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Teacher Engagement is the Key to Student Engagement

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The necessary precursor to high levels of student achievement is deep engagement in learning, and the teacher’s own engagement is the key to achieving that. Curriculum counts and technology can help, but it is teachers who inspire students, and enthusiastically engaged teachers do that best. 

But what engages teachers? Another way to ask that question is, What motivates them? Daniel Pink (and before him Alfie Kohn) has told us that although traditional motivation theory—the carrot and stick approach—is widely accepted as “common sense,” research has shown it to be ineffective except for straightforward tasks that require application of well-understood processes to well-defined problems. Well, that certainly doesn’t describe teaching, which is a complex task that requires creative insight. So much for merit pay and Fraser Institute report cards!

So what does motivate teachers? Its the same thing that motivates everyone else according to Pink’s summary of the research—autonomy, mastery and purpose. Respect, fair treatment and adequate compensation are necessary but not sufficient. In addition, people want to have reasonable control over what they do, to do it well and to feel that it is meaningful because it contributes to a larger purpose. This creates a virtuous circle of increasing vocation, contribution and fulfillment.

In the case of teachers,however, there is another powerful factor—the intimate ongoing relationship they have with their students. When that relationship is healthy and when students respond positively to the teacher, the motivation derived from it overwhelms all other factors. Physical facilities and learning resources may be poor, politicians may play football with the system, and the circumstances of students’ lives may be disheartening but if the teacher’s relationship with those students is strong the bond motivates like no other factor. This, of course, can be good or bad—an issue to which I will return in my next post—but the strong connection teachers feel with their students creates a highly reciprocal relationship in terms of motivation.

But where does this begin? Is student engagement the chicken or the egg? In some ways it doesn’t matter because once the cycle of mutual motivation begins it is self-sustaining, and it is probably the case that it can begin with either the teacher or the student. However, while there is a mutuality in this relationship the teacher is the adult and has the most power and thus bears the primary responsibility for initiating and developing it in constructive ways that serve the school’s purposes.

So, if the student outcomes that we seek begin with student engagement and teacher engagement is its necessary counterpart then a good place to focus our attention is on the best ways to engage teachers. That’s the key to student engagement—not the whole story, of course, but the key to animating learning and realizing the potential benefits of all the other factors that can contribute. Without it, those factors, as beneficial as they may be, won’t get the job done.

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