The first step in engaging reluctant learners happens well before there is a lesson to be taught, a concept to be mastered. We've all had those children who burst through our doors on the first day of school, a smile on their face, ready to devour learning. They make our profession look easy. Those are the children who will succeed whether we are at our best or not. Then there are those who come in almost daring you to try to teach them. Those are our reluctant learners. These are the children who encourage us to become the best teachers we can be. Of course, we seldom see it that way when we are busy pulling our hair out in frustration.
I think one of the most important steps in teaching is building a relationship with all of your students, reluctant learners or not. Success in the classrom has as much to with establishing an environment of trust and caring as it does with presenting carefully prepared lessons. Some teachers, buried under hours of lesson planning, making the transition to Common Core, and suffering through mandatory participation on a variety of committees, might counter that they can't afford to plan time to actively build relationships with their students. I would argue, that if you have even one reluctant learner on your class roster, you can't afford not to! It doesn't take huge blocks of time to establish relationships. But it does take an awareness of how to take advantage of any small window of opportunity to get to know your students on a more personal level.
I thought I was crossing a sacred student vs. teacher boundary once at recess when I walked over and sat down at picnic table with a group of my more challenging students. These are the kids who avoid adults whenever possible. They were quiet for a moment, exchanging suspicious glances. One looked at me and asked, "Alright, which one of us is going to the office?" It was interesting to hear that their interactions with adults on campus usually resulted in one of them being disciplined or sent to the office. No wonder they avoided us! They don't trust us and they don't believe we truly care about them. It took a few minutes before genuine conversation resumed, but it did. I learned more about those children in that 15 minutes than I had in the month they had been in my classroom.
What other opportunities are there to get to know students? On our campus, teachers stand duty outside before and after school. It's proven that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads and can easily multi-task, so it's entirely possible to carry on conversation with two or three of my students while I am standing duty. I've yet to have a principal reprimand me for talking to students during duty and it certainly helps to pass the time. When I don't have duty, I'm in my classroom. I open my doors as soon as kids come on campus so they don't have to mill around outside. This gives me a great chance to interact with my kids in a relaxed manner. Recess is obviously another great opportunity. While my grade level does have a recess duty schedule, we all go out at recess time even if it's not our turn. I completely understand that many teachers NEED this break from their students, but in the beginning of the year, I feel it's important to be out there with my kids. I can learn a lot about my class just by watching them at play. Lunch presents yet another opportunity. Inviting certain students to join me in the classroom at lunch has great rewards. Sometimes the group is strategically planned, sometimes it is random. Would I do it every day? Never! I need to decompress! But once a week works great for me. The payoff is certainly worth it!
Reaching reluctant learners...this post seems to be more about the importance of building relationships with your students. But then, as I mentioned in the beginning of the post, I believe that establishing that relationship of trust and caring is the very first step. Without that, not much else matters.