Recently, at a meeting hosted by the BC Ministry of Education, Minister George Abbott pondered the issue of how student engagement declines as students advance into their secondary years. "How do we keep the magic of learning alive and keep school work from becoming drudgery?", Abbott mused. The question was discussed and debated by our district team long after the meeting ended.
Much of my classroom experience has come as a teacher of English to secondary aged students. It really bothers me to hear students describe the subject as "boring". I make it a personal mission to ensure that no one leaves my classes without being challenged or engaged. Teens are curious animals. Developmentally caught between the innocent wonder of childhood and the supposed maturity of adulthood, they seem hardwired to challenge, resist and be just plain difficult. This resistance to being told or controlled can make them both aggravating and exciting to teach.
Certainly students still need to take some responsibility for their own learning. I don't hold much with sites like Schoolsurvival.net that extol the reasons why "school sucks" and suggest that if students protest about being bored they will just be punished by being labelled troublemakers or burdened with extra work. Being "too cool for school" is self defeating. While there may be "no way through it but to do it", teens need to recognize that the attitude they bring to school plays a major role in what they get out of the experience.
That being said educators CAN make the experience more meaningful and interesting for everyone concerned. The age of positional authority has truly passed. Whether or not one believes students should respect their elders, sit and listen quietly and attentively as less than active participants in their own learning, the fact is, teachers have to deal with the students they get. Wistfully wishing for a return to some past ideal of classroom management will not make it happen, and getting angry will only guarantee a poor experience for everyone. The good news is the teacher is an active agent in this relationship, and there are things that can be done to make the magic of learning and engagement happen!
If attitude is big for students, its essential for teachers. Authentic enthusiasm and legitimate interest for and in both the subject matter and one's students is a good jumping off point. Regardless of appearances to the contrary, teens, like all people, are curious and will want to see what a teacher is all about. Similarly, teachers need to be curious about what their students are about too. Joanna Budden summarizes this point nicely at the blog sixthings.net where she lists 6 things teachers should keep in mind when teaching teens.
One of the biggest complaints from teens is they see no connection to what is being taught and their lives. As an English teacher, I believe great literature from any age should be able to sell itself, but it never hurts to find connections between then and now or to challenge students to find the same universal themes presented in the curriculum in contexts more current and relevant. Ultimately, the flow of information needs to go both ways. Today's teachers can learn as much from their students as the other way around. A genuine exchange of learning creates engagement, makes classes more interesting for students and more manageable for teachers. Creating connections is where the real magic happens. The days of being the sage on the stage may be gone, but the age of magic should never end no matter how old the learners are!