Inspire the right frame of mind

26th April 2013 at 01:00
Ask difficult students for tips on how to make lessons interesting and inspiring, suggests Victor Allen

At some stage during your career, you are likely to have to face the fact that, no matter how much thought and effort goes into making your lessons interesting and stimulating, or how many hours you have poured into providing appropriate differentiation, a small minority of students is still reluctant to engage or even give the lesson a chance.

You may have already reached this point with one of your classes, or you may be detecting warning signs. But you can take action to avoid the inevitable sense of failure.

First, it is important to remember that your role is to guide young people to make positive decisions. It is certainly not about assessing your skills and abilities against the behaviour of a minority.

These students are struggling to deal with the challenges of a classroom environment. They are, almost certainly, frustrated and unable to manage their emotions appropriately or articulate their thoughts in a constructive way. As a result, they have selected the option of being rude, disengaged and disruptive.

We are all familiar with the use of avoidance tactics when faced with a situation we would rather not address. We procrastinate, we avoid the person or the place, we don't open the letter. These students are demonstrating some of the strongest avoidance tactics available to them, without resorting to the ultimate avoidance: not turning up to class at all.

Quite simply, the emotional part of their brain is in charge, and any reasoning you employ to encourage them to engage the thinking part of their brains will probably fail.

But it is worth considering whether our response and the actions we take at this stage actually drive student behaviour even further away from our expectations.

For example, students might consider a detention, spending time outside the room or being removed from class altogether to be a brighter prospect than struggling to engage their brains in something they perceive to be boring or irrelevant. Past experiences may have taught them how challenging the lesson will be. So what, they are thinking, is the point in even trying?

But there are steps you can take to engage the "thinking brain" and help students to gain a positive perspective on learning in your classroom.

Ease up on the stress. Meet two or three of the "minority group" who are not engaging, perhaps with regard to a subject area where you know they are focused and learning. It is best to meet during lesson time if you can as they will not be so defensive about your questions.

Refocus. Explain that you are not there to reprimand; you are hoping to learn from them. Ask them when they have felt particularly successful in school and when they have felt really positive about their learning. This can go back as many weeks or months as they like and cover any subject.

Ask them to tell you how they feel about your subject. What is it that they find difficult about your lessons? Was there a time when they found the learning in your subject area interesting? Why do they think they are expected to learn in your lessons and what are the benefits? What expectations do they have about the lesson as they walk towards your room? Be prepared to take their answers calmly. This is not a time to be defensive; it is a time to listen.

Talk to them about the importance of dealing with things in their life that they don't enjoy. Talk about facing things that they would rather not deal with instead of resorting to avoidance tactics.

Ask the students to list two things you could do that would make them more interested in contributing to the lesson.

Get them to explain. Ask them how they feel about the discussion you are having with them at this moment. What support can they provide to help you deliver learning effectively and in a way they would like?

Thank them for their (hopefully) mature response. Remember that this is the start of a dialogue, not the conclusion.

Taking this course of action will tell you, first-hand, about the issues with which your students are struggling. It will also help you to reflect on your own teaching and learning skills and how you differentiate within your lessons.

You may be surprised about the issues that crop up that have nothing to do with your lessons but have a bearing on these students' inability to learn.

You can then ask one further question: "Have you ever come to school and tried to 'do it right'?" Chances are, they will say "yes" and this conversation will be the first step towards them feeling more positive about trying to get it right again.

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