A Requirement, Not An Invitation: How To Engage Students


Have you ever googled “How to engage students?” out of desperation or curiosity?

I have….and what I found was a lot of quick tips and how-tos.  The problem is, I think that looking at engaging students comes from a deeper well than just trying some new techniques.  Let’s be real – – if it were about a simple technique, wouldn’t we ALL be doing it and reaping the benefits right now?

While I don’t have the silver, magic bullet for you (Sorry!), I do know what you need to do to engage your students – or engage them in a bigger way this school year.

The secret?  It’s all about you.  I know it, you wanted me to make it about the students, but it’s really not.

Here are 7-Quick-Steps for you to implement RIGHT NOW to engage students in a way that you haven’t before:

  1. Realize that engagement starts with expectation.  Treat students like they already ARE engaged…and they usually follow!
  2. Know that increasing student engagement is a habit.  Don’t give up – if you expect it and then reinforce, reinforce and reinforce, you WILL see improvement in engagement. Don’t give up!
  3. When you see low levels of engagement or general apathy to the lesson, check yourself first.  It might be that your energy isn’t very high or that you’re “phoning it in” without even knowing it!  There is POWER in “acting as if”…as if you are pumped!  As if you are ecstatic about the content!  Put your acting game face on!
  4. Engagement isn’t natural – If you are using a new engagement technique, realize that you must teach it, model it and tell students when they’re going to use it – and then practice, practice, practice before you expect it to be done.  Set kids up for success!
  5. Student engagement is built simultaneously on habitual use of engagement techniques AND keeping things interesting!  Find a balance between using techniques that students are confident in, but switching it up periodically so they don’t become stale and “phoned in”.  If you tune into your kids, you’ll know the exact point that you need to switch it up.
  6. Plan ahead for engagement.  While you might catch a break periodically with some bird-walking or “teachable moments”, 95% of your engagement should be planned for.  Ask yourself “Where do I need my kids to be super charged and into the content?”  And then work to teach them what it looks like to be engaged.
  7. Don’t assume that students know what engagement looks like and feels like.  I see that a lot of kids are struggling to engage because they don’t know what it is to be engaged!  If you’d unlock the secret for them, I bet they’d be raring to go.

Here’s what I know for sure: If you invite students to be engaged or more engaged, there’s a possibility that they won’t choose to join you!  BUT, if you structure your lessons so that they’re required to engage, you’re MUCH MORE LIKELY to see a big leap in engagement level.  It’s up to you!

Nuggets from the trenches…


So part of what we do when we go into schools is demo in classrooms – it really helps to SHOW teachers what certain techniques look like with THEIR KIDS.  Always a really fun and powerful practice…plus allows me to keep up my teaching chops!

When I go into classrooms, I don’t do a ton of prepping of the kids – – I think some of the most important “prep” (for management, engagement, explicit teaching, etc.) is done in front of the observers.  Kind of a “real life, real kids” commitment that we have in the field.

So awhile back I was demonstrating a reading block in front of about 15 adults – teachers, principal, the reading coach and some interventionists.  I had prepped them on what I wanted them to notice, what I wanted them to calculate, what I wanted them to reflect on as they observed the lesson.

Then I went into the classroom and got started with the kids (along with the 15 adults that filed in…it’s always quite a thing…take 1 minute, though, and the kids are back to normal and ignoring all the adults in tiny chairs in this case, sitting in the back of the room).

I talked to them about how I had heard that they were the best class in the school and how they were so great at following directions the first time and that I expected that everyone did the work…I taught them my signal for unison response…it’s all going really well!

It’s at this point that I’ll take a little jaunt to give you some back story…I had gone to Nordstrom the weekend before the demo and bought these GORGEOUS gray and black plaid wide-legged pants.  I was wearing high heeled boots and a black turtleneck with big hoop earrings…I just KNEW I looked fly! Keep this in mind…

One of the rules that I taught the kids is that once we got rolling on the lesson and moving and grooving through our content, we wouldn’t need to ask to get a drink or go to the bathroom – NO!  They were too busy for foolishness like that! 

So this cute little guy (this was a 1st grade classroom) kept raising his hand during the lesson and I would give him a silent signal that we were working with our partners and doing all that good stuff so he should put his hand down. 

His hand would go up…and stay up…

And I was modeling some classroom management techniques so I thought I would be really smart and say something like, “You know, Jonathan, I’m going to ask you to put your hand down because right now we’re not sharing out to the whole class, you’re brainstorming with your partner”…you know, real top-notch stuff like that…

His hand would go up after a second…and stay up…and now we’re like 20 minutes into the lesson and everything’s going really well and the teachers are nodding their heads like, “Yes!  Look at her go!” and they’re writing stuff down furiously and even a couple of kids said, “This is fun!” and I was driving the kids hard and they were doing it and lightbulbs were turning on…

And the hand went up…and stayed up.

