Student Engagement 101

Jim Delisle

We hear a lot these days about the importance of student engagement—that we need to listen to our students, to ask their opinions and respect their views, and to realize that their lives outside our classrooms can complicate their lives inside our classrooms. Of course, these precepts aren't new, just rekindled from a previous generation where relationships between students and teachers were given as much priority as academic benchmarks receive today.

Delisle speaking.jpgBut let me ask a simple question: does anyone enter the teaching profession in order to make kids perform well on Partnership for Assesment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessments?  I'm guessing not. More than anything, it is an idealism about improving kids' lives that attracts individuals to become educators. Sure, we want our students to do well on PARCC-like stuff, but that is seldom the place we get our energy or maintain our optimism. Instead, it is a rose-tinted belief that our presence in our students' lives might actually matter.

Perhaps this new-found emphasis on student engagement is more necessary than it's ever been because, for many of our students, "childhood innocence" has become a contradiction of terms. In my own school years, it was Donna Reed, not Marge Simpson, who was the ideal TV mom; and my favorite childhood stopover, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, didn't have the Big Brother house down the block. Yes, growing up took longer, it seems, when Wally and the Beaver were around, when the greatest fear of youth was getting a noogie from Eddie Haskell.

But today, childhood is serious business and, too often, children are given responsibilities whether they are ready them or not. So, kids get their own house key in case the school bus drops them off before the sitter arrives; they get instructions on how to use the microwave, in case traffic tie-ups prevent on-time family dining; and they get told to tell that now standard telephone lie, "…my mom can't come to the phone right now" to cover up for the fact that someone young is home alone.

Given these circumstances, no wonder childhood has become so serious. And maybe that's not all bad, but I think a lot of it is and here's why: people are adults for 80% of their lives. Once you add in the fully-dependent years of infancy and preschool, that leaves only about 12% of one's life to be a kid.

My personal case in point: Mick. He was more street wise than any of my other 4th graders. Mick always arrived at school before any other kids, which was ironic, because although he was there the longest time, he did the least amount of work.

When the day began, Mick was ready to socialize. At recess, he could be a terror, breaking kickball rules that he, himself, had helped establish. For a September Show-and-Tell, Mick proudly displayed his fake diamond earring, a present from mom's boyfriend, who had pierced Mick's ear in his garage.

I'd been warned about Mick by his 3rd grade teacher. I'd been warned that I'd want to hug him, to give him more than his two sets of clothes, and to take him home for a game of Monopoly or Frisbee. And I did get a chance to do one of these—to hug him—when one day, after school, tough little Mick dissolved into tears because an even tougher 8th grader, Mario, had threatened to steal his new bike; the one that his dad, his real dad, had just given to him. Through his soft sobs and quivers, I saw in Mick the child that he had seldom been allowed to be.

"If Mario wants my bike, he'll take it!" Mick cried.

I just held him, his salty tears darkening my yellow shirt near the crease in the elbow. His small fists clenched me tightly.

"Mick," I asked, "do you have a bike lock?"

"Two of 'em--but Mario will just cut 'em of."

"Not if the bike's right here."  I pointed to the rear door of the portable classroom where I was teaching. "Set it up on the back stairs, and you can double lock it. You'll be able to keep a watch on it all day."

With half-smiling eyes that indicated a cross between hope and despair, Mick looked up and said, "OK."

The next day, an hour before school, I heard a rumbling on our classroom's back stairs and then a knock. I opened the door. "How's that, Mr. D, …  OK?"

Mick kept guard on his bike for the two weeks that it still looked new enough, to steal. No one else knew about our deal (especially the town Fire Marshall!) and no one else needed to. It was just a private arrangement between me, an adult, and Mick, a child, who despite much evidence to the contrary, was still very much 9 years old.

Weeks later, as Mick rode off on his now-muddy bike that was too worn to catch Mario's eye, I was reminded of a thought written by novelist John Cheever: "How far one little candle throws its beam," he wrote, "so shines a good deed in a naughty world."

Mick, you deserved this.

Mick's story takes me back many years, and I'm now closer to the end of my career than the beginning – 38 years and counting. During these decades, I've done what all teachers worth that title try to do: give respect that is not dependent on either academic performance or behavioral norms. Sometimes, this respect comes in big packages like a "soft skills" curriculum, but more often, it is the small stuff we do that shines that beam in the naughty world in which we all exist.

Student Engagement 101, now and forever, begins where it's always been: inside of you.

Jim Delisle is a Distinguished Professor of Education (Retired), Kent State University.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Teaching for High Potential (November, 2017).