Growing up is like growing old… it’s not for the faint of heart. Your body changes without your consent; no one seems to understand you; and you just can’t find the words to communicate what you really think. As teachers we spend most of our waking hours with young people in this very state, so let me clue you in to five things your students want you to know, but will never tell you. These untold secrets are the key to authentic student engagement in your classroom.
1) They want to be an active partner in learning.
All students—even the shy ones, even the adolescent loners—want to be involved in learning. They don’t want to passively acquire knowledge, that’s not really learning. Even if they are auditory learners who process information easily by listening to a lecture, they still yearn to be a partner, to have an equal role in the learning. Not every student wants to act out an historic scene or create a diorama, but to truly enjoy learning, you have to be vested in it somehow, and that means you have to have some skin in the game.
Find an authentic way to engage them actively and equally as a learning partner. Introduce content through active discovery, customize content to activities they are already vested in, or offer alternative assessment options that require active participation from your students. Be the teacher that gets them into the driver’s seat of their own life. They’ll thank you later.
2) They want you to be honest.
Adults lie to kids all the time. We are desperate to maintain an illusion of a perfect world in which all is fair and good, and we the parent/teacher/adult know all the answers and can protect the innocent from harm. Sure, children need to feel safe, and it’s great for them to see the adults in their life as capable and protective—but, they know bull when they see it. If you’re not honest and truthful, they don’t feel safe, they feel uneasy.
So, when you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know. Then, work together to find it. When you aren’t all that interested in what you’re teaching on a given day, share that. Then share why you are teaching it anyway and model how to connect it to something you do care about. You can’t always be truthful about what is going on (your personal relationship is rocky, your principal is a jerk, etc), but you can always be truthful about how you feel. That’s a good place to start, and something your students will greatly appreciate—though they’ll never say so.
3) They want you to challenge them.
If you asked a student whether they’d rather have an easy “A” or a hard-earned “B,” they’ll almost certainly say the easy “A.” Nobody is going to ask for challenging work that pushes them beyond their comfort zone. But they need it, and they actually want it, even if they don’t know it themselves. Consider gaming. Everyone starts out intimidated by all the options and the not-always-intuitive commands and secret maneuvers. Yet, once you master any one of those features, the thrill is great enough to keep you pressing toward even more challenging obstacles. When you conquer something easy for you, you feel proud; when you conquer something challenging for you, you feel unstoppable. Who doesn’t want that?
Never back away from challenging your students. Yes, it’s more work for you. You’ll have to support them when they get frustrated. Encourage them to persevere and resist the urge to throw them the lifeline. You’ll both be glad in the long run.
4) They want to do good in the world.
The millennial generation and those that have followed are gaining a bad reputation for being entitled and disrespectful of authority. In truth, there is a selflessness and commitment to the greater good that shines in the younger generations. Think of all the upstart companies who are donating part of their profits to philanthropic endeavors. Somewhere between the big-hair bands and Beverly Hills 90210 we did something right, because nowadays it’s cool to give back and today’s students thrive on it.
Use this charitable charm to your own (and the world’s) advantage. Connect what you’re teaching to a cause that the students care about. Teaching money? Raise funds for local organization. Teaching ecology? Conduct a study of your town’s pollution and get it published in the local paper. Teaching literature? Bring the literature to underserved populations in your community. Not sure of how to connect your lesson to the world around you? Ask your students. They’ll probably surprise you not only with their ideas but also with a heightened level of engagement.
5) They want to know they matter.
More than anything, students are human, and the one thing all humans want is to know that they matter. It takes strength beyond their years to come right out and ask if they matter to you, so they’re unlikely to voice this, but know that they are always—ALWAYS—wondering it.
So, answer this affirmatively and decisively every day. Tell them as a class, tell them as individuals. Tell them any way you like: You’re special. You matter to me. I like you. My life is better because you are in it. When it is all said and done, you’re not teaching Math or Reading or Science or Social Studies. You are teaching children. And if they learn this one thing—that they matter—you’ll have done them an invaluable service.