Sometimes we have classes that make us feel like we were BORN to teach. Those classes are fun, engaged, they love our lessons, and they remind us that we are successful teachers. They crave the input we provide and they challenge themselves each and every class block. They arrive on time! They smile! They look us in the eye when we are speaking and they volunteer to use the target language in front of the class! These classes make teaching seem like the best decision we’ve ever made.
Other times, we have classes (or even just a few students, which can in turn affect the entire class) that remind us why teaching is hard work. They are uninterested in what we have to teach them, and they simply don’t want to be in our class each day. It isn’t always personal; maybe they are only taking our class for the credit, or maybe their parents are making them. Whatever the reason, they resist. They resist our energy, our ideas, and our offers for help. So, what can we do?
I wholeheartedly believe in Jeffrey R. Holland’s view of, “And if those children are unresponsive, maybe you can’t teach them yet, but you can love them. And if you love them today, maybe you can teach them tomorrow.” I actually credit my relationship building as one of the most important parts of my teaching life. But with all of that being said, sometimes… we want to teach them TODAY! So how do we balance loving them with teaching them?
1. Let your classroom be the “safe” classroom
I teach in a district that is very diverse socio-economically. My students need to feel safe and secure every day, and if I am being honest so do all students. For my students, this means I need to be a reliable adult in their life. Many of my students have home lives that are rocky or worse. Many of them have to care for younger siblings, and are forced to mature faster than they should. In my classroom, they are the kids. They are allowed to make mistakes without fear of being judged or criticized. They are allowed to ask questions, and the goal is always growth rather than perfection.
I hold my students to high expectations, and when appropriate I explain my decision making process to them. In tough situations I do not get angry, or yell, but instead try to work through my emotions in a productive way. I try to role model even in these tough situations. I am the adult in the room, and need to remind myself of that. I have seen students in my school physically and emotionally shut down after being yelled at every day by their teacher. They do not want to go to class, and they are too afraid to try for fear of doing something “wrong.” I want my students to know that I will hold them accountable for their actions, but in a way that lets them know they are still in a supportive environment.
I had an experience this year when I was frustrated with a student who had his head on his desk for the class period. Some of you may have heard this story from me before, as I believe I shared about it on IG. He wasn’t normally like that, and on this day he wouldn’t pick his head up or talk to me about it. I asked him if he needed to go to the nurse, and he said no. He didn’t say much else. He refused to do the warmup, he wouldn’t look at me, and he wouldn’t tell me what was going on. I became very frustrated and annoyed because I felt he was being disrespectful to me and to our class, but I walked away and simply prompted him each time we would transition into a new activity. At the end of class, he lingered for a minute. He apologized and explained that when it snows he plows our town with his dad. He explained they had been plowing until 3am the night before. He thanked me for not yelling at him. I asked him why he hadn’t gone to the nurse to lie down when I offered, and he said “because I’d rather be here.” That was all we said about it. The next day he was back to his normal self, and I saw him getting notes from his neighbor to catch up on what he had missed.
2. Get to know them
I know that everyone says to find something each of your students is interested in. This seems like a daunting task when you teach high school and have anywhere from 100-150 students (or more!) but it really can make all the difference in the world. It won’t happen overnight, and it may feel like it takes most of the year to get to know your students well. But having even one thing to talk to them about outside of your content area can go so far. Each day, one question to one student about their personal life outside of school can make them feel seen and important. I try to start with the quieter ones that I notice at the beginning of the year. “Do you have siblings?” “Do you play any sports?” “What is something you are really good at?” “Do you have a job?” I truly love connecting with them and making them feel comfortable in my room right away, so that when I try to involve them in a lesson they feel safe and supported. I never want them to feel alone.
To connect with my students I have a few go-to strategies.
- I try to read what my students read. I mix in YA books with my usual crime and murder mysteries.
- I talk about celebrities as if I actually follow pop-culture (I often embarrass myself here).
- I play the video games they play, and they always get a kick out of this one. After a weekend I’ll say “Anyone get more than 2 wins in Apex this weekend?” and my quieter boys will go wild wanting to talk about it
- I go to their sports games. Just going to 2-3 games per year can make a big difference. AND, you’d be surprised how many of your students are on the teams. Last year I went to a volleyball game because one of my students pointed out they were playing in my hometown. I went expecting just to support him. When I got there, I realized that I had 8 (!!!!!) students on the team. They had either been in my class the year before, or they were current students. That was an hour very well spent, and it was just 5 minutes from my house.
