Friday, December 9, 2011

Disengaged students

Being given a class of disengaged students is a difficult task.  It's not something that I can do year after year, although after a break of a few years; the challenge isn't as daunting as the thought of doing it for the third in a row.

I'm not particularly talented with this group of students - I certainly can't get them energised and self motivated, but I can get them working and start them on a path to regain their self esteem.  If I remember this as my goal I can see progress.  If I focus on grades, I put my head in my hands in despair.  Success comes (I love the kids that get to say - "this is my first B ever" knowing that it isn't a charity grade and that they have had to work for it), but it is hard, constant work with a lot of negative feedback from the students.

My top ten tips for working with disengaged students in year 11 and 12.

1. Do not allow students to do nothing.  If a student refuses work, accelerate through the strategies for teacher intervention and pass them on to admin to hit consequences that might be meaningful for them.  If they are in a re-engagement programme, teachers have already tried the 4001 strategies for re-engagement, outside intervention is probably required.

2. Be real.  Students will know if you are faking it.  Their life skills relate to outside the classroom, they have a bullsh*t meter that can detect it at 40 paces.  If you don't want to be there, they will understand, let them know that you have something in common and get on with step 3.

3. Be something they don't expect - be prepared with material suited to their level of work.  Reduce the amount of content on the board or page, increase the number of boards or pages over time. 

4. Have clear expectations of behaviour - no swearing, be on time, be respectful of others.  Make them aware of what they are doing and why they need to do it.  Tie it to graduation if possible, being changed out of their class into a work programme for repeated failures, use punitive responses as a last resort, but don't be afraid of using them (such as suspension from class) if necessary to ensure a minimum level of work.  Work closely with the social worker to assist students learn classroom behaviours and how to code switch.

5. Celebrate their achievements using intrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards don't work with these kids, apathy is rife and you will too quickly accelerate through the extrinsic rewards required to bribe work.  With these students, extrinsic rewards are just not a good idea.  Everything about these kids is self esteem related.  Build that honestly, just a little, and it is success.

6. Find out their stories (where appropriate) and share yours, especially with indigenous students. Often by talking to students you will find out what does motivate them and all of a sudden you have a re-engaged student who is seeking your approval for those 5 minutes of talking about manga cartoons or about how to become a chef.

7. Do it quickly, be patient and forgiving.    They have 10-11 years of negative inertia to overcome, so if it takes a few times to change a behaviour it is ok (and forget as quickly as is appropriate if an honest effort to change the behaviour is being made).  They will run out of steam whatever you do, so get as much as you can early.  If they are working do a wad of assessment (by term three you will be pulling teeth to get assessment at a normal rate).

8. Ask teachers about the students.  Someone will know something positive about them and it will give you an in to start a lesson they may engage with.

9.  Acknowledge their existence in and out of the classroom.  You might be the only person to say their name in a week.  You may get a grunt or a finger in return behind your back, but over time they will realise that it is ok to say hi back.

10.  Make it clear that it is ok that they don't have to like you and vice versa.  In many cases they don't know how to like, they have been practicing the opposite for so long.  All of a sudden you become the one person that isn't giving them a hard time and you are the one getting the most amount of work.

Just be aware, if you get good at re-engaging kids, you run the risk of being the disengaged student expert and will get them year after year.  If this happens you need to be strong when you have had enough and insist on a break from it, or seek another school where you can get that break - timetabling will see you as a very valuable commodity whilst you are doing the role.  These students can break your confidence and deprive you of your will to teach - if you feel this is happening, seek assistance and return to normal classes.

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