What Does Student Engagement Look Like in the New K-12 Classroom?

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Click above to listen to this podcast episode. Below is the transcript for Student-Centered World Podcast Episode 49: “What does student engagement look like in the average classroom?

As teachers, so often we are trying to find the latest gimmick to get our students involved in the classroom while trying to answer the question, “what does student engagement look like?”. But it seems to be a very difficult task to determine whether or not a student is truly engaged in the classroom. The definition of student engagement varies not only from state to state, but school district to school district, and sometimes even teacher to teacher. So, what does student engagement look like? There are some very telltale signs to know whether or not your students are engaged in the classroom.

Ultimately, and if any teacher in the classroom will tell you, there are three different ways that students can be engaged in the classroom and tangibly answering what does student engagement look like. They can be engaged behaviorally, emotionally, and/or cognitively. It is important for students to be encouraged to not just “be engaged”, but you have meaningful experiences within each of those three areas to keep their learning, behavior, and class demeanor on point and advancing their educational goals.

what does student engagement look like

Surely that seems like it’s easier said than done. If you are wondering, “what does student engagement look like?”, this seems like a monumental task at hand to be able to balance all three of these areas for every single student in the classroom.

Here’s the good news though, it’s not.

What do you have a system in play, like a student engagement formula, the opportunities for students to flourish under each of these circumstances becomes commonplace in the classroom. Yes, even for “that kid”.

So, what does student engagement look like, then?

Think of it this way: you know how many rubrics, the standard is “meets expectations”, but everyone should be striving for “exceeds expectations”? That is the concept behind student engagement.

While yes, as a teacher you can craft the life out of your lesson to try and have activities planned so each student is “doing” them, the doing is meeting expectations: you created an activity for them to accomplish and they are doing it.

Would you call this “engaging” though or just doing? Do you think this honestly answers “what does student engagement look like?”

Student engagement is when the student not only does the bare minimum but has the innate drive to do more. They are excited when they get to your classroom each day and hang on to your every word. They want to know what activity is planned or want to dig deeper into conversation to help answer questions that are starting to burn inside of them. They want to not only understand but know more. They learn to appropriately challenge their peers and, on the flip side, also collaborate on their theories.

…and why is this so important? Because these are soft skills that, for whatever reason (and we can debate this another day), are not being subconsciously taught anymore. As a matter of fact, the New York Times published an article titled, “An Adult’s Guide to Social Skills, for Those Who Were Never Taught” and yes, all of these concepts and those that naturally follow are ones that adults (not children, adults) in our society are missing.

What does student engagement look like? It looks like a combination of all these factors and the ability of you, as the teacher, to diagnose where students may be disengaging (and I promise you…when you have a system in place, this is not any more work than you are doing now. As a matter of fact, with that set system in place, some argue that it’s even less).

…but what about the disengaged student?

But I want to be clear about something….you need to break all of this down by student. If you have a particular child in your class who seems to do nothing, and then you can get them to do the bare minimum, then that is exceeding expectations for that specific student, now isn’t it?

Whereas I just suggested thinking in terms of a rubric, there is no “set” rubric that shows whether or not your students are engaged. This breaks down for each individual member of your class in terms of their behavior, emotions, and cognitive ability.

That doesn’t mean that crafting a lesson that you think truly answers, “what does student engagement look like” is harder or even more work. You’re just taking what you have and giving options, student choice if you will, in a way that will spark even the most reluctant learners.

I see you rolling your eyes behind your screen. It makes me sad that so many teachers have become so jaded over this subject.

I say this because, while it is impossible to have a perfect day each and every day in the classroom (we are dealing with children, for goodness sake), when you find a student engagement formula that works for YOU, it is consistent day in and day out.

So, what does student engagement look like? Look around. Are students looking at you when you are talking? Are they asking questions? Do they seem interested in what is going on in class?

If not, what is the game plan to change this?

What does student engagement look like in your school? How do you know that students are engaged?

If the answer is that it looks like kids working quietly on worksheets, then congratulations! You have achieved compliance. But let’s call it what it is. It’s not engagement. It’s compliance. And meh…it doesn’t serve kids very well.

And if your student engagement looks like screaming, hitting, kicking, hair pulling mayhem, then congratulations! You’ve engaged the “flight” part of the fight or flight response. The kid’s blood pressure is through the roof and they are bouncing off walls. But can you honestly say that this was because everyone was super excited about what was going on in class?