- I chaperone school events. Again, not every one, but students get so excited to see you at their big dances. I know it may not be your favorite way to spend your Friday night, but the quietest students will be so excited to show you their dresses/suits.
- I use the first few minutes or the last minute while students are packing up to chat with them. I ask them how their weekend was, or how their other classes are going.
3. Use their name often
We always hear that it is a great strategy to greet our students at the door each day. I know that this can feel impossible when we have to write our agenda and warmup on the board, or if we are traveling teachers who have to move from room to room. I will say, though, that I tried to be more consistent with this over the past two years. In my school, we are actually technically required to be in the hallway between classes. (This is to keep students moving to class on time, to keep visible adults in the hallways during the most crowded minutes, and honestly to hopefully prevent some of the fighting that had happened in previous years.)
Even though we are expected to be in the hallway, I can’t always make it happen. Sometimes I have to run to the restroom or do another quick task in those four minutes. But as I said, I have increased my efforts over the past two years specifically and I definitely feel there is value in doing so. By being outside my door to greet my students, I am able to smile and say their name before they even enter my room. (This also makes taking attendance easier– I didn’t see Matthew on his way in, so he must be absent.) Using student’s names is something that helps me to connect with them. Looking them in the eye and greeting them makes them feel seen and important.
Another benefit is that I am able to gauge their mood before they even enter the room. Some students avoid eye contact as I cheerfully say hello. Some students might just walk by me and not answer. In either of these situations, I ask them, “Are you OK?” I show them that I notice something is going on, and that they can talk to me about it if they need to. On the other hand, even if a student seems cheerful I may take this moment to ask them how their day is going. You never know who needs to talk about something or get something off their chest before being ready for a productive class.
I also use my students names when I call on them. I do not just point if they have their hand raised, but instead clearly say their name. After they answer, I often thank them with their name as well. I use their names in examples on the board, in warmups, and in quizzes. Even in high school, they love it.
((Side note: Some teachers have a classroom password that changes every week. Their students have to say a phrase in the target language in order to enter. I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’m curious to see how it would work!))
4. Ask them questions
In my classes that are super engaged I can often let them work on their own and I can circulate the room as they do so, offering help when needed. We may not review everything aloud, and they may have more freedom to work at their own pace. In my more reluctant classes, I sometimes need to work with them through a lot of our curriculum. They often appreciate the structure and when given the option of “Do we want to do this with our groups or together as a class?” Not only do most of them ask to do it together, but I also notice more engagement even from my more reluctant students. They figure, “OK, if we are doing it together I better at least write this down.”
I do not often cold-call on students (call on them when they aren’t volunteering) but my students know that I expect them to participate aloud in class. They also know that if I haven’t heard from them yet that day, it is possible I could call on them at any time. If this happens and a student doesn’t know the answer, however, I work through it WITH them. I do not move on. I do not accept “I don’t know.” We work together to find the answer, and then I thank the student for doing so.
I do ask MORE questions during the classes that are more reluctant. I find that being more involved in the class and guiding them through our activity helps them to stay involved. That being said, I never work as a whole group for the whole class. Students need us to mix it up. There is usually time to work individually, time to work in pairs or with their small groups, and time to work as a class. It is just that in my tougher classes, our time as a class typically increases.
When they do work on their own or in small groups, I tell them that I’m going to be going over a certain activity 5-6 minutes from now, and if they are confident about a specific answer they should volunteer to answer that one first so that they get their participation in. For this reason, very often when we are reviewing an activity I don’t require my students to answer in order. I may call on a student and say, for example, “Kareem, can you give me an answer for any of the questions on page 1?” That way, the students feel that they have more choice and there is less pressure to be perfect on a specific question. If for some reason he says no, I work through a question with him or I offer to come back to him after a few more responses. I again provide choice but I do not just move on without getting him to contribute to our class in some way.
5. Provide little downtime
For my more reluctant classes, I tend to over-plan. Some teachers provide 2 minute breaks in between activities, whether they mean to or not. I try to make sure that we always have something at-the-ready for my tougher classes. If I have their attention, it is absolutely easier to KEEP it than to GET IT BACK after a few minutes of chatting. The 2 minutes of me organizing my thoughts turns into 5 minutes of “Ok I will wait until everyone is ready.” “Please come back to me now.” “Please stop talking and focus up.” It definitely takes more effort on my end, but having copies lined up on my desk and having routines for passing out/handing in work has helped me tremendously to get the most out of my class time with my students.