So I said this: “You know Jonathan, I’ve asked you to put your hand down and work with your partner right now, but you’re having trouble following my direction.  What can I help you with quickly?”

And he says, “Miss Jackson?  Why are you wearing man’s pants?”

And that, Ladies and Gents, is teaching gold.

Teacher as Master or Teacher on Autopilot…What’s the Difference?

In December (which now seems like a hundred years ago!) I worked with a school district that is heavily invested in improving the quality of teaching.

They are doing a great job asking the right questions, inspecting teaching and the resulting data regularly and focusing on the effects of their teacher’s teaching on the students. It was all good.

However, I noticed something in a few classrooms that concerned me: teacher seemingly teaching on autopilot.

Here’s what it looked like:

  • The students were well behaved, albeit a bit robotic
  • The teacher was well prepared and had obvious master of the content
  • The students were following the teacher’s directions and so on

However, I had the distinct feeling that the teacher wasn’t “there” or wasn’t present during the lesson.

The teacher hit the marks and would have received check marks for evidence of good teaching practices, but the spirit of capturing the kids’ attention and truly taking interest in the content was missing. It seemed a bit like these few teachers had “been there, done that”.

The kicker? The students were performing well in the class despite a rousing endorsement of learning from the teacher!

I am realistic and practical to know that not every day of teaching is going to be a whiz bang, fireworks igniting and students weeping with joy over their newfound knowledge (though please let me know if you experience this daily, as I will personally fly to your area and take a look at it!), but we owe our students and ourselves some interest and excitement about the content…for both of these are highly contagious!

So what does interest and excitement look like? Some I believe will think that I’m referring to the teacher being “the sage on the stage”, but I know that while masterful teaching might include a bit of acting, it also includes mindfulness.

How are we mindful when we’re teaching?  Here are 4 thoughts!

  1. When students answer a question that, on the surface, is incorrect we delve deeper and ask follow up questions to determine WHY that student came to that response
  2. When students are working in small groups or independently, we do “check ins” and ask them “Tell me what you’re working on” or “How did you come to that response?”
  3. When we hear a rustling from the kids we don’t say “Shhh…!” we figure out what caused the rustling…maybe they are reacting to the content or making a connection that we can build on
  4. When a student asks a question, instead of listening to the initial (oftentimes simplistic) question, we ask them to tell us more about what they need to know, possibly unearthing the REAL question that might be at the root


Are you guilty of mindless teaching? 

Which of the 4 tips above will help pull you to into a mindful mindset?  Leave a comment!

Stop That Wedding! The Engagement Was a Farce!

If you know me, you know that I’m a hopeful romantic, I love lovey-dovey stuff and romantic comedies and against-all-odds love stories.  (Note to reader: For the men or non-romantics reading this, you can open your eyes now…)

One of my most favorite movies is Father of the Bride – not because of its deep, romantic ties or the fact that it was filmed in my hometown (true!), but because it shows the great parts of getting ready to get married and also the not-so-great parts of it, too.

In the final analysis, the couple gets married and because they have made a good choice in who they’d marry and also worked through a lot of their family, job, money issues throughout their engagement, I think they probably had a good life together.  (And they seemed to be doing well when I last checked in with them in Father of the Bride II!)

When I think of that engagement time, I think of how important it is to work out the kinks and really get down to the nitty-gritty of what you want your life together to be – in fact, I read once that engagement is all about figuring out if you’re ready to marry each other and to make a formal commitment to finding out IF marriage is the next step.

These days, within 2.333 hours of announcing engagement, we’ve practically booked the venue, briefed the wedding party, chosen the favors, forwarded the honeymoon itinerary and chosen the monogram for the first born!

My thought is HOLD UP A MINUTE! 

The REAL story of engagement is often this: woman tells man where he has to show up, what he has to wear and briefs him regularly on that weird aunt’s name so that he doesn’t forget it.  The woman is fawned over by her friends and other ladies while the man basically gets a boot camp-style briefing of the activities for the week.  He is merely a FIGURE in the whole scheme.  He is an observer and occasional interloper!

I’ve often heard of guys rolling their eyes over all of the wedding fussiness  -they’re simply trying to ENDURE it and get to the happily ever after part.

Now, I’m not trying to act like ALL guys are like this or ALL gals are like this but do you admit it is more common than not?

What I think we ought to explore is the connection between these wedding shenanigans and our teaching.  Huh?

Hear me out…

We have gotten a little glad-handy with our use of engagement techniques (much like brides with their 57 pre-wedding activities) – we have fallen for the idea that if we are using an engagement technique that kids must be engaged – or at least more engaged than if we didn’t use the technique.

We do not have a shortage of engagement ideas, technique, tricks-of-the-trade or training opportunities, so why is it that kids are still ENDURING instruction and not ENGAGING IN IT?

