Every teacher understands the need for students to be engaged, but what if they constantly find themselves staring back at blank stares? How can a teacher deliver a lesson so that their students aren’t falling asleep or spacing out? In addition to proper planning, lesson delivery is key to getting kids motivated to learn and do the hard work to improve. Here are actionable strategies that teachers can use today to keep their students excited throughout the class period.

How to be an engaging teacher

  • Have a developmentally appropriate teacher presence
  • The teacher does less talking and the students do more
  • Develop strong relationships with your students
  • Learn how to respond to them without shutting them down
  • Read the room

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In the last episode, I discussed 5 ways to make your lessons more engaging. This is really important because even the most entertaining teachers will struggle to make a boring lesson interesting. Being proactive is really key here.

In this episode, I’m going to go through ways that YOU can be engaging when teaching. Now this doesn’t mean jumping around, gesticulating wildly, using props and doorbells. That may work at the elementary level, but once you get into secondary, they find it cringey. They may at and with you, but if you’re putting on a show for the sake of it, it can get old.

Why do we need to be engaging when we’re teaching? You’ve probably observed this, either from observations or from your own experience, but when students are TRULY engaged, they don’t really interrupt the lesson and become a classroom management problem, they do the work without too much prompting, they feel more confident to take risks and try something difficult, and they hold on to that information a lot longer.

Don’t we all want that? Isn’t that kind of the point of all of this?

But many of us struggle with this, and we can’t really figure out why. We have the BEST lessons planned, but they keep falling flat because the kids zone out and aren’t interested.

Or worse, they’re talking over us and not listening. Or they’re falling asleep.

So before I dive into the five ways you can be engaging, I want to discuss your teacher presence. And I don’t mean presents as in your birthday, but your presence in the room.

It’s really important to learn a lot about the age group that you’re teaching. I don’t just mean what they should be capable of doing in your class, but what to expect from them developmentally.

The reason this is important is you have to adjust your teaching style to your audience the same way you have to adjust your writing based on the audience. Elementary students need more encouragement, it’s good if you talk in a sing-song way, the students more willing to do call and response, and they’re more outwardly expressive of their feelings.

Once you start hitting the middle-school age, you have to cut the sing-songy voice, but you still want to be positive and upbeat. Students are more guarded and self-conscious, so they hide their feelings more. Humor really helps loosen this up at this age because they’re still immature, but they still want to assert their independence.

High schoolers want to be treated like they’re on your level. This doesn’t mean that they should be your friend, but they are questioning everything, so they can be a little more open to reason. They’re starting to really form their identity and opinions and are more willing to challenge you. They’re still silly and want to have fun, but they also get down to business and are more serious.

So why am I explaining the obvious to you? Because you have to think about the age group in front of you and adjust accordingly. You have to be developmentally appropriate if you want to get an optimal response from them.

So this means that you can’t be serious and stern with second-graders, nor can you have a really hyped up way of speaking paired with call and response in high school.

Also, your presence and personality have to fill the room. Notice I didn’t say your voice. You can still be a little more on the quieter side, but you’ll need to work harder to fill the room. This means you have to really circulate around the room, make eye contact with every student, stand up straight, and be more assertive. Since your voice isn’t reaching that corner of the room, you have to move to where you need your voice to be.

When you’re more on the meek and softer side, you have to work harder to engage students. They can listen for a little bit, but it doesn’t take long for your soothing voice to either lull them into daydreams or cause them to get restless.

So now that I’ve gone through your teacher presence, let’s talk about some strategies you can employ to make your delivery more engaging.

1) In a truly engaging environment, the teacher does less talking, and students do MORE talking. 

    1. This means that you should let your students work collaboratively – with think pair share, group roles, reciprocal teaching. 
    2. This is important because students’ attention spans are short (and let’s be honest, adults are pretty similar!). Imagine a graph, where the horizontal axis is how long you’re talking, and the vertical axis is how long they’re paying attention. As you talk longer, you move to the right of the graph. When you start talking, you have maximum attention from the students, but once you get to the 10-minute mark or longer, it precipitously drops.
    3. When YOU talk, students are just absorbing information, but they’re not synthesizing, analyzing, or applying it. You HAVE to give them a chance to talk it out in their own words and make meaning of the concept. This is why they can’t just read information from a textbook and remember it – they have to DO something with that information in order to truly retain it.