This also means that I need to have something ready and waiting just in case an activity doesn’t go well. It is important for me to be flexible with my planning. In these classes, if they do not like a specific activity, it isn’t going to go well. Something I have to remind myself is to not take this personally. Sometimes an activity I have poured my soul into will absolutely FLOP. Some of my classes jump up and down for Taco Tuesday, while others would rather study on their own on Quizlet. Do I want to struggle with them for ten minutes and get nothing done, or do I want to scrap it and move on to my backup activity which is will ultimately address the same skill? Backup it is! Saying, “Ok guys, I get that you don’t like this activity so let’s move on” usually helps your students to buy in a bit more after the transition.
If you feel your students (and yourself) need a break between activities, mindful and planned “brain breaks” are an awesome way to incorporate downtime in a productive way. After all, our students are expected to sit and pay attention in anywhere from 5-7 classes per day depending on the school. That is a lot of *focus*. Brain breaks can provide a bit of release and fun while also keeping their attention on your class.
That being said, downtime is sometimes appropriate. If I ever place downtime in my lesson, it is at the end of class so that I don’t have to “get them back” so to speak. Sometimes my tougher classes earn the last 5 minutes or so to start their homework. I don’t give out a lot of homework, but when I do I notice more completion if they can look at it and ask me questions before they leave. Also, my *most* reluctant learners are all of a sudden SUPER focused if I say “Actually, if you really focus, you may be able to finish this activity before you leave and then you wouldn’t have any homework at all!”
Another side note with planning for my tougher classes: my school is a 1:1 school with iPads, but I find that my more reluctant learners often request paper if I have it available. Knowing this, I always try to have paper copies for these classes. I don’t want distraction of the iPad or “my battery is dead” to be a reason they can’t participate. I don’t mind making the copies, because if this is going to get you to do my work…. then wonderful I will print 15 copies for this class rather than my usual 5-6.
6. Provide wait time
I mentioned this a bit in the last step, but I feel it deserves it’s own section. Students in our most reluctant classes are often scared of embarrassment. When we ask them questions, we need to be willing to provide wait time and also support. What we may think feels like an eternity is really only 10 seconds. And even if a student can give us part of an answer in those ten seconds, that is worth it. We can then help them build upon their answer, and also feel more confident for the next time.
7. Be real
Students can smell insincerity. I never try to be fake with my students. Again, my emotions are always very clearly written on my face, so it’s harder for me to be fake anyways. But with my students, I always want to be real. I am my real, true, silly self in my classroom.
If you are really excited after a lesson, share that excitement! If you worked really hard to create a lesson, tell them! If you are excited, they will be too.
If you are disappointed after a quiz, be real with them without getting upset. Ask them what type of review they like, so that you can do more next time. Ask them what they need review of, specifically. Tell them what you expect of them next time; don’t make them guess.
I know some people say “Don’t smile until Christmas” and “Don’t let them see you sweat.” In my opinion, I like to be personal with my students. They are a big part of my life, and they see me every day. If I am having a bad day, I tell my students. If I am nervous for something later that day, I tell them.
If you are comfortable with this, try it. You may be surprised at the compassion they show you, after all the compassion you’ve shown them all year.
8. Provide choices
Providing students with choices for activities this year has been a game-changer for me. If my goal is that we get a lot of speaking in today, I will have 2-3 options at the ready. I will explain each one to the class and then move from table to table and ask which one they would like to do as a small group, or in pairs when appropriate. They quickly get used to my speaking activity formats so later in the year I need only give the names of the options.
If one class uses all of the copies of my activities, that is OK. The next classes either won’t have that as an option (and they’ll never even know!!!) or they will have the iPad option only. They have never complained about this, because if they are choosing that activity then they know they are expected to do what it takes to get it done. (This usually doesn’t happen with speaking specifically because these are always activities that can be reused, but let’s say it was writing practice.)
Providing students with choice makes them feel like they have a little control in how they spend their time in our classes.
