According to 5 million national surveys done by Gallup in 2018, less than half of our nation’s students in grades K-12 are engaged in school. Less than half?!? Think about that for a moment. School takes up the majority of those 13 years in their young lives. For what kind of success are they being set up if they’re spending that time feeling disengaged and unmotivated? Am I the only one alarmed by this? Isn’t this an absolute reflection of our nation’s educational system?
What does engagement actually mean, though? I looked it up and was actually surprised by the definition. The “action of being engaged” is “participating,” “partaking,” “sharing,” “involvement.” That’s it. Just being part of something. Students need to be included in the decisions related to their learning. Teachers need the freedom and flexibility to stray from the script and develop authentic relationships and learning experiences for their students.
I’m not sure if project-based learning is the answer to this crisis, but I believe it to be a start. Not every project is a success. Not every project strikes all students with as much enthusiasm as we hope it will. Our current quarter project, though, has everyone buzzing with excitement. As I looked around my room last week, I knew we had struck it big with this project. Students who often lag behind with their work and struggle to stay on track were asking for help and checking things off their lists left and right. They were engaged. For some reason, this project grabbed them, and because of that, those students will feel success in school this quarter. Who knows, maybe that feeling of success will lead to more next quarter. We can’t get this lucky with every project, but we can strive to make every future project just as engaging or more.
Experiences like these cannot be created for students if teachers are disengaged with their work. According to those same Gallup surveys, our nation’s secondary teachers are worse-off than our students with only about 1/3 reporting high levels of engagement. People become teachers because they have a flame within them. A flame to inspire, help, and mold young minds. Teacher engagement drives student engagement, and unfortunately, many of the conditions in our nation’s existing educational system are extinguishing those flames at a rapid rate.
An 8th grade student stopped in the middle of her work yesterday and asked me from across the room, “Ms. McMahon, do you ever start a project wondering where you’re going to go with it, but then once you get started you get so in the zone that you just don’t want to stop?” That’s engagement. Students learn very quickly how to go through the motions, and those students grow into adults joining the work force. We don’t want citizens to just do as they’re told. We want them to participate, to partake, to share, to get involved … to engage. All students deserve to feel that “in the zone” feeling in school. All teachers deserve it. And furthermore, all people should strive to feel that regularly in our own personal and professional lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?