2) From Day 1, develop a good relationship with students.  

  1. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. It’s widely known that when students have a good rapport and connection with their teachers, they’re more likely to not only be engaged, but they actually want to learn. They also want to please their teacher and seek approval, so getting them from the start is KEY.
  2. A lot of us usually do some sort of survey of students’ interests, but you need to go beyond that. Don’t just ask questions about THEM, but share and let them ask you. Regularly share little bits about your life, whether it’s about your pet, a show you’re watching, or what you did last weekend. You don’t have to get SUPER personal and tell them that you have high blood pressure or that your mother-in-law is annoying.

3) Learn how to answer without shutting them down and making them feel stupid. 

  1. This took me a couple of years to figure out, and I know that I learned this from someone. But the way in which you respond to a student’s answer or question will have a huge impact on how engaged they are in your class.
  2. So you want to master saying that they’re incorrect without making them feel stupid. Once you make them feel this way and embarrass them in front of the class, they’ll shut down. They won’t care about you or your lesson, and they’ll be distracted the rest of the period by the shame they feel.
  3. Some teachers don’t even realize that their TONE is belittling to students! Even if a student is being silly with their answer or they ask you a question that you JUST went over, you need to cut that sarcasm out of your voice. Now TRUST ME when I say that this is difficult. I have to force myself in that moment to level my voice and answer calmly. Even if another student says, “Dude, she JUST said that,” I tell them that it’s okay because I won’t accept students treating each other in that manner.
  4. When you’re circulating around the room and looking at their work, try telling them what they’re doing right and don’t always follow it up with constructive criticism. Yes, you may see something that they can fix, but let them bask in the glow of doing something right. Then make another round, point to where they made the mistake, and just simply say, “You might want to rethink that.” This lets them know that something is wrong but it doesn’t shut them down.

4) Read the room

  1. I like to think of myself as a fairly engaging teacher, but sometimes the material just isn’t reaching the kids. It could be because they hadn’t had a transition in a while, and somehow I’ve been talking too long. Maybe what I thought would be fun but my students just aren’t in the mood.
  2. When this happens, you have to pivot on the spot. You have to be ready to take that lesson to the next level. I usually stop where I’m at and have them do a think/pair/share or summarize in groups what I just discussed. I make sure that every person says it even if another person already answered.
  3. For my first classes of the day, the kids are DEAD. I can’t really blame them because we start at 7:30 in the morning, but we have a lot of material to cover! So if they’re dying and falling asleep, I make them get up and stretch, high five their neighbor, skip count backward by threes, or sometimes we walk a lap around our building. Some of you may think that it’s wasting valuable instructional time, but if they’re falling asleep, you’re just wasting your breath anyway since you’ll have to repeat the material.
  4. Finally, be sensitive to introverts because they participate in different ways. Just because they don’t raise their hand that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged. Be mindful of those students and look at the work they produce as evidence of their learning. Sometimes they’re paired with more assertive students and they don’t want to interject with their answers. Don’t penalize them for that since you can’t change their personalities.
    1. I’ve actually grouped these types of students together and told them that while they didn’t need to be discussing the entire time, I want them to give each other their answers as they go along. If there’s a disagreement on an answer, they need to discuss it. This really honors their personality and is SUCH a relief to them.
    2. At first, it was uncomfortable for me because nobody in that group was talking. It seemed like they were missing out on all of the fun that the other groups were having. When I asked them how they felt about it, they actually loved being grouped that way because they didn’t have to listen to somebody talking loudly in that group, and they had more mental space to think.

So these are ways that you can deliver more engaging lessons. When you pair it with planning engaging lessons, you won’t only find your students more engaged, but you’ll enjoy teaching more.

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