Engagement and Relationships Aren’t Cure-Alls

The truth is more important in teaching than in most areas because we have a gaping chasm between what young people expect teaching to be and what it actually is. I believe the gulf between expectations and reality explains why so many quit before they’ve properly begun. Those of us who’ve been in the game for a while have a responsibility to tell the truth about our jobs. And some of us are doing of a poor job of it.

A quick scroll through my Twitter feed, which is almost entirely made of teachers and those pontificating about teaching, reveals the popular belief that nearly all classroom ills can be solved by doing two things:

  1. Build relationships with students.
  2. Teach engaging lessons.

Show the kids you genuinely care about them and they’ll treat you with respect. They’ll work harder for you. So spend five minutes chatting. Attend their soccer games. Sit next to them. Ask about their kitty cats. A student won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You’ve heard it all before.

Plan more engaging activities and watch behavior problems disappear. Raise the bar and kids will meet it. Students misbehave because they’re bored, or they don’t see the relevance, or the work isn’t challenging enough.
This article on classroom management makes a bold claim:

“Effective educators say that the best classroom management plan is an engaging lesson plan. Once you have that, then you will not have to worry about any discipline problems in your classroom.”

You won’t have to worry about any disciplinary problems. The author is hardly the only one espousing such a rosy view.

Well, as Lee Corso likes to say:

Let’s take a step back from the pretty fluffy thoughts that make us feel good and actually think for a second.

Consider the Playground

Ask any elementary kid what his favorite part of the day is and there’s a good chance he will say recess. Recess, if done right, is largely unstructured play time. Kids can do damn near anything they want. They can choose who they do it with. Autonomy. Choice. Fun. All things a very engaging activity would have, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Have these people who claim engagement will solve every behavior problem never had recess duty?

Because I can tell you from vast amounts of experience that engagement on the playground doesn’t lead to some rainbow-smeared utopia where children all get along, make responsible choices, and hold hands in song. In fact, many of the same students who struggle to behave in a classroom struggle to behave on the playground, which suggests there might be a few other factors that influence children’s behavior other than whether or not they feel engaged.

Share the following premise with any group of students:

“A pack of boys has to figure out how to survive on an island with no adults around.”

Watch their reaction.

Do they look terrified at the thought?

Hell, no! That’s a dream come true!

And could anything be more engaging than having to figure out how to SURVIVE? Talk about a STEAM project!

But, as anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows, this sort of engagement doesn’t lead to everlasting peace. Quite the opposite. Jack becomes a lunatic. Piggie dies. The conch is broken. They set the island on fire. So much for engagement.

There Will Be Problems

As for relationships, consider your own family. I love my wife and daughter. They love me. There is a lot of mutual respect, built up over many years. That doesn’t mean we don’t screw up. I say hurtful things. My wife’s patience runs out. Our daughter gets lippy. Conflict is a part of being human. We’re emotional. We’re petty. We’re selfish. We get stressed out, hungry, and tired and we do and say stupid things. So does every kid in your class. There will be problems, no matter how good your relationships are.

Now let me be clear. Is it preferable to build relationships with students and engage them in meaningful activities? Of course it is. Your classroom will be a nicer place to be. Kids will behave better. They will learn more.

You should definitely build relationships and make your lessons interesting.

But will doing those two things put an end to all conflict, poor choices, and laziness?

No, it will not.

Let’s stop making teaching sound easier than it is. Quit offering magic solutions that do nothing except create unrealistic expectations that lead to frustration when the prescribed solutions don’t work the way they’re promised. Good relationships with students will help. Better lessons will, too. But neither are cure-alls. When you’re dealing with human beings, nothing is. And when we’re talking about teaching, there are no silver bullets. Can we quit pretending that there are?

2 Replies to “Engagement and Relationships Aren’t Cure-Alls”

  1. Very well put! I agree that engagement is a bit of a two edge sword and there are a lot of times that students just don’t want to build a relationship. Again, excellent points made.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *