Schools Squander Students’ Imperative

This is the 1880s Omaha High School in Nebraska.

During the pandemic, schools behaved differently. Now students won’t change back to the ways schools were, and schools are blaming them. Learn how schools are squandering the student engagement imperative.

Schools are struggling, to say the least. By their own report, the US Department of Education paints a damning picture of the inability of educators and school leaders to recapture and re-institute the “good ol’ days” before the pandemic. Stories I have heard directly from teachers on the ground confirm this reality.

However, the way all of these researchers and educators are painting this bleak picture is inherently the problem in itself. Instead of educators taking responsibility for their own failures, they are pointing their fingers at students over and over. According to one post-pandemic summary from July 2022, student misconduct, rowdiness outside of the classroom, acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff, and prohibited use of electronic devices are all indicators of negative student behavior that define student engagement and student success in schools.

This very way of viewing students—as the problem, not as the solution—is implicitly demeaning, inherently deceiving, and ultimately irresponsible. It dismisses the student engagement imperative presented to educators after the pandemic, which plainly demanded that schools wholly re-envision learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

Given nearly total control over their participation, engagement, interest and outcomes during the era of online-only classes, many students became authentically empowered for the first time ever in their formal educations. Suddenly, they were able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to turn their cameras on, if they wanted to show their interest by answering questions, and what their own best modalities for learning were, in-person or online. Without the lingering physical dominance of teachers standing above them, goading them along with textbooks and whiteboards and gold stars or candy, many students chose to disengage at will, leaving the frame of their cameras to remain unseen or simply not showing up at all.

Some would argue that this was false choice at best, but I disagree. In pre-pandemic schools, it was a luxury to leave school and believe you’ll succeed without a great deal of privilege and money. During the pandemic students had a lot of leeway despite their socio-economic standing. Schools are striving to re-assert their authority after the pandemic to the detriment of students of color, low-income students, and neurodivergent learners everywhere.

Student engagement happens whenever students choose the same things over and over about anything related to learning, education and schools.

The “negative student behavior” described by research I mentioned shows what happens when you take a person who has tasted freedom and confine them again. They become disruptive, they don’t act according to rules, hey lose respect for people who don’t respect them, and they use the devices that liberated them from the confines of small thinking, finite learning, and insufferable testing. In other words, they act in ways educators don’t approve of.

Instead of forcing conformity and demanding compliance, schools could seize this moment by embracing authentic student engagement, which happens when students have the ability to choose nearly everything for themselves in learning. That can mean students determining the things they want to learn, utilizing the learning methods that work for them, identifying how well they learn given subjects, making cross-curricular connections according to their own interests, and following their passions.

The student engagement imperative demands that its absolutely essential that schools move their focus from student achievement to student engagement.

The pandemic got schools en masse closer to that reality than ever before. Unfortunately, we are squandering the imperative demanded by students by trying to force them back into the boxes they emerged from during that time. Hopefully we won’t require another cataclysmic global event to get us there again.

You can read “More than 80 Percent of U.S. Public Schools Report Pandemic Has Negatively Impacted Student Behavior and Socio-Emotional Development” from the National Center for Education Statistics at the US Department of Education here.

You Might Like…

Elsewhere Online

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s