Three ways to engage students from day one – Jon Tait

Thursday 21 March 2019, Teacher Training

by Jon Tait

Three ways to engage students from day one – Jon Tait

Jon Tait
100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Engaging Learners

There was a time when as a new teacher entering the profession, the first and most important piece of advice you heard from an experienced colleague was… don’t smile until Christmas! This was meant to make you a tough nut to crack in the classroom, and show your students that you were not to be messed with. However, times have changed and more teachers now live by the rule that you need to build strong and positive relationships with students if you want to get the best out of them. Ruling by fear will only get you so far, and will never get students to run through brick walls for you and give you their very best.

From compliance to engagement…

When I speak to teachers in my own school and others that I support in, or in my professional networks, I often ask them if they’ve got compliance or engagement from the students that they teach. Experienced classroom practitioners know that the two are very different from each other, but might be mistaken for one another by the uneducated eye. You might need to generate compliance to begin with especially if you work in challenging settings, but you very quickly need to move to engagement if you are going to stick around for the long haul.

Demanding compliance all the time when the students are not engaged can be a painstaking and extremely tiring experience. Nine times out of ten you’ll leave the classroom feeling exhausted because you’ve been working far harder than the students. On the other hand, when you’ve got a class truly engaged and you’ve built up high-quality relationships with them, teaching can feel like a doddle. Students hang off your every word, want to please you, take pride in their work, and generally love sharing an hour in your company. For every one of us entering the profession it takes some time to reach this utopia, but when you do, you’ll never look back.

Try these three strategies to engage your students and see if you can start moving just past compliance

1) Make it relevant
Far too often students ask ‘What’s the point of this?’ because they fail to see the relevance of what they are doing. You need to make your subject content relevant to your students so that they can engage in it.

Relevance to young people is key if you want them to really buy into what you are doing. They need to feel that it ‘has a point’ and that it’s going to benefit them. Many teachers in many subjects have had to cover content that is seemingly meaningless to the young people of today for too long. However, the shift towards a more skills-based curriculum in many subjects has given teachers more license than ever to use content and scenarios that are relevant to today’s children, so that they can engage them in their learning far more easily.

My top tips for making your subject content more relevant are:

  1. Find out the interests of your students and what makes their boat float.
  2. Use these topics or interests to build your lesson around.
  3. Get your students to demonstrate the skills that you have been teaching them, with the topic they are interested in.

If you ask a disengaged student to write a two-page essay on Macbeth to demonstrate their knowledge and effective use of subordinate clauses, you’ll probably get some resistance. By simply changing the emphasis, and asking them to write a two-page review of their favourite film, ensuring they demonstrate the correct use of subordinate clauses, you’ll probably find a much warmer response.

2) Make it real
Authentic learning experiences are crucial if we want students to really feel their learning. These are the moments that students make deep learning connections, and the moments that they will remember long after leaving your classroom.

We can all get students to learn from a book or via a YouTube clip, or even retell a story that has been passed on between many mouths. But get someone to talk to your students about a personal experience, or someone (even you) that can share emotions that are linked to a story, then you start to create a magical learning environment that students can really relate to.

Students remember real people, they remember real stories and they certainly remember real emotions. Whenever you can, try to tap into real people who can give authentic accounts of parts of your syllabus. You could talk about hurricanes in Geography, but imagine the extra engagement if you could get somebody to tell the real story of when they had to leave their home and run for safety in the eye of a storm!

You can also make subject content real by linking your lessons to things that are happening in the real world. Linking your subject to a big story that is happening in the world will not only engage the students into their learning that they now believe to be real, but it will also provide you with many opportunities to use the countless quotes, photos, videos and articles that are freely available on the internet.

3) Make it local
There are so many ways in which you can make your subject become even more real to your students, by linking it to something local. If your students understand the context and it is part of their local or family heritage, then there is far more chance of significant engagement by not just the student, but the whole family. Every town or village has history, culture and newsworthy events happening all the time. If you can use this to provide the subject content or context in your lessons, then you’ll be on to a winner with the whole community.

The best example of this I have ever seen was an example that Ron Berger
wrote about in his book An Ethic of Excellence. Ron talks about how his students had to do a project on water clarity, and it fit in perfectly with an issue that the town was having with radon testing. The students carried out experiments on the town’s water and even wrote a comprehensive report for the town council into what the town needed to do in order to make the water safe for consumption by the local residents.

The beauty of this project was that all of the students lived in the town, so their report was going to actually benefit the lives and wellbeing of their own families. The motivation to do well went through the roof! Imagine if your own students got involved in a project about their own town or school. Why not check your local council website to see what’s going on?

These top three strategies for engaging students in the classroom are an extract from Jon’s book ‘100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Engaging Learners’ that is published by Bloomsbury Education. You can follow Jon on Twitter @TeamTait