Another way to provide choice is to do so within ONE activity. In my Spanish 1 class yesterday, I actually handed out a packet that progressed from matching and simple review to open response writing (all for present tense AR verbs). There were 4 pages of activities, and I absolutely knew we would not have time for all of them because there were only 15 minutes left in class. Instead, I said “My goal is for you to be productive and review for the last 15 minutes of class. Within this packet, I’d like you to skip around and choose which activities you’d like to work on. If you see something that looks too easy, feel free to skip it. If you want to focus on the easy, great! I need you to decide what review is best for you right now.” As I walked around the room, every single student was working. Even my reluctant students. And what I found most interesting was that they were working on different activities than the person next to them. I had assumed they would try to work together to make it easier, but they didn’t. I also assumed no one would work on the final two pages, which were the full sentence answers and the open response. I was wrong. There were many working on those; they liked the personal choice and challenged themselves. I was floored. I will definitely be doing this more in the future.
9. Notice the small things
Students want to be recognized. I try to write notes on their writing assignments like “You used more transitions this time!” or “Your writing is sounding much smoother!” I draw hearts next to particularly eloquent answers. I also sometimes put sticky notes at the front of the room with the name of any student who performed better on a recent quiz compared to their last quiz. Again, the goal is improvement not perfection. And students need to notice when they are improving, so that they will continue to try. Otherwise, why not slide back into laziness?
To show students that I notice their efforts, I thank them. I thank them for arriving on time, leaving their phones away, and for participating. Aren’t these things that they should do anyways? Aren’t they school rules? Yes. BUT, shouldn’t you hold the door open for someone no matter what? And isn’t it a bit frustrating if they don’t say thank you 😉 ? Saying “Thank you” doesn’t kill me, and it can go a long way.
I also thank my students by calling their parents. I tell their parents specifically why I am proud of something that has happened in class recently. Again, even in high school students love feeling special. Calling home for positive reasons is also great for my OWN morale. If I have had a bad day, I will choose 3 students and call home to share positive notes 🙂 I also try to call students that I feel don’t get a lot of positive phone calls home. If you look for it, there can almost always be a reason to call home and offer encouragement. “Today Andrew was on time, participated twice, AND helped a student next to him. I was so impressed!” This student may not have an A, but he deserves to know I am proud of his efforts. That way, I leave school with a smile instead of grumbling the whole way home.
10. Don’t take it personally
I have to say, this is probably the part I struggle with the most. How can I not take it personally!? This is my life. I pour myself into my lessons and the energy I bring into my classroom. It is so hard to brush it off and support the rest of your 140+ students when one or two students have hurt your feelings. I am also the type of person to wear my emotions on my sleeve, so it is hard to act like I don’t care when I clearly do. My face turns bright red at the drop of a hat, and my emotions are always on display for the world to see. Unfortunately, I need to learn that the moments with these resisting students are not about me.
I have learned this year (and it took me until year 7 to even get THIS far) that I just need to take a deep breath and walk away if a student is acting out or resisting in any way. I have learned that these students are never trying to hurt me. I am the adult, and I am the one that has the power to walk away. They are the ones that feel they are backed into a corner. Even if they seem like they are being rude or disrespectful, it is so often a defense mechanism and the only way they know how to respond. They often don’t know how to eloquently say, “I am having a very bad day right now and I promise I will do my work but I need you to give me a few minutes please.” Sometimes students ARE able to voice this, and I applaud them!!
Typically when a student goes from 0 – upset, it is because they don’t want me to embarrass them in class. In a moment that I may feel that I am simply reaching out and including them in the lesson, or trying to offer help, they may instead feel singled out or targeted. This is what makes them act out. And not because of anything about me as a person, but instead because of what they have going on inside that day.
What has worked for me is not taking any of it personally, and treating the next day as a brand new day. Sometimes a student may be ready to try again in ten minutes (and you can use your judgement for this, after giving yourself and the student time to cool down), but sometimes it really is best to leave them until the next day. Then, when you greet them by name and with a smile, you are letting them know that today is a new day and they can try again without judgement or a grudge from you.
You can offer them time to make up the work they refused from the day before, if you feel it is essential, but if it wasn’t an assignment for a direct grade I often pretend those days never happened. I step back and think, what matters more to me? That they do that one worksheet, or that they come to class and participate each day moving forward? By not taking it personally, and being a bit more flexible than we may like, we are laying a stronger foundation for success in the future.
I hope after reading this you are reassured that you are not alone, and I hope you have found some new strategies to try in your classroom. Please let me know what you think in the comments, and share if you have any other strategies for reluctant learners!
Thank you for reading,