By Kyle W. Lickel
That’s what popped in my head as I pondered the question: “What is going to get students to actually want to attend class and be engaged?” If I could put together an entire unit studying explosions—the science, history, math, literature, art, and so on—I bet kids would want to come to class. Then, that passing thought got swept away in the whirlwind of teaching, grading, planning, and managing behavior.
Later I thought, “What is it about ‘explosions’ that made me think of it in the first place?” The excitement? The surprise element? The heat and light? Even though I couldn’t dedicate an entire unit to explosions, I could try incorporating some of those effects (hopefully without the destruction). Maybe it would make a difference.
1. The Excitement
On the first day of school, I show a short video to my classes. In it, the narrator says: “We’re really glad you’re here. We don’t say that enough to each other here, because, well, life gets busy” (SoulPancake, 2014). After the video, I promise my students that I will do my best to tell them “I’m really glad you’re here” at the start of each class period, every single day. The simple fact is that I don’t truly know what is going on at home for my students. I don’t know who else is there to speak positivity and worth into their lives, so I decided that I am not going to leave that to chance.
Being excited to tell my students, “I’m really glad you’re here,” every day is something that “communicates one powerful, overarching idea: We are safe and connected” (Coyle, 2018, p.15). When students feel safe and connected, they show up and engage. They trust their teachers and advocate for themselves because they believe they will be heard and helped. As teachers, we are given a few precious minutes every day to have an impact on the lives of children. If that opportunity isn’t worth getting excited about, I don’t know what is.
2. The Surprise Element
When people go through unexpected experiences, the natural human tendency is to stop in our tracks, try to find understanding, shift our perspectives, and share with others (Suttie, 2015). In these moments of pause and reflection, we, as educators, can truly do some good. So how do we create moments of surprise and reflection? One simple answer is to be the “surprise.” Make connections where students may not expect them!
If we truly view ourselves as role models, then the successes and challenges in our personal lives should reflect the lessons that we have learned. When we teach, we need to think about those lessons that actually made an impact on our lives and try to transfer those values and skills to the students in front of us. This will “empower students with knowledge that will contribute positively to their lives” and let them know that what we are doing in the classroom matters (Sanfelippo & Sinanis, 2016, p. 84).
3. The Heat and the Light
Even with a sense of purpose, students feel lost sometimes. It doesn't mean they’ve lost hope; they just need a little heat and light. Our classrooms should be places where students want to be because they feel warmth and guidance—through the way we act, communicate, and even grade assignments. As Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle put it, “If students take risks and we grade every stumble, they will stop moving” (2018, p. 128). Students need their teachers to walk alongside them, give them what they need, and care about their successes.
Think about the warmth you feel and the light you have been able to share when someone really, truly listens to you. You feel valued and valuable. Our students feel the same way when we listen to them and invest our attention into their lives. A skyscraper of trust and rapport is built when a teacher focuses on a student who has something to share.
As teachers, we have to be intentional. Planning, explaining, encouraging, grading, and reflecting will always exist in education. The thousands of other things to which we dedicate our time are not going to disappear, either. Students, on the other hand, do move on without us. We are given a few precious minutes each day to have an impact on the lives of children who will grow up and become adults someday. Make them count.
Mr. Lickel is an educator in Lombard School District 44 in the Chicago suburbs. He has also taught high school and middle school English and directed adventure and outdoor education programs, focusing on team building.
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code. New York: Bantam Books.
Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sanfelippo, J. & Sinanis, T. (2016). Hacking leadership: 10 ways great leaders inspire learning that teachers, students, and parents love. Cleveland, OH: Times Ten Publications.
SoulPancake. (2014, Oct 9). Kid President’s Letter to a Person on Their First Day Here. [Video]. YouTube.
Suttie, J. (2015). Why humans need surprise. Greater Good Magazine.