I still have nightmares about a few of my math classes. Everyone remembers The One Teacher They Had or The One Teacher They Heard About in math – the one that randomly called students up to the board to do problems, and let them sweat it out at the board while the other semi-panicked students, witnessing something more akin to a public shaming than to an educational lesson, said blessings of thanks under their breath that it wasn’t their turn … today.
And, all the while, the teacher probably thinks this is engaging their students. Perhaps this type of engagement is more like “we are engaging the enemy” than “my students are engaged in learning”.
I’m not a natural math student, nor do I consider myself a natural math teacher, and math has never come easy to me. (It still doesn’t!) The idea of bringing students up to the board brings up all kinds of weird anxiety issues within myself – because I remember how much stress that method brought to me.
Here are some very small things I do to cultivate engagement in the classroom. None of them are revolutionary or require a teacher to make … really any meaningful changes to the way they already do things:
1) Learn their names, as quickly as you can, and pronounce them correctly. If you don’t know a student’s name, you can’t connect with them. Easier said than done, right? Here are the ways I do it as quickly as I can:
- On the first day of class, have students introduce themselves. If they say their names out loud, you’re not mangling them. Write down the way they’re pronounced.
- Pass out papers, in the beginning, every day. Probably in the beginning you won’t have much to pass out, though, right? Oh, I’ve got the solution for you!
When it comes to what students want to know about me – sometimes I tell students I can’t answer their question, but often I get questions revolving around their mindset of math, like why would I ever want to be a math teacher. It’s illuminating and helps me a great deal. I answer their questions, and each time I hand back something I get to know their names better.
3) After each class, I ask students to complete a half-piece of paper asking them two questions: How was class for you? Do you have any questions, comments, or thoughts? The expectation I have that students will ask me when they don’t understand something is fictive. Some students will, but many students will feel awkward asking questions – for a variety of reasons. This way students know that their questions will be answered, that their feelings are valid, and that (hopefully) I’m here to help them.
As a bonus, I hand these back, so every day I get reinforcement as to their names. Every bit helps!
4) Build a classroom based around self-actualization. I firmly believe that we learn from failure, not from success, and so in the past few years I have completely reevaluated the way that I evaluate. (See what I did there?) I now allow for unlimited exam retakes in class and unlimited homework retries in class. This is a lot more work on my part – especially the exams, since I use computerized homework – but I feel like this is a more organic – and far less adversarial – approach to assessment. From informal discussions I would say that the students feel the same way. Additionally, I have found that allowing for no test makeups is, in fact, a very unjust system – the students most hurt by this are those with children, those who are chronically sick, and those who work more than others.
5) When students know you care about them, you can expect more from them. When I have learned their names, when I reach out to students asking for their advice, when I take their interests and needs into account, and when I listen to them, I can ask more from my students. They have responded in kind. While some students, indeed, would prefer a blow-off class with less work, I have often been surprised by how much students appreciate struggling with material they know they will succeed at – if they know my expectations are just and if they know mistakes don’t doom them. In the fullness of time, I expect to go further with this approach, offering less and less material to students, knowing that they will be able to learn more and more of it through making smaller and fewer mistakes through each iteration.
None of these ideas are revolutionary, but if you try them maybe they would help you with student engagement. What do you do to engage students?