Really good kids are sitting in classrooms much too often just listening to the teacher do the work – or watching other kids do the work.  It has to be terribly boring.  I can tell you for sure, it’s boring to watch!

Kids are acting like they’re the bystanding groom to the teacher’s bride antics – engagement techniques are sometimes used and sometimes not, but the engagement level is still low all around. 

I don’t have to point out that students are not going to master content, receive high levels of direct teaching and academic-based feedback in these classrooms, do I?

So, how do we turn standing-by, enduring kind of classrooms or lessons into full blown engaged ones?  I have a couple of ideas…they aren’t fancy, but they will work if you work ‘em:

Enduring to Engaging Idea #1: Make sure that the content that you want to have students engage in is worthy of engagement 

Not everything is worth teaching – some things are worth just telling kids.  What’s the difference?

When I’m teaching something new, I go through the whole teach/model/practice/feedback/apply format.  It’s during the practice/feedback/apply part that I should be planning for high-levels of active engagement from students.  However, I have seen many times that teachers are having students use techniques like “think pair share” or “partner teams” for times when the content is minor or inconsequential to the mastery of the subject area.

When something is inconsequential or just minor to the big content picture, we can just say, “Ladies and gents, this means ______” or “What that refers to is like when__________” and move on.

The techniques that we use to increase engagement should be used to enhance and improve the mastery of super important, really high impact skills!  I so often hear “I would love to do more engagement activities, but they’re so time consuming!” – well, they ARE time consuming especially when you’re using them for inconsequential information.

Enduring to Engaging Idea #2: Make sure that you’re obsessed with checking-in with students during high-engagement times

There are two really big points of engagement: to give kids lots of practice on important skills in order to build mastery and to give kids lots of opportunity to show what they know, what they don’t know and what they kind of know so that the teacher can provide lots of direction, correction and re-direction.  Without engagement, we have no idea what’s going on in the kids’ heads!

What is common (and I’m guilty of these sometimes, too) is that while students are think/pair/sharing, teachers are getting set up for the next part of the lesson, are getting stuck at one group re-doing the lesson, are proctoring learning rather than engaging with kids in it and generally missing all of the good thinking and talking and interaction around the important content!

When students are talking with one another, it’s the PERFECT TIME to get in there and hear what they’re saying and commenting, redirecting, making a note to clear something up with the whole class, asking them to extend responses,  redirect their conversation or work or generally set them straight on something they have mis-learned!

Engagement is not about the kids and kids alone.  It’s around the TEACHER engaging with the KIDS and the CONTENT. 

So what is the take-away from this, in my book?  That we refine our definition of engagement from that of “using engagement techniques during teaching” to “setting up meaningful opportunities for students to work with, talk about, write about, think about the most important information that they’re required to learn”.

You’ve got everything you need to do this now…where will you start?

Come on over to www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting to talk – I’m waiting just for YOU!

The Music Has Stopped. You Still Doing the Running Man?


Time management in the classroom. It’s the bane of our existence when it doesn’t work and it’s the reason why things move smoothly when they do work!

A sub-question of “How do I work to get my kids to do what I want them to do?” is “I keep running out of time…if you could give me more time, I could ‘fit it all in'”

I would be a gagillionaire if I could give you more time, but I can’t.  And I REALLY wish I could, because being a gagillionaire sounds like it’d be GREAT!  I mean, all that cashola just hanging around…purses, trips, shoes, lip gloss, etc……what, what was I talking about again?

Oh that’s right…time management…

The first place to start is by asking a few questions to see where the problem is.  I shared these questions recently with a coach client of ours who was struggling to support her teachers in hitting the time management marks.

  • Are you seeing them taking longer than they should in places?  Which places are these?
  • I wonder are they doing lots of worksheets (those are optional and shouldn’t be used as time fillers)?
  • Are they teaching the whole time?
  • Are there management issues that are taking up instructional time?
  • Are they starting on time/ending early?
  • What parts are they getting bogged down on?
  • Have they timed how long it takes each band of instruction so that you can look at the data of what you find in the classroom, not just the “feeling” that the teacher has?
  • Do they have a swift pace?
  • Are they adding additional things to the block from outside of the program?
  • Are they taking drink/bathroom breaks during the block?  (I certainly hope not)

The great thing is, when you figure out where the “sticking point” is, you can fix it!  Yep, just like that.

Fix it by keeping a timer and moving yourself along when you’re running slow.

Pick up additional instructional minutes by shortening the “morning routines” or the “after lunch routines”.

Plan ahead for what your direct teaching time will be and what time will be student practice and then opportunities for feedback.

Figure out if you’re adding “would be nice” content – that content that would be nice, but is not necessary.

The bottom line?  You can control.  You can fix it.  BUT you have to begin by isolating WHERE the problem of time management is coming from!