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December 6, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 4

Tell Us About / How You Reengaged Unmotivated Learners

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Readers share how they reengage unmotivated or apathetic learners.

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Engagement
Photo of a teacher helping a young student in a classroom
Credit: HALFPOINT/SHUTTERSTOCK

Small Recognitions Make a Big Difference

At the beginning of the school year, my students conducted their daily check-ins virtually, through a Google Form. A bitmoji represented each emotion, and there was a section to leave notes for the teacher. As the day began, I reviewed the spreadsheet with the responses as they joined [the room] and made notes to check in with students later that day. I noticed an increase in participation from students when I read their messages and incorporated them into the lessons for the week. Once, a student was having a rough week but mentioned a soccer game in the check-in form. I made a note and included his name and the upcoming soccer game in a math problem. The light in his eyes brightened, and his engagement increased. Participation throughout the week continually improved. In terms of motivation and engagement, that small gesture went a long way. Students want to feel recognized, and educators can do this in small ways.
Jacquelynn Olalde, dual-language teacher, Fort Worth, Texas

The Unmotivated Myth

I actually don't believe there are unmotivated or apathetic learners. I think there are students who aren't motivated or are apathetic about doing certain kinds of schoolwork. My goal is to create learning tasks (and have students co-create them with me whenever possible) that are worth doing from the students' perspectives. When learning connects with kids' needs for autonomy, purpose, belonging, competence, curiosity, and fun, I find kids have much more energy for work!
Mike Anderson, consultant and author, Durham, New Hampshire

Make It Fun

In my business classes (what could be drier?), I set up teams that competed for inconsequential prizes (a mini candy bar usually … it's the competition that counts!) The students built bridges and towers, assembled cars, and bought and sold goods while they did their own auditable accounting. Most students love to compete, especially for food. I also lectured on business principles, but if that was all I did….
Jim Sorenson, career development coordinator, Pioneer Career & Technology Center, Shelby, Ohio

Returning to the 3 Rs

Whether learning is in-person, virtual, hybrid, or something else, engagement is built upon the 3 Rs: relationships, relevance, and reflection. Relationships are at the center of learning because learning requires trust. Relationship building must be ongoing, not merely a first day activity, and embedded in all aspects of the class experience. Relevance is next. Learning occurs when experiences matter to students.
When learning matters, learners intrinsically engage because they want to know, do, and understand. (Think about 16-year-old drivers.) Providing relevant learning opportunities may mean rethinking all aspects of instruction, and while painful, it is necessary. Finally, reflection deepens understanding, informs future endeavors, reveals growth, and provides closure, allowing a natural progression to the next step. Additionally, when a student is disengaged, reflection can provide a doorway back into learning. When I sense that engagement is missing, I return to the 3 Rs to reframe and reset.
Anne Marie Jagodzinski, ELA teacher, D.C. Everest High School, Weston, Wisconsin

Build Trust 

For students to be actively engaged and motivated in the classroom, they need to feel valued and welcomed. Connection is everything. In my classroom, my students fill out a Google Form several times each day. This form asks my students to let me know how they are feeling and gives them a chance to share anything they'd like with me. My students have really opened up in this form, because they know it is safe, private, and is going to someone they trust. If a teacher is aware of what is happening in a student's life, they are more likely to be able to meet the student's needs, both socially and academically. 
—Andrea Baney, 4th grade teacher, Danville Area School District, Danville, Pennsylvania 

Stick to a Routine 

Reengaging unmotivated or apathetic learners is truly a challenge during this pandemic period. I have witnessed firsthand the frustration from families, students, and colleagues. The best way I've found to reengage unmotivated and apathetic learners is to keep on keeping on! Everyone is seeking normalcy in any way they possibly can. If my classroom has a strict routine in which students know exactly what to expect day in and day out, regardless if they are learning in-person or at home, they are less stressed. A continuous routine with daily instructional procedures helps my hardest-to-reach students focus and know what to expect. At one point, I was down to 11 students out of 42 learning in-person. The rest of the students were considered distance learners due to being diagnosed with COVID-19 or on quarantine because of close contact. It was hard to keep on keeping on with only 11 students physically in the classroom, but the world of learning did not stop, and my students knew this. The ones who could log on from home to learn and the ones who couldn't knew they would be caught back up on their return. The students who were present were thankful for the continued routine of learning regardless of the chaos around us. We kept on keeping on, which allowed for continuous learning to occur even for the unmotivated.  
—Candace Sanders, 6th grade math and science educator, Lauderdale County School District, Halls, Tennessee 

Four Steps to Reengagement 

Four key components must coexist in order to reengage unmotivated learners. First, you and the student must both "unlearn school." Traditional mindsets and approaches are part of the root cause of disengagement, so previous texts, curriculum, technology, assignments, schedules, communication, settings, studying, assessments, and pathways must be thrown out whether they work or not. Start with a clean slate and build "school" with the student.  
Second, as you hold conversations with a student, avoid telling them what to do or how to do it. Even if the end product is wrong, it doesn't matter. What matters most is that the student is practicing decision making. Building the student's confidence leads to self-regulation. Use questions to coach their thinking. It keeps you out of their head and their "inner voice" can begin to develop or reemerge, which is the heart of motivation. 
Third, release the pressure from the student by avoiding the hurried feeling that seems to control the school system. Start by learning about the student, free of judgement. As you try to move forward, don't stress if they are not ready to do so. It is OK. Remain with them wherever they are and try again the next time. You may not be the one to see the student's progress. Sometimes we have to accept that our role is to sit and wait with them, so they are not alone, metaphorically speaking (sometimes literally, too). 
Lastly, the fourth component: Go ahead and view the student as a disruptor. Disruption leads to innovation. Without that student, we could sink into the hole of stagnation, or worse complacency. So, to all the unmotivated students who have crossed my path … thank you! 
—Chloe Arias, lead independent study teacher, Jurupa Unified School District, Jurupa Valley, California 

Building Authentic Relationships 

I reengage unmotivated or apathetic learners by trying to build a genuine and authentic relationship with them based on their interests or curiosities. I try to engage them in "small talk" to gauge their reluctance to speak with an adult they may or may not know. I share things about my life, family, hopes, fears. I also allow them to ask questions that are appropriate and relevant. I try to model my expectations through both my words and actions toward everyone I encounter … not playing favorites, not yelling, or getting easily angered. Once they see that I am fair and calm, they start to respond back to me. One time I had a student ask me, "Why do you keep talking to me?" I simply answered by saying, "Because I want to get to know you so I can help you be successful here at school. If you need breakfast because you're late, I have food. If you need school supplies, you can come to my office." These simple gestures helped me to form relationships with my students, and from there our conversations grew and eventually turned into academic and student success. 
—Amanda Austin, director, Iberville STEM Academy, Rosedale, Louisiana 

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Check out future questions and share your story with Educational Leadership readers in upcoming Tell Us About columns.

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EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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