This year may be the most challenging of our careers. It may also be the most challenging year for our students and their families. Much of what we have been accustomed to in our practice has been disrupted or does not apply in the pandemic.
The struggle to engage students and keep them motivated and committed to learning in this context is far different from what we have faced in normal years. It used to be that routines could be set and followed, students regularly showed up in our classrooms, and distractions at least seemed to be manageable.
Across the nation we hear reports of increases in failing grades, irregular attendance, and even students missing from class. The realization that for too many students this may be a lost year, in addition to the learning disruptions of the past spring, is heartbreaking. Yet, we also know that many factors and forces driving the drop-off in school attendance, engagement, and focus are beyond our control. Families are struggling. Students are often stressed and may be torn between school and dealing with other life demands.
Still, accepting the reality that we cannot control all the forces competing for the attention and commitment of students does not mean that we are powerless and cannot counter them. In fact, we have some very powerful, proven levers at our disposal. When used effectively, they can create a nearly unstoppable force to attract students and build powerful momentum for their learning. Here are five levers we can engage to make a difference.
The first lever is the simple statement “You matter.” When students experience this message in our words and actions, it is nearly irresistible. When we know someone values us, we want to be around them. They are people we can trust. We can take risks with them. On the other hand, when we feel that we don’t matter, it’s an easy choice to go elsewhere and engage in other pursuits.
Second is the clear commitment “I am here for you.” Knowing that someone who values us also stands ready to support us, encourage us, guide us, and is committed to our success can be powerfully reassuring. When our actions reflect this commitment and students feel the reassurance of our advocacy, we can be a welcoming and safe connection in their lives.
The third lever is found in the message “I appreciate having you in this class.” When we have a place where we are welcome and belong, we want to spend time there. Further, when we help students see ways in which they bring value and add richness to the learning experience of others, we grow a sense of community. Being part of a community also conveys responsibility to protect and contribute. There is little in life that is more compelling than feeling needed.
A fourth lever is the message “Struggles, setbacks, and mistakes are important to learning.” Many students have come to believe that in school, mistakes are signs of failure, struggles are signs of weakness, and setbacks are evidence of incompetence. Yet, real learning—learning that involves grasping unfamiliar concepts, learning complex skills, and exploring novel content—often requires mistakes and missteps to achieve success. Children and young people grasp this truth in other areas of life, but grading practices, judgmental feedback, and other forms of shaming too often send a message that in school, anything but perfection is to be avoided. The power of this messaging can be magnified in remote learning contexts, when support is not readily available, uncertainty is rampant, and walking away feels like a convenient option.
Finally, we can reassure students that “smart” is highly overrated. Practices common in formal education settings often send the message to students that fast equals smart, struggle signals lack of potential, and asking questions reveals a lack of intellect. Yet, dedicating time to learn deeply, being willing to struggle until a solution is discovered, and seeking answers are crucial contributors to success in life. What matters is the discipline to persist, commitment to keep trying, and confidence that success will come. Now is the perfect time to reinforce these insights for learners and help them to understand that smart is something they become, not who they are.
Of course, to tap the full power of these learning levers, we need to do more than mention them in passing or post them as a theme. Our actions, our attention, and our expectations must offer constant and consistent reinforcement of their importance and potency.