What Do We Do When What We Do Is Still Not Enough?

Let’s discuss student engagement for a moment.  Not the kind that we wish for.  Not the one we blog about when everything goes amazingly. Where students cannot wait to work, to learn, to explore.  No, not that kind.  Instead, let’s talk about when students dislike your subject.  When they put their heads down.  What we do when students hate what you are doing but still like you as a teacher.  When they groan no matter how much choice you give, how much you ask them to create with you.   Let’s talk about what you do when you seem to have tried every trick and there are still so many days left.  And you asked the students what to do as well and they didn’t know and looked at you like you were crazy because weren’t you supposed to be the expert after all?   Let’s talk about that type of student engagement.

Because that’s what I need to talk about.

Not because I am depressed.  Not because I am mad.  Not because I think it is someone’s fault, but more because this is a real problem and I cannot be the only one that is experiencing it.  The lack of student engagement, the lack of students who want to learn.  Not all but some.  How are we losing kids already by middle school or even earlier?

So what do we do when we have personalized the learning and it didn’t matter?

So what do we do when we have asked students to plan with us and it didn’t help?

So what do we do when they have choice but they don’t want it?

So what do we do when they have voice but they don’t even want to speak up?

What do we do when they know that we care, that we fail and get back up together, that this a community and we are on a learning journey together?

What do we do when we have tried everything we know to re-engage them and none of it has worked?  Do we simply blame ourselves, keep trying the same things, or shake our hands in exasperation.  What do we do when we are supposed to be the expert but we don’t feel like it anymore?

Please let me know your ideas.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

26 thoughts on “What Do We Do When What We Do Is Still Not Enough?

  1. We add “yet” to the end of those questions. Then we take a deep breath, try again tomorrow and remember that our students, like all of us, are complex creatures with so many competing feelings, motivations, fears, and preferences. We keep trying because that’s what we do. And we help each other remember that we’re all trying our best and some days that alone will be what we celebrate.

  2. I appreciate your questions. I, too, have wondered what to do when I can’t seem to engage students no matter how hard I try. I’m learning to not take it personally. As much as we want all our students to engage, to be enthused about what we’re doing, to care what goes on in the classroom, there are also so many things going on for students that are beyond our control. We can’t always know what is going on in their lives outside of school. We also can’t control the way they react to things. Some kids are just not in a place where learning is a priority for them. Maybe learning isn’t valued in their family community the same way it is in ours. I’m learning to let go of needing it to be perfect for everyone. I know that what kids remember of their time with me isn’t the lessons I taught or the activities they took part in. It’s how they felt when they were in my class day after day. Did they feel valued? Respected? Seen? Maybe sometimes that’s enough. Maybe there will be another time when they’ll feel the urge to engage, to care, to participate. It just can’t be all up to me.

  3. Keep going. I kept hitting that wall and started giving up. Nick Provenzano told me to start blogging and following people on Twitter to create a community (directly said to follow you!) and that has helped. It seems like a lot of people are hitting this same spot this week. It was very encouraging to see your honesty and openness and connect with it tonight. Kids got that wall already – they need to see us fight through it first so then we can get them back in it soon! Thanks again.

  4. I agree with all of the above, AND appreciate your honesty. Yes, this is the case for many students. And, I do believe you need to look at this work over time which is really hard to do. You need to see your students beyond the moment, even though the moment matters. This stuff takes so much time. Reading and writing are particularly difficult subject areas for some. Some of our kiddos won’t realize they like reading until they are adults! Heck, I just realized I like writing. Have faith and know what you are doing is giving them a lot. The fact that you care they can feel.

  5. Mind reader. How do you always know what we all go through. At the right time. For those of us who do not just say “I love these kids” but really love them.
    Just reading how you notice them, bouys me. To continue…really loving them. Engaged, or not.

  6. Surprise! Change the routine. Move things around in the classroom. Plan a scavenger hunt. Bring another class in to work on a project. This time of year is a challenge, yet it can be a time of fun creative learning. Students respond positively. I too am bored with the routine.

    • Veronica,
      I think the point she is making is that she has tried ALL of these things and yet is left with apathetic, uninterested students in the end and feels depleted.

  7. I have had these thoughts run through my mind today. Take a deep breath! Tomorrow is a new day! We also need to remind ourselves about the students who are engaged, those who love learning, those who create, plan and do amazing work!