So, how do we create engaging learning environments and utilize the power of relationships to actually build a culture of engagement? What does student engagement look like in our own lives?

How can we easily identify when our students need more support and aren’t engaged, versus when they are just acting out because kids will be kids? Or worse…because we’ve taught them to?

Here are a few ideas:

1. If a student is acting out…stop and ask why they are mad. Because that’s what children need from us at times, I believe. Safety + understanding = trust. And once trust has been established, then we can address the other stuff.  Oftentimes, teachers only respond to negative behaviors with a consequence.

We never stop and address the “why” behind the behavior. And why would we? So, they can continue to use it as a weapon against us? I know that’s harsh, but it happens all too often with children who have been marginalized by those in power around them for far too long. Or worse…by those they love and trust most.   

2. We can’t give a child what we don’t have, right? As a teacher, I know that when I am feeling disconnected from my students, or especially when I start to feel disconnected from myself (a sure sign of burnout), then my behavior is going to reflect it. I am probably going to be the least kind person in the room.

Teachers frequently expect so much of themselves and have such high expectations for their students…so when our own emotions are running high, it’s hard for us not to take it out on kids. We are human. It happens. The next time you notice that you are feeling disconnected from your students, take a moment to ask yourself where that is coming from. What’s going on for you? Then do something about it…before it starts affecting your students.  

3. Set expectations for behavior far in advance and make them very clear. (This is not the same as stating rules. That’s for another time.) Watch what happens when you give children choices rather than demands. So, for instance, if you are asking students to clean up before an activity begins, say “I need everyone to put their stuff away so that we can get started with __________” instead of just barking, “Clean up now!”

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It’s about what works for YOU, not the students

Notice I emphasized “you” in that last sentence. You are the ringleader of your classroom. Though I am walking the line explaining that you can do things a little differently to get your Generation Z students excited, the most important person to keep happy in the classroom is YOU. If you are happy, less stressed, have more time on your hands (yes, outside of the classroom, too), then that will trickle down to the students who are in your classroom, leading to their ultimate success…and you will start easily answering the question, “what does student engagement look like” in your own classroom.

I’m going to bet that very few people (if any) have ever explained this in this way to you. Somewhere along the line, we transformed our classrooms into this idea that “the customer is always right”, and we take time out of our own personal lives to try and right the ship. This is why teachers are so stinking tired.

Again, teaching isn’t perfect, but there are ways to reorganize how we do things in the classroom. It took me five years to figure it out, but once I came up with my own student engagement formula, it worked again and again. The teachers I have trained in this method also agree that once it is narrowed down and put into play, it makes a difference they never thought was possible.

What does student engagement look like? It looks like you…functioning at your best because you are 100% prepared for every day, know exactly what is going to happen next, and have the power of knowing that you are in control. You will even have some free time on your hands to catch up with all those things you never seem to have time for!

How do I get there? How can I truly answer “what does student engagement look like” in a way that sticks in where I am comfortable?

1. Think about what you are doing now that doesn’t work

For example, I was patting myself on the back once by saying my students were motivated…until I realized my ‘motivated’ students were only following along with their eyes and ears open because they didn’t want to be called out or talked about. That is NOT engagement. So, I stopped and thought about all the things that were not working (and not fun for me).

2. Think about what successful teachers do

I started to watch YouTube videos of ‘teacher rock stars’ in action and realized that they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary…a lesson plan template, a little bit of behavior management, and some fun activities. I was so excited to realize that this could work for me, too!

3. Eliminate the stressful parts of your day

This is by far the most important part of my process. I was taking on more than I could handle with lesson planning, seating charts, behavior logs, grading tests/papers/assignments, and more. When I stopped taking on the extra things that made me stressed, things started to change immediately. In fact, my stress was cut in half! That meant I could follow through with ‘student engagement’ a lot better…and it would be stress-free.

If you’re wondering if this is possible for you (hint: it is), and you want to see where you already are on this path to true student engagement, take the quiz here to find out not only where you stand, but what some next steps are that you can take in developing your own student engagement formula.

What Does Student Engagement Look Like with the 4 Keys

Answering, “what does student engagement look like” in your own classroom isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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