Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

Student Engagement Hinges on Three Basic Components

When these three connections are intentional, balanced, and done in a research-based way, that is when true student engagement occurs.

Author Rob Darling, Ed.D

Fisher, Frey, Quaglia, Smith & Lande (Engagement by Design, 2018) break education down to three simple components: students, teachers, and content. Each of these three components overlap in very specific ways. The teacher/student overlap they refer to as “relationships;” Teacher/content overlap is “teacher clarity,” and the relationship between content and students  they call “challenge,” but I think can be more accurately defined as “differentiation.” When these three connections are intentional, balanced, and done in a research-based way, that is when true student engagement occurs.

Our school leadership team is constantly analyzing the student growth data of our 850 K-2 students (that’s not a typo, we got kids for days!) We look at data by grade level (we have 3), by PLCs (we have 10, three at each grade and specialists), and by teacher, (we have 44 classroom teachers, last year we had 47.) Below is actual data from a grade’s math results from last year. (FYI, our dual language model has all students receiving math in English)

Here is some clarity of what we’re looking at:

This data is based on math benchmark data. Column 1 shows the teachers. Column 2 shows how much the class improved from Fall to Spring, based on students’ meeting or exceeding grade level expectations on this assessment. Column 3 shows the percentage of students in that classroom who were at or above grade level by the end of the Spring final benchmark assessment.

Teacher 1 and Student Engagement

Teacher 1 ended the year with 89% of students meeting or exceeding the end of year math expectations. Essentially, 89% of these students are ready for 2nd grade math. Column 2 shows that this class improved 36% over the course of the year. This means that Teacher 1 had only 53% of students at or above grade level when they entered this grade. You can look at Column 2 as the “Growth” column and Column 3 as the “Achievement” column. In contrast, although Teacher 6 ended the year with 94% of students meeting or above grade level expectations, that teacher also had 82% at grade level when they started the year. Achievement growth looks great, but there wasn’t a huge amount of growth over the course of the year. Teachers 1 through Teacher 5 have very similar classroom climates (how we feel) and cultures (how we act). So when I talk about Teacher 1, I could be talking about any of these teachers interchangeably.

Teacher Clarity

Teacher 1 is an amazingly well-rounded teacher: intentional planning, learning targets and success criteria that are aligned to district priority standards. Targets and criteria contain the actual verbs and nouns from the standards, not watered-down words, but rich vocabulary that teaches the students exactly what and why and how they’re learning, and how they can know they’ve mastered it. Students are taught how to self-assess by the use of exemplars (either teacher-created or actual student work), checklists, or rubrics. Teacher 1 teaches students about the Learning Pit and that the job of the teacher is to challenge every student, every day, by making them do something hard. Grit, perseverance, and tenacity are expected each day by students.


Students of Teacher 1 also learn that fair is not equal. In Teacher 1’s classroom you won’t hear students complain about someone reading a different level book, or doing easier or tougher math problems. They learn that they will get exactly what they need and that someday they too will get harder problems. Teacher 1 has 30 minutes set aside each day for math intervention and enrichment. Not only are students receiving differentiated instruction during core, struggling students get a 2nd or 3rd dose as part of the core math programming in this classroom. This means student in this classroom have a teacher who has a strong relationship with the content (teacher clarity) and provides students with individualized goals and differentiated instruction (think students/content connections.)

Growth-Producing Relationships

The part that I believe is key evidence to amazing student growth for Teacher 1 (Teacher 1’s reading scores are just as impressive) is the relationships and bonds Teacher 1 creates with students and their families. To be clear, this definition for relationships isn’t just being a friend to students. As Doug Fisher says: yes, we need to be friendly, but we need to create “growth-producing relationships” (2018). Fisher et al., (2018) stated that healthy teacher-students relationships are based on respect, trust, honesty and communication. Effective teachers learn student names, and about their names. They create welcoming classrooms where the walls belong to the students, not the teacher. Students have a voice. Student discourse is at least 55% of the classroom talk.

A growth-producing relationship is one where mistakes are expected, celebrated, and learned from. Teachers make mistakes and model metacognitive strategies with students to show the learning that can come from mistakes. Students are pushed and provided the necessary scaffolding, so they can experience success. Every. Single. Day.

Using the Engagement Model for Teachers Who Struggle

From an administrator standpoint, I’m not worried about my “Teacher 1’s”. What keeps me up at night is thinking about those scholars who are seated in front of Teachers 13-16, who actually had students make negative growth over the course of the school year.

Principals: if the first time you realize that you have a problem in a classroom is when you look at your end-of-the-year data, you dropped the ball. You should be present enough in classrooms from Day 1 to know who are your shining stars, and who needs your sustained, systematic support. Your shining stars are fun places to visit, but you can let them run free. If you have classrooms causing academic or emotional harm and you don’t spend every resource you have, every moment you can spare in those rooms, we like to call that “educational malpractice.”

You need to be planted in the classrooms of your Teacher 16’s, or at least you need to have an instructional coach, an AP, skilled certificated interventionist, or someone you trust with the social capital to quickly gain the teacher’s trust, and with the instructional clout to help that teacher move the needle in the right direction. This is not time for passive observations. This is time for hand holding, co-teaching, boots-on-the-ground types of interventions.

Teacher 16 had significant negative growth last year. But we were on a much worse trajectory in October. Classroom management was bonkers, there was minimal evidence of lesson planning. There were no learning targets, no small group or individual conferring. So, how to do you help this teacher turn things around?

First, We Work on the Person

I sat Teacher 16 down in early November and shared some evidence-based observations, areas that were causing me great concern (principal clarity). I used those words, “...causing me great concern.” Then I started asking questions. “You seem more distracted this year. Is everything going ok at home?” I could see a visible change in the teacher, moving from sitting very defensively to physically sitting more upright, leaning forward, arms unfolded, shoulders lowered. This is why relationships with staff are so critical! So I listened and empathized, showed that I really cared, which is a skill I’m constantly working on (growth-producing relationships).

Next: We Work on the Teacher

Create a plan of attack. Identify one component they need to work on that will have the most immediate success (in this case, because we needed A LOT of things to change, we chose two: classroom management/routines and success criteria.) We decided that since I was the evaluator, Teacher 16 didn’t feel comfortable with me being the one providing the hand-over-hand support so we decided on combo of assistant principal for management and instructional coach for the success criteria and routines. The plan included specific days and times, we scheduled weekly check-ins, we scheduled peer observations for Teacher 16 to visit Teachers 1 and 2 with an instructional coach to look for specific strategies, and most importantly, we identified what success would look like at the end of 30 days, and 60 days (differentiation, rigor, grit, clarity.) When you see a classroom that had -20% loss, I see that we avoided -40% or greater. Teacher 16 did, however, make a pretty good turn-around in reading and ended the year in the middle of the pack, a huge success and evidence of teacher engagement.

We started this school year by reviewing last year’s plan and last year’s data. Because Teacher 16 worked so hard last year, showed a level of professionalism and the ability to improve, we decided to renew the teaching contract (growth-building relationships). If this were a student, we would feel very hopeful. I feel that same hope for this teacher. But we will continue to provide clarity, differentiation, and growth-producing relationships for Teacher 16 because there are 22 kiddos in that class who need as much chance for success and authentic engagement as they would in Teacher 1’s classroom. Thus we will continue to provide teachers differentiated professional development around these three relationships for student engagement: teacher clarity, relationships, and differentiation.

For more on Rob Darling, Ed.D Blog

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