Reaching every student

8 min read

Voice of the Educator

This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In this blog post, educator Cheryl Mizerny shares strategies used by master teachers to help engage and motivate students.

William Glasser said, “Effective teaching may be the hardest job there is.” I tend to agree with him. How else can we explain the sheer volume of books, websites, blogs, courses and consulting firms expressly devoted to the art and science of teaching? In fact, one of the things I am most proud of about my chosen profession is that teachers, as a whole, are already doing a pretty great job, yet most of us explore how to do even better.

One of the ways in which many teachers would like to improve is in their ability to reach and motivate all of their students. While it’s true that there are those who seem to be natural-born teachers, it is possible to learn some of their secrets to keep every student in your classroom engaged and invested in their learning. What do these “naturals” have in common?

First, master teachers seem to be able to develop strong, yet professional relationships with their students. These are the adults to whom students seem to gravitate and seek out on their free time. They earn the fierce loyalty of their students and always get the very best work out of them. This doesn’t happen by accident.

Some ways to develop stronger working relationships with students:

  • First and foremost, don’t prejudge them based on data available to you before the school year. I never look at my students’ files until after I have had them I class for a little while and seen what they can do with my own eyes — including students with IEPs. If this is not possible in your circumstances, then make a conscious effort not to let what you read and hear color your opinion of a child and how you work with him or her. Students appreciate the opportunity for a clean slate. This also applies to any preconceived notions you may have based upon your experience with their siblings.
  • Get to know your students as individuals. What are their interests and hobbies? Seeing themselves reflected in your classrooms goes a long way in establishing buy-in.
  • Make sure that every student in your classroom experiences some degree of success. Even if they have difficulties with the concepts, there must be a way for them to access the knowledge. This can be slow-going, but capitalize on the parts that they do understand, be their cheerleader and celebrate that while they gain competence.
  • Use techniques that allow students to get to know you as a person. While I do not believe it is appropriate to share every detail of your private lives, it is beneficial for them to hear of some of your experiences with school and learning. The best teachers are also storytellers. If they see what you went through and how you are successful as an adult, you can serve as a mentor or model.
  • Above all, be sincere in everything you do and say. Children sense insincerity a mile away. When you tell them something, mean it and follow through. They will lose all faith in you if they believe you are just going through the motions.

Second, talented teachers establish a positive classroom climate where students want to be. Again, this is deliberate and by design. Every one of us has walked into a room and felt as if we don’t belong or aren’t wanted. How much learning do you think will be done if your classroom feels like a hostile environment?

Some ways to develop a positive classroom climate:

  • A mutually respectful classroom is one based upon inclusion, trust and safety. You must make it clear, through your words and actions, that you believe every student in your classroom has inherent value, that you will do nothing to hurt them emotionally, and that you will not allow others to do so.
  • Promote the concept of a growth mindset. Instill in your students that the key word in their learning is “yet.” In other words, they should understand that improvement is possible and be able to say, “I don’t know how to do that . . . yet.” Failure in this type of classroom is inevitable and should be encouraged as learning opportunities. This allows students to accept risk taking and they are more willing to try what you are asking of them.
  • Make a thoughtful effort to be fair in any and all administering evaluation, discipline, and privileges. Nothing turns students off faster than if they think you don’t like them as much as their peers. This, of course, could be just their perception, but this misconception can become reality if not corrected.
  • Teach students the skills of effective collaboration. Placing your students in groups to work is a great idea, but it only works well if they know what a productive team looks and acts like. Teachers tend to assume that students know how to conduct academic conversations because they seem to want to talk to one another all the time, but learning how to focus their energy is a valuable use of your time.
  • Students will not feel fully invested in your classroom if they don’t see themselves. All cultures and backgrounds should be represented to the greatest extent possible. Accept and promote multiple perspectives. Better still, make some of this part of the curriculum.

Finally, plan to devote significant time to how you deliver your content. As a teacher, you are charged not only with teaching your material, but with teaching students. You may be sitting on a vast store of the most interesting knowledge in the world—but it does you no good if your students tune you out. You need to make that material interesting to your students. Make your enthusiasm infectious.

Some ways to effectively deliver content:

  • Relevance is important, especially with older children. To the greatest extent possible, frame your content within an inquiry structure. Providing problem-based, real-world, hands-on issues to grapple with gets students excited and helps them see why and how the material is worth knowing.
  • The content should be challenging and involve critical thinking, but know that some students will need scaffolding and support to get there. Providing this extra assistance ensures their success.
  • Do your research do become aware of best-practices such as making thinking visible, flexible grouping, and brain-based learning, and reflect upon your lessons to incorporate as many as you can.
  • Experiment every year with something that scares you. Not only does this show students that you practice what you preach, it puts you in their shoes as you become a learner. Try something such as gamifying a lesson, incorporating Genius Hour or playing with a new technology. Your students will appreciate the novelty, and you may find something you love and want to do again. This happened to me this year when I turned my choice research projects into Genius Hour (which I called Passion Projects). Nothing I have done in years has been as well received by the students and parents, and my engine was revved as well. Well-worth taking that risk and trying something I’ve never done.

Like all mindful teachers, I constantly evaluate my practice to see if I am doing the best I can for my students. Every summer I spend time tweaking what has worked and determining what new thing I will try. I reflect on what was successful and crashed and burned and make adjustments accordingly. Because teaching is the hardest job there is, I know I will never feel as if I’m doing everything perfectly, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. My lofty goal is to reach every student, every day, every year.

Cheryl Mizerny is an Editor’s Choice Content Award winner. She is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of educational psychology, and currently teaches sixth-grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.

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