Student Engagement Starts with Leadership

Marci, a junior, sat sideways in one of the student desks pulled into a circle next to me as students gathered to chat on the last day of school. After making sure that their writing folders were complete and filed away until next year, there was little to do except wait for the all-call from the principal to clean out their lockers.

Students were calm and reflective. Marci, a highly intelligent, quiet student with an artistic flair, tilted her head to the right, looked me in the eyes and said, “In this school, people are just kind of skating by.” I looked at her, nodding with interest. She continued, “I just feel like there is no inspiration for what goes on here, and everybody just kind of exists and slides along.”

Her peers jumped in at that point and, sadly, shared with me the lack of inspiration they had experienced during that year of school.

I remember this vignette because I was struck by how on target the students were in their impressions, the year having been a difficult one for the teachers and staff in the building. Building leadership had turned over from the previous year, and somehow, our staff pride in our jobs and in who we were, collectively, had vanished.  Something had changed with the leadership change, and it had to do with feeling supported in our work and feeling a common sense of purpose–that we were involved in something larger than our individual subjects and classrooms. I appreciated the moment of honesty with the students, breaking through some of the adult pretending we do when we want to believe that the students can’t see what is going on.

Leaders must be aware of their influence on the inspiration of others in the building.

Leaders must be aware of their influence on the inspiration levels of others in the building.

Four years later, I was standing in the lobby of another high school where I worked as a district administrator.  Graduation had just ended and families, teachers, graduates, and others were milling about the grounds. As I stood next to the superintendent, a tall, lanky graduate named Mike approached her and thanked her for “all of your support”, his tassel still dangling next to his face. It was clear that this was a continuation of an exchange they had had at an earlier time.

With little prodding, he offered this message to her. “I still think this school could be a lot better. There are some teachers who really cared and did a good job, but for the most part, it’s a sleepy place.” He shook her hand, she thanked him for his candor, wished him luck, and that was that.

With 27 years of accumulated education work behind me and plenty of exchanges like the two shared, it was not a shock to read the “State of America’s Schools” report, published recently by Gallup, stating that only a little more than half of the students and  just 31 percent of the adults in the schools report being meaningfully engaged in daily work.

CTl's Project Based Learning model authentically engages students and teachers in deeper learning.

CTl’s Project Based Learning model authentically engages students and teachers in deeper learning.

summary of the report references the “ecosystem” within a school, and marks the interaction between administrators, teachers, and students as a critical underpinning of engagement and learning.

The notion that human beings in a school, whether they are teenagers or 40-somethings, have social and emotional needs to connect their whole selves to their work should not need a research study to garner attention. We should just listen to the students to find out what motivates them. The answers look a lot like adults’ answers with regard to autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If education is truly meant to prepare students for life, shouldn’t school-life mirror real life as much as possible? How many times in our adult lives do we have to complete thinking activities in isolation (worksheets) or bubble multiple choice tests? Not nearly as many times as we have to collaborate with others on a project, problem-solve an issue by researching it and thinking through solutions (authentic literacy), testing ideas and models and redoing them. Rarely is real life boring. Why should school be so?


To learn more about how CTL can help your school engage students in authentic learning, visit our web site.

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