice that students are much more off task in the beginning of the year when we don’t know each other, right after the honeymoon is over.  This is when we seem to be in limbo and so I spend a lot of time having a lot of conversations with my students, I share stories from my life, and I speak to them in the hallways.  Students will work for you if they like you, so I try to be likable.  It may seem simple but it is repeated so often by my students.

They feel no urgency.  I have 45 minutes per class so the urgency is always there.  It is not the threat of a deadline that makes my students work at a faster pace, it is the promise of the next adventure that lies ahead.  My students and I make a deal that if they work hard and stay focused then I do not give them homework.  They know that they are given as much time in class as I can give them so they know to use that time well.  The students that don’t; they have to do the work outside of school.

They feel there is no purpose.  I use to assume that students knew what the greater purpose of something was, but they don’t.  So now we spend time deconstructing our standards and we speak about the connections between things.  We speak of why we are learning something and how it fits into our lives, not just how it is preparing us for the next year or for college.  We speak about how the learning we do right now allows us to become better human beings.

They feel they have no power.  When students feel powerless in our rooms, most become disengaged.  Particularly those kids who have often had behavior issues in the past.  Those are the kids, in particular, that need to feel like they have more control over their day.  This is why I proselytize about student choice.  Give them choice, even if just in a minor way like telling them they can sit wherever they want.  Give them power over their day so that they feel like who they are matters.

When the teacher talks too much.  We do.  We need to stop.  We need to set a timer or whatever will stop us from going on and on.  Give them knowledge then let them work with it.  Give them a chance to speak as well, after all, they are the ones that should be doing the learning.

When the teacher does not personalize.  How often do we know whether a child already knows something?  How often do we plan to find out so that we can create new learning experiences for them?  If a child has already mastered something, then let them work on something else, something more challenging.  But to do that, you have to find out what your students know.  Ask them whether through a survey, an informal pre-test, or a conversation.  Not everyone comes to us as a blank canvas.

When they do mostly worksheets.  I have moved far away from worksheets over the past few years, but that does not mean all worksheets are bad.  If a worksheet gives foundational knowledge that will be used for further learning then it can be ok.  However, if using a worksheet is part of the routine every day, or is not used for anything more, then there seems to be no deeper learning purpose behind it.  Students have told me they feel like when most teachers give them a worksheet it is because we are too lazy to teach them.

When the learning becomes something to just get through.  I have done this, said that we just need to get through this to get to fun thing.  Yikes.  When we say this, students automatically disengage from the task, after all, if teachers see no value in it, why should they?  Yes, there are things that we don’t love to teach as much so then make it better.  If it is boring or a struggle for us, then think of how it feels for the students.  We are in charge of bringing the passion into our rooms.  Not just the students.

While there are still days in our classroom where I know that students were not as engaged as I hoped, there are more great days than bad.  There are more days where students stay on-task, where they get involved, and where meaningful learning occurs.  Every year, I start over with my students and how to best engage them.  Every year I learn a new way to keep them on-task.  Yet I have learned that the biggest thing for me is to keep the above list in mind at all times.  Even if I feel like I have planned the very best lesson.  Even if the day before went really well.  I do not take my students’ engagement for granted, instead it is something I work for.  Do you?

PS:  For ideas on how to evaluate why students are becoming disengaged tune in tomorrow.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

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