Schools are full of difficult students.
The disengaged, the uninterested, and the downright defiant. And every teacher knows that dealing with them is draining.
But does it have to be?
We recently conducted a Customer Service SHSM workshop for a class of 50 “disengaged” students. At least, we were told they’d be disengaged when our well-meaning teacher-host led us into the classroom.
To be honest, I got the same first impression when I entered the room. The students were sitting in small clusters but they were each in their own world. Their eyes glued to their phones and their minds scurrying away from the room.
To the pleasant surprise of our host, however, they didn’t stay that way for long.
Our customer service workshop is based in storytelling. I asked the students to share their experiences being a customer - the good, the bad, and the deliciously ugly. Since misery loves company, these students jumped at the chance to gossip a little. Within minutes, most of their phones were out of mind.
Storytelling is the bread-and-butter of our ability to make sense of the world.
When someone starts sharing a story, we lean a little closer to catch all the details. When we can relate, we want to respond with stories of our own! There’s never a dull moment!
Our teacher host even got in on the action and shared a few stories of his own. The students were right there with him, gasping in disbelief as he described the time he was chased out of a store after asking to speak with the manager. And then he had the class in stitches when he told how he once managed to finagle four extra scoops of ice cream for free (which resulted in an extreme ice-cream headache). After the workshop, this teacher shared that he’d felt really connected to the students that morning. Sharing stories is powerful stuff.
A journalist once lamented to me: “The 3-bullet powerpoint slide has killed people’s interest in learning! Our brains think in stories, not bullet points!” Sadly, many teachers haven’t yet got the message.
Every little kid loves storybooks. Movies, TV, Netflix. Even social media lets you create stories. The best videogames - they create narratives and journeys for the players. It’s all stories!
In our opinion, one of the best investments a teacher can make is to mine your past for stories. Find the connections to your subjects. Search the internet for interesting examples and applications if need be!
Don’t be afraid to tell a bold story - even one that’s a little provocative, perhaps. After all, Hollywood doesn’t make blockbusters about “moderately ho hum” events - they go big! Find a story that’s relevant to your subject, and you’ll have people hooked. Get THEM sharing a story about your subject, and they’ll be engaging each other without even realizing it!
How are your classroom desks arranged? More importantly, why have you arranged them that way?
If YOU wanted to learn something, would you go sit in a small desk behind someone else? How about directly in front of a few colleagues? Of course not!
“But my options are limited!” you exclaim. “We have a square room with square desks, and way too many students most of the time. What am I supposed to do?!”
It’s definitely a challenge, but we’d bet there are options you haven’t yet considered. How could you make your room more comfortable, collaborative, and conducive to learning?
Need some ideas? Sure!
How about something more like a theatre – curved lines of seats with NO desks? This is where you’d lecture or do short presentations. Or set it like a library – some independent spots, and some larger tables for group-work. How about a circle of seats with no desks? Or a U-shape of desks? Or a carpet on the floor? Or cushions? Try bringing in a couch, or a few bean-bag chairs – your students will love it.
Maybe you change it day-by-day? Or from moment to moment? Maybe you could invest in some tennis ball feet to make the desks more moveable without the horrific floor-scraping sounds. If you have a huge room that offers lots of options simultaneously, that’s great, but I’d bet your students could learn to reset the room in under a minute. Most students will be happy to have something physical to do!
Lessons, collaborative work time, independent reading, tests, special guests, big group discussions… each function deserves its own ideal setup. Invest the 2 minutes, and I guarantee you’ll see improved productivity and engagement.
If you’re still stuck for ideas, perhaps the best place to start is with your students. Go ahead! Ask your students if they like sitting in rows; ask them how THEY would design the ideal classroom setup! But only ask if you’re willing to listen.
What an exciting time of year. So much energy and promise and the spirit of possibility.
But, as one of my teacher friends put it, “it’s too bad it only lasts for a week or two.”
Well, with that attitude…
I kid. A lot of teachers just sorta expect the energy to fade after day one. But does it have to? Does student engagement necessarily have to drop after the first day? How can we keep our students wanting to come back to our classes again and again?
It’s so important to recognize that the things we do with students NOW are setting the tone for the rest of our time together. We all know that first impressions really matter!
My friend Mark teaches 4th grade phys ed, and has some great ideas about engaging students. He said, “The key is to set the tone. Get students excited about something on day one, and you can always leave them wanting more.”
He went on to describe his tactic:
Do you remember getting to play with the parachute? It’s the best thing when you’re in the fourth grade! Nothing gets my students more excited than when I walk out of the supply room with the parachute in my hands. It’s like magic!
So, on day one, you better believe I’m bringing out the parachute. They’re gonna have the time of their lives in that first class. After that, they look forward to coming to my class because they know there’s a chance it’s parachute day. And when they show up willingly, it’s easier to teach them new skills and ideas.
It’s so important recognize that the things we do with students now are setting the tone for the class. After all, we all know how long first impressions can last.
There's a great rule in presentation skills: Start strong! When we facilitate workshops, we strive to kick things off with something fun and energizing that helps students find a reason to care about the content. We’ve learned from our favourite teachers that before you can teach the subject, you have to build excitement for the subject!
So ask yourself:
What tone are you setting for your class?
How are you helping students care about the curriculum?
What can you do right now to inspire excitement for your classes?
Perhaps you can start your class with a game, or a demonstration, or even a performance! Maybe facilitate a conversation about the benefits of your class for students - not just in the future, but right now! Maybe encourage students to develop their own goals and questions for the class, or collaboratively create guidelines for technology use or rules of engagement for creative conversations.
Whatever you choose, share your enthusiasm and have fun. Your energy is contagious!
The Beanstalk Project is a group of entertainers-turned-educators with unconventional ideas about how to make education better.