  8. Go on a field trip! Seriously, I am not kidding. Kids need time to recharge. They need to get out of the classroom and discover their curiosity about places they are not likely to have gone to. Use the field trip as something they can earn–with hard work, attendance and great attitude. Then, kids will recharge, rekindle relationships and rework tired habits. (Trying to go with the alliteration there.) Would you like to see my end of year field trip? So much fun! It takes a lot of organization, but is well worth it in the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsIfvRQ6bPo

  9. Pernille,
    I have several of those students in my fifth grade classroom. Those are the ones that are on my mind quite often and I find myself looking at many resources and talking with other educators to find ways to get them to love learning. I have tried many of the things you talk about, as well as many others, and got similar responses. They can’t tell me what they want, they don’t want any of the choices offered and they generally have a negative outlook on learning, or for some they just like to appear that way. As most have stated above, keep doing what you are doing. There is one student in particular that has challenged me since day one and I do have to admit that we have made some progress. Every read aloud we do as a class she says she hates. She has yet to finish a chapter book on her own. And I have recommended several. However, the other day, she did a book talk with another student on our school morning show to promote two of our read a-louds and suggest that other students read the books!!!
    This is an interesting subject to discuss and I appreciate that you are posting what so many of us are thinking.
    Thanks for getting the conversation started!

  10. I’m the parent of a child like you are describing. I’m talking significant shut down. It is challenging all around, no doubt about it. It helped when my husband and I recognized that perhaps our child’s school program was going to look different from others. It became less about academics and more about building relationships and trust to try and get our child to a place where he *could* learn. This does not mean that we do not support learning or academics in our family, quite the contrary!

    One thing you are teaching our kids is that despite what they throw at you, you aren’t giving up on them. You continue to believe in them and offer them opportunities to be included. Not pushed aside. Kids notice this, they remember it. And you are showing the rest of your class that you are not giving up on this child. This may not be measurable and easy to put onto a report card, but trust me, you are teaching them.

    It didn’t work out for our child in bricks and mortar, so now he is at home and I am the teacher. I’m not good at it, not going to lie. But those moments when he engages in something he is passionate about? They happen, maybe infrequently, but they do! And it is beautiful, and I know that he will have more of them when he is ready.

    Being a parent, I always, always appreciated the teachers who chose not to give up on my child. Who continued to find something positive to say about him, even though he wasn’t engaging in the way other kids do. And he remembers these teachers, and speaks of them with great respect.

    You are teaching them. I promise you are.

  11. Maybe they simply choose not to show what they are learning? I have kids that don’t do any daily work or often don’t look like they are engaged and yet they will still know what I need them to (often through a conversation later as opposed to a test or assignment.) What is scarier, in my opinion, is the kids that act engaged but aren’t really learning anything. They don’t get the attention and they slide through.

  12. I am right there with you, except my students are in an AP English class –11th grade rigorous course they chose to take. I’ve got the same pedagogy as you with the individualized learning and the choice. Yet some students refuse to engage. They like me. They dislike that I require them to read something and write a lot. “Please show me improvement. That you are trying.” Glassy eyes and still nothing, and here we are beginning the very last nine weeks.

    If it helps at all, you are not alone. I wish I had a solution, but what works with some kids some years doesn’t always work with others.

    After a conversation with all six of my classes last Friday —with them telling me what they want and how they want to learn–I am more concerned than ever. They asked for test prep. Test prep. Not authentic reading and writing like we’ve done all year. They want me to teach them how to pass an exam that measures their performance on one day out of the year. Makes me ill. I may review a few days, but I refuse to teach to a test, even an AP one.

    I’ll keep showing up and offering all I’ve got to help my students become literate thinking citizens. As I know you will, too.

  13. I drink wine while I wallow in despair! Then I brainstorm. I try to come up with revolutionary new ideas with which to entertain my students or myself….anything to keep my spirits up because the fight is worth fighting. These kids are the future and I don’t take that responsibility lightly so I just refuse to give up on them.

  14. Oh, thank you so very much for this. As a Core French teacher (Grades 5-8), I am here to shout it out to you that you are not alone!

    Part of my strategy is to jump for joy at small victories – and celebrate them with the class. Yesterday, a tiny part of a lesson went incredibly well, and the kids felt that way, and I felt that way, and there was joy in my heart. And I told them that – how good it felt, how I could see in their faces, and responses, and movement that it was good for them, too. It was 5 minutes out of 45, and it was good – and I’m trying to accept that, and build on it.

    22 years into teaching this particular subject, I’m past the point of blaming myself first (though I know that sometimes it’s definitely my fault); I do still often shake my head at the end of the day, but then I try and reflect on what worked and what didn’t; I occasionally have to admit that I may not be able to catch that particular fish (or that particular class of fish, let’s be honest), so all I can do is keep letting them know that I care, that I’m learning along with them, that they can choose to show me their learning in a way that works for them, that I really, really want them to be part of the learning community we’re building.

