advice, aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, being me, student choice, student voice

Why Are They Disengaged? My Students Told Me Why

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!

48 thoughts on “Why Are They Disengaged? My Students Told Me Why”

  1. Teachers truly are in charge of bringing passion into the classroom. As educators we must meet the needs of our students. Doing so will equal success. Thank you for a thought provoking post.
    ~Suzy Leopold

  2. Great post. Thanks Pernille! So much food for thought. I need to have some conversations with my students. Looking forward to the follow up post.

  3. The thing that makes Pernille’s writing and work stand out is the level of empathy going on; this is truly inspiring! Here’s an additional angle on this: my favourite definition of Engagement right now s coming from people at the forefront of Marketing: “ENGAGEMENT is your audience’s emotional investment in you and what you’re doing” from Danny Iny. I like this. Wondering what others think?

  4. They are disengaged because a classroom will NEVER be as exciting as a PlayStation 4, iPhone or social life with their peers. This country will be focused on the WRONG thing like we have been for the last 20 years as every other country CONTINUES to pass is by. Ever wonder why Germany, India, Korea etc all these countries keep passing is in March and Sciences etc? Do you think it’s because their teacher’s do a better job of “engaging” them? No!!!! It’s their culture, it’s what’s expected of them. We will only continue to fall behind in this country. We focus on the WRONG things.

    1. While I think there is some truth to your thoughts, I don’t believe they are entirely accurate. We are not passed by by every other country, and I know that teachers in other countries also work on engagement. It seems too simple to simply blame the mindset of students and the culture I teach with high expectations, as do many of my colleagues. And I certainly have high expectations of my own children as do many others I know.

      1. From everything I’ve read about the education systems in Asia, I’d argue they create the ultimate in DISengaged students. Their system emphasizes (and rewards) rote memorization. The result is students with reams of facts in their heads but little ability to make use of the information. This is one reason Americans remain innovators despite the “math and science gap.”

      2. As other comment said, classroom will be never more engaging than PlayStation or cellphone. Students do not have their priorities straight. I don’t know if you teach high school math, however, with the current curriculum, it is very difficult to make students engaged. (Schrodinger’s education: Simultaneously demand “differentiated” teaching for each students and “standardized” testing) Also culture is big thing in learning. Simply put, if your peers are not interested in learning, you may not as well, however, if your peers are interested and tried to learn, you may as well. Imagine how much your peers impact you especially during high school years. It is very important… In my school years in South Korea, students do realized that it is competition for the future, so they and their parents take education seriously. The result? very academically successful country. Side effect? Very high teenage suicide rate. Here in United States? I don’t know where I should start. Public schools are criticized for indoctrination and not teaching life skill, because college is not for everyone, but main focus is on college prep.

      3. Culture is mainly responsible though. I teach at a school where the student body is 99.99% “x” – the same ethnic group as I am. On the one hand, my children go to a school where the student body is overwhelmingly “y”. The difference is night and day.

  5. And why can’t schools build curriculums around this feedback? They are telling us basic, common-sense stuff. When learning is personalised with room for autonomy, collaboration and creativity…the intrinsic motivation goes up! In other news, the sun rises in the east, ice cream melts in the sunshine! I’m trying to get in-school design agencies set up for those who are interested:

  6. I have adhd that was diagnosed but not dealt with. I didn’t know what to do about it and I was misunderstood because it wasn’t bad enough that I noticeably came across that way. But it was definitely bad enough to affect my performance, and I could feel that it frustrated my teachers which made me self conscious…

    1. Hi Zander, I’ve some dyslexia type issues but my English teacher protected me from being tested because the help for it is quite blanket and she didn’t want it to knock my confidence in writing; knowing this encouraged me to figure out much more on my own, in my own way. There will be resources online and groups on this Zander. One I can personally recommend is called ‘Gifted Adults’ on facebook ( which is ran by a friend of mine; a blogger, ex school teacher and now home school mum. There was recently a conversation on adhd as it seems many of us in there are diagnosed or have tenancies towards it. There was so much support in the thread and many ‘ahhh, you too!’ moments, so you’re more than welcome to join in with us as a starting point.

  7. Thank you for your post. I’m reading it again and again as I struggle with a new school and students who are disengaged. I have been working on engaging them through a different teaching style than they’re used to, and they’re responsive. They’re really responsive. Thanks for putting everything clearly into words.

  8. Getting to know your students and letting them get to know me … I keep hearing how important this is. I’ve seen it in my classroom. Yet, administration says to skip this and stick with math only. I’m not talking about chit-chat throughout class but before and after. So how does administration find out … asking students. Kids think they are sharing great info and think they are making US look good. Sigh.

    1. I’d be careful about that because you could lose the student-teacher relationship. I think it’s okay to share your background if you think it will help motivate them. For example, if you came from a similar upbringing and circumstance. You could be the only college grad and professional they know that came from similar background. But I wouldn’t get too buddy buddy because then they will think they can slack off assignments and expect you to be lenient.

  9. I entirely agree with John and find this opinion piece entirely the reason why we will continue to experience disengaged students in our classrooms. We just keep setting the bar higher for ourselves when it’s the students who should be meeting our expectations and not the other way around. There are simply too many teachers willing to cave in and cater to the whims of their students because they want to be friends more than a respected adult. What happens is that children will simply keep pushing the boundaries if you let them. First and foremost, some teachers are too concerned about being popular, well-liked, and hoping for students to like their class. While all the aforementioned would be nice, the only focus should be teaching the material. Our country has made a grave mistake by holding teachers accountable for how well a student has learned the material. Obviously, there are bad teachers but good students will always find a way to learn the material. When I find my students disengaged, I accept that they might not find my class/lesson interesting at all at the moment and I express that. I also tell them it’s okay. However, I also tell them that school is conditioning them for the real world in that they will have to face many uninteresting things. Paying the bills, up keeping their homes, and yes, the reality is that they might not work at a job that they particularly enjoy, etc. But nonetheless, these are things they must do in life. If they can push through school, including classes and lessons that don’t engage them, they will be more successful in life because persistence and endurance is what gets people through in life. I often use sports as examples. Do pro-athletes get to quit when they’re losing a game? Why is it that a losing team can suddenly catch up and defeat their opponent? Runners get very tired, how come they don’t just stop running? Why do coaches make players run laps? Too improve their stamina and endurance. Usually this talk gets them going again because I tell them that success is in their favor but only if they’re willing to take it. I’m not going to turn myself into a clown and entertain them in the hopes that they’ll complete the given assignment. Their grades are in their hands. I’m simply giving them information and just another clog in the wheel of conditioning them for life as adults. Btw, the advice I give my students is the same that I give to my own children when they’re disengaged with school.

  10. BTW, I learned the most from strict teachers who taught at the front of the class, old-school style. The idea that we constantly have to entertain students like they’re an audience at a Broadway show only sets us up for failure. The real problem with American students is that nobody is willing to tell them reality can be harsh for the unprepared. This explains the nanny state we presently live in where the least productive members of society believe they are the most entitled.

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