Thursday, September 26, 2013

Teacher Disengagement

We talk a lot about student engagement in schools.  Probably not as much as we should, but it's still a topic that comes up rather often.  "My freshman Algebra class looks at me with glazed eyes while they drool on their textbooks" is probably a sentence that's repeated in high school faculty rooms all over the country on a regular basis.

Lack of teacher engagement is something that's discussed far less frequently, but it's a huge problem.  Disengaged teachers probably don't create amazing learning environments.  Disengaged teachers probably don't inspire students to be engaged.  Disengaged teachers may or may not be drooling on their teachers' manuals.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr - Jayegirl99

Last night I had a tough time falling asleep.  Sometimes this happens due to stress.  Other times it happens because the New York Giants played a night game and found a new, creative way to lose in the last few minutes.  Last night it happened because I was really fired up about all the great things that are happening in school.  Kindergarten kids are sharing their learning on individual and class blogs.  First graders are using Blabberize to share what they've learned about different animals.  Second graders are blogging about different types of communities.  Third and fourth graders are Skyping kids in other states to learn about geography.  Our fifth graders are building room-sized models of plant and animal cells.  The grad class of teachers I'm working with is excited to radically change pedagogy to be more student-centered. 

Despite my lack of sleep, I couldn't wait to get into school this morning to do more of this stuff with kids.  I'm engaged and passionate about what I'm doing, and this lead me to a few thoughts:
  1. Sometimes when teachers say "I'm exhausted", they really don't mean "I'm exhausted."  They may think they are exhausted, and I'm sure they're tired.  But, what they really mean is, "I'm not excited about what I'm doing right now."  When you are engaged and passionate about what you are doing, you often ignore tiredness.  Eventually we all need rest, but when we're in that zone of passion, doing the amazing supersedes the need for rest.
  2. Too many times disengaged teachers will be resentful of others who are passionate.  That teacher who stays at school until 6 getting incredible stuff ready for the next day, that teacher who won't shut up about the stuff they learned in a Twitter chat the night before, and that annoying guy who routinely gives up his weekends to go to something called an EdCamp are not trying to show you up.  They aren't trying to gain brownie points with the principal.  They are just lucky enough to be engaged.  Try asking what has them so excited.  You may just find something that flips your switch from turned-off to turned-on.  And, tell them that there are many brands of decaf on the market that are just as tasty as the real thing. (If you recognized that as a Real Genius reference, you get bonus points.)
  3. Nobody went into the teaching profession to be the best deliverer of test-prep.  If you are disengaged, and that's what your job has become, there's probably a correlation.  So stop doing that.  I understand that moving away from this is much harder in some places.  This testing culture is responsible for a great many disengaged teachers.  So, do what you can.  Step outside your comfort zone and do one thing a day that bucks the system.  Take one action that reminds you of why you chose to be a teachers.  That one act of civil disobedience may just be the thing in your day that reminds you why being a teacher is the best job in the world.  It also may be the one thing in the day that stops your students from drooling on their textbooks. 


  1. Excellent post! I can recognize myself at various times of my career in all of those categories.
    Thanks for writing this and making it so plain!

  2. Thanks, Ginger. As I wrote it I definitely was thinking of times in my career that I fit each of those descriptions. Heck, I probably experience each of them at different times during each school year. I appreciate your kind words. -Mike

  3. Great post!! You have to constantly reflect and ask yourself, "If I'm disengaged, then my students have to be." If that's the case, change it up!! This is hard to get through to some colleagues.

    1. cmay,
      Thank you. Unfortunately, the culture of drill-kill-bubblefill that we are in makes it hard to remember why we became teachers sometimes. Teachers are under enormous pressure to do things in which they don't believe. I'm blessed to have an administration that values students as more than data points, and allows teachers to pursue the things about which they are passionate. From networking, I know that many places aren't as lucky. The awesome stuff that my colleagues do, and many of the things that I love about my job would be discouraged in many other places as not preparing kids for tests. Learning can happen in so many different ways, and teachers are lucky enough to be able to create environments in which learning can happen. When you are constantly being pressured to read from a teachers manual, it's easy to forget how incredible it feels to get away from it and to do the stuff that kids and teachers both get excited about.

  4. This is excellent!!! I think you are exactly right!

    1. Thank you, Edie. I appreciate the kind words.