    One thing I’ve had to accept is that I am only one part of the puzzle in my students’ lives. A very important part, I know, but only one part. I can only do what they are ready to let me do, and there are so many other factors that affect their readiness. My husband calls me a “true believer” with great affection, and I am, but I have had to realize that while I can work to change the climate around second-language education in my classroom, and my building and even my board, I cannot change it in my students’ home (though they may work at it), or in the larger society of the largely unilingual community I live and work in.

    I also sometimes wonder if some of our students just don’t know how to navigate the choice we are giving them; whether some need more gradual release of responsibility; whether some, at least right now, on this day, need to be told what to do, or given less choice. I think it has to do with cohorts of kids and where they’ve been academically before you, and where they’ll go next; how has that community been shaped over the time before they got to you?

    Keep fighting the good fight – you make a difference every single day, every step of the way. You are changing the world, 1 child and one class at a time.

  15. This is a great post, Pernille.

    What would happen if you shared this blogpost with that student? I’m serious. You are showing that you care so much for this student that you are calling in the big guns to ask for help. That has to send a pretty strong message to your student that their feelings and their happiness is important to you.

  16. I second the comment that they may not be showing you their engagement but it may be happening. Some kids just never will show the engagement in the classroom that you’re looking for, although they are able to do what you are asking.

    But please consider – perhaps we need to sometimes honour the student? Realise that it’s their right sometimes to do “just enough” if it’s not an area of their passion?

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  19. Pernille,

    I think it was at that point I stopped being so tied up in content. I shifted the focus from “what we learned” to “how we learned.” In focusing on process over assignment or correct answers, we started to hone in on improving the way we learned. Instead of saying that answer was right or wrong, we asked “how did you get that answer.” We then started to look specifically at failure (a wrong answer or whatever) and analyze how to fix it. Then, when someone else made the same mistake the class already knew one possible solution.

    We also started to specifically talk about how students can use the same processes across content areas. My middle schoolers don’t always realize that strategies you use in music research or sight reading can be used in science and language arts.

    It is certainly frustrating when what you think will work won’t, but remember they didn’t say, “If at first you don’t succeed it’s obviously impossible.” You have to try, try again.

    Best,

    Dane

  20. Great reading. I teach high school math and this issue has plagued me almost every year (I’ve been at this for 13 years, but spent 22 years before teaching in the business world). This year the challenge seems more daunting than other years. Although I have no “solution”, I do echo the sentiments shared above, we keep trying. We do all the things we’ve tried before maybe with a new twist, maybe not. We never give up on our students although we might give a particular strategy or level of topic mastery a temporary break. We also MUST give ourselves a break. The comment about “students not remembering what we “taught” them, but instead remembering how we made them feel” is indeed the most resounding for me. When students are ready, they will master the topics at whatever level they feel they need to; in the meantime, we just must keep giving them opportunities and encouragement. These days, I think we are too impatient as a society (especially in this era of instant everything), and too judgmental in terms of putting value on “grades”, and “winning”. Life is a journey and success is appreciating every step, not judging whether the steps are “good or bad” or comparing them to those of others. Becoming a life-long-learner is one of the aspects of life’s journey for which most teachers are passionate. Letting our students see this passion and incorporate it into their developing journeys needs to be the goal. This happens at many levels, often they are not obvious, but we have to trust that it is happening. A very wise colleague of mine reminds me often that if I’ve had one positive interaction with a student, the day is a success. Keep this as our focus, keep trying new and not so new things, and let each day, each class, each interaction be a new opportunity.

  21. It’s not your job to solve all of the problems of the students. Show them you care, do your best and move on.
    There’s more to learning than what happens on a test and they’ll learn something from the experience. Your job isn’t to put knowledge into their heads. It’s to be a facilitator for when they’re receptive to learning. The rest is up to them.

  22. I go through your exact same thoughts so very often. And to echo what has been already said here, it’s great to know that I am SO NOT ALONE! I think about those kids who just will not engage. I’ve blogged about it a bunch and basically I have to remind myself that our students do not develop at the same rates so we should not expect them all to be ready to do the things we ask of them at the exact times we ask them (if that made any sense):
    http://www.educatoral.com/wordpress/2012/03/12/student-engagement/

  23. Thanks for this post. I think we often feel like we are the only ones with those students — that all other classrooms, and blogged about classrooms have perfect students with 100% engagement. Those students that somehow don’t engage — those are the ones that keep us awake at night. The ones that we continue to try to figure out and reach — often when the students don’t seem to want to even help themselves. Thank you for starting this conversation.

  24. This is such a challenging problem that we all face now and again. Thanks for bringing it up as a legitimate teaching problem. I find that talking to colleagues always helps as they often have a different perspective or idea to consider. Talking to teachers who have taught the student before also helps because they not only share strategies that they have found to work, but also offer a glimpse into the background of the student which always helps.

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