Student-Focused Teaching Leads To Engagement, Learning

Jan 5, 2018

Picture a classroom environment. Size, atmosphere, peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher relationships, consider anything to create an image incorporative of a student's thought, emotion and physical self. Now, what rules and guidelines must be adhered to have this classroom function as planned? Would they require strict vigilance, forgiving leniency or some mix of methods to be enforced? What determines effective classroom boundaries, and how does one go about enforcing them?

I ask this because boundaries in some classrooms are negligent, disengaging or harmful. Whether there’s an absence of boundaries or they exist ineffectively, students will be unable to perform to their full capacity.

Nellie, a senior at Mt. Ararat High School, wishes her classes were more functional. “In my, not-titled-as-advanced classes, I’m just mixed in with the kids who are at school because they have to be. It’s so hard for the teacher to control the kids when there's so many, because when one starts then everybody has to start. I think they’ve tried to just teach the kids what to do, or just send them to the office, give them an in-house, do detention, suspension…”

To deconstruct this dynamic: the only reinforcement for bad behavior is reprimanding,  then punishment, and if this fails, then there is no further intervention. The message given by the teacher is one of severity, then apathy; at least this is how I have perceived situations like this in the past. With so many students disengaged from their whole school, being in a classroom that combats negative with negative furthers that disengagement.

Bad behavior, whether it stems from disengagement, antsy students or whatever else, is nothing new; and nothing that will stop without proactive intervention. Baxter Academy graduate Seham Salah started her freshman year very energetically; it was a difficulty to settle down and work at times. “Pam was my advisor since freshman year… at first I didn’t like her. She was my math teacher, I felt like she was really hard on me… I feel like she always had to tell me, ‘Seham, stop talking! I’m trying to teach.’ Or she’d be like, ‘Hey, can you focus on your work?’ ” Seham recalled that Pam seemed irritated with her. Seham just wanted her to “lay off.” Though, during mid-year conferences, Seham was shocked. Pam “said the nicest, most kindest things about me. She knew my behavior wasn’t a reflection of my character… I was like, I love this woman…I got really close to her.”

Pam continuously reinforced classroom boundaries, and was quick to do it. It was clear there was an expectation that everyone put work over conversation. Despite their history in the classroom Pam had no resentment; rather, understanding. Because of this dynamic she was able to truly help Seham. Nearing the end of the year, Seham’s grades were low and she’d been too shy to receive help to bring them up; Pam insisted she intervene. “We sat down and we did all my late work, and she was like, ‘Okay, now you’re done!’ and my grades skyrocketed up and that was the end of my freshman year.”

“Sophomore year was cool. I started off really well. Then the whole Ferguson thing happened and she was there to help me mentally and emotionally because I took it really hard. Junior and senior year she helped me prepare for college, she helped me relieve my anxieties by reassuring me, ‘You are going to graduate. Stop saying 'if I graduate,' because you will, and I’ll make sure you will.’ She was on my ass about it every day. She was just a really big support.” Because the initial boundaries created trust, Seham was comfortable receiving emotional, and academic support. Seham believes if she didn’t have the relationship she did with Pam, she wouldn’t be a graduate. 

What if Pam was resentful? She still could’ve been consistent to enforce boundaries, but her attitude was a contributing factor to the relationship she and Seham had. Affect affects everyone, and it is especially important in an educational environment.

Last spring I attended a seminar centered around LGBTQ+ rights and safety; the target audience being police officers. The first presentation opened with an activity: when the audience was checking in they were asked to write their pronouns on a name tag. Once people settled, the presenter, Penny Sargent, asked if there was any confusion from this request. While answering questions she made a few light hearted jokes. The room felt open, receptive. Once Penny’s time wrapped up the audience had a clear picture of the presentation’s objective: how to use pronouns in an inclusive, supportive way.

Following this was a keynote presentation about harassment in the transgender community. To note, I had heard one of the two presenters was quite cynical toward police, and both had almost no communication regarding the presentation until a few days previous. Even had I not been told this, I’d have been able to pick up on their dynamic. The mic figuratively broke as the slide with harassment statistics came on screen. Rapid fire bullet points exacerbated the already uneasy crowd, and then they got to the one about police brutality. One officer shouted over the presenters claiming the stats were false; their department treats everyone equally, no matter their gender! Not only was the target audience no longer receptive to valuable information, they missed the point that trans people actually need to be given more support as they’re an at-risk minority.

The presenters made a comfortable room defensive. There was no build up to the heavy information and there was an air of contentment that was quickly mirrored by the audience. Stressful information, whether that stress is from one’s ability to comprehend it or the information itself, will only be retained if the source can de-escalate or altogether avoid any anxieties.

Bridget McAlonan is an educator for Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services. One morning she was in a high school health class and was warned by the teacher that this was “her worst class of the semester,” with a history of disengagement and behavioral problems. As the students were arriving the teacher had to leave to attend to a student struggling with personal issues.

“As soon as the teacher left I said, ‘Apparently you all are the worst class. You know, it’s been a long week, I don’t know about you all but I’d like to get this teaching done and I’d like to make it so it’s as safe as possible and that we have some fun with it. So if that’s okay with you guys, what are your classroom norms? What are your rules?’ They got it but they were just shocked this woman was standing in the front of the room telling them they were the worst class ever, and I also said, and I have to talk to you about rape. The class turned out to be really productive, the most productive of the eight total classes that I taught for all her health classes that semester. So it was just interesting that being really upfront and honest with them about my fears, their fears, and then what we could do to make the safest room possible,” she said.

Mt. Ararat High School teacher Tracy Boucher has a teaching style that incorporates her ability to connect with students. She tries to keep to only minutes of class direction, dedicating the rest of her time to conference with students individually as they work. She recognizes that to relate and cooperate with her kids, it’s a necessity to understand their world. During the beginning of the year assignments are centered around educational, mental, and home-life impairments every student has. Boucher also looks at personal files, talks to past teachers and the students themselves. A holistic picture of her class is formed and used to better support every student during one-on-one meetings and when grading work.

“I’ll give kids extra time, extra materials… It’s difficult when kids come to me with their personal problems because we all have stuff in life that happens but we still all have to function; and it’s always a balancing act. How much do I say, ‘Nope, these are the rules,’ to ‘Yes, these are the rules,’ however? And yes, in the real world you’re going to have deadlines, you’re going to have to show to work on time, you have to in college hand in papers when they're due. And being able to be an exception is going to get more and more difficult.

"There's one philosophy that says we should teach them now, which I understand and appreciate and respect. I also love what I do because I love kids. And what I do is because of my relationship with kids. I love my curriculum. It’s great but my relationship with kids is paramount. So if I don’t have that, then the curriculum doesn't matter.”

Leonid Eichfeld is a student at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland.