Schools Squander Students’ Imperative

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.

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Neglecting to Prep for Modern Youth Leadership

It’s the end of November, and I have Christmas carols cranked up on the Alexa. Reminiscing to my own olden days, I’m reminded that when I was a teenager, I joined choir at church. I was an ambitious singer, determined to do the best I could and keep up with the older people around me.

Well, today’s Christmas music reminds me that I failed, miserably, again and again.

You see, I grew up in a house that wasn’t traditionally “churched,” and because of that I didn’t know the traditions of the big ol’ Methodist church on the corner of the neighborhood that I’d randomly selected to attend when I was in high school.

Standing in the choir section at the front of the sanctuary (shown above), I’d get up to practice with the choir once, twice or three times a week, all leading up to Sunday service and the joy of sharing with the congregation.

However, I distinctly remember the choir directors being frustrated with me. For as much as I wanted to sing, I had a hard time with all the things they’d point out, like my rhythm, or pitch, or tone. I wanted to do it good! I just couldn’t…

Nat King Cole was just belting it out throughout the living room, and I was singing along pitch perfect and everything. Of course, it’s been 30 years since I was in that church choir, and a lot of memories have happened since then. It is still seared in my imagination though, that feeling of failing my choir mates and not doing excellently. Well, kind of.

See, I’ve come to understand that thing main things missing between then and now are both complicated and basic. Basically, the main reasons I couldn’t sing the way they wanted me to was that I had never heard the music before, literally. Unchurched, my family didn’t have church traditions or Christmas celebrations that the people in that church did. I literally couldn’t sing along with the songs because I didn’t know them!

There were other issues about the culture of adult expectations, including the idea that I would practice away from the choir, or understood the value or could afford singing lessons, or anything like that.

Well, I this morning I came to the conclusion that my experience in that church choir when I was 17 relates to youth engagement everywhere.

Oftentimes, adults expect young people to simply arrive ready, just like they think they do. We consider youth to be ready whether or not they are, and because of that we often just throw them into the youth involvement experience. That’s true of choirs and councils, committees and quorums.

Rather than simply assuming youth preparedness, we should check with youth about what they know, what they don’t know, what they are passionate about and what they are repulsed by. By doing that we can adjust accordingly, teaching and training and sharing and working towards success as actual partners rather than simply standing in front of youth and trying to lead them.

Modern Youth Leadership is my concept of a new way to engage young people in personal leadership and community leadership today. In my new book, Steps to Youth Leadership in Modern Times, share dozens of examples and stories, practical reflection and planning tools, and many other useful lessons to transform our stuck-in-the-box thinking about the ways, places, and types of youth leadership that happen today. That includes how to prepare both young people and adults for Modern Youth Leadership.

In the meantime, I’m still reaching back to Adam back then, reminding me to be gentle with my expectations of teenage me, be compassionate about the failings and inabilities of adults, and be generous seeing the possibilities in the future. And I’m continuing to learn about neglecting to prep for Modern Youth Leadership.

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Talk To Your Teen About Youth Engagement

With one election cycle over and another unfortunately beginning early, young people are taking in more heinous news, views and ideas about their engagement than ever before. Pundits, critics and “advocates” are sharing a rash of stories and research from dubious places like never before via professional newsletters and emails. F

amilies need to find the truth, but how can they do that?

I suggest asking the following questions when discussing popular messaging around youth engagement:

● Who are the people discussing youth engagement?

● What do you think their angle is?

● What do you think their message is?

● Are they a mental health professional, a politician, or are they trying to sell you something?

● Are they promoting youth engagement program or a research study that they are hyping?

Talking to tweens and teens about this throughout the season — and at any time — brings youth engagement to the forefront and makes it easier for your family to share their inner thoughts with you.

That’s how we get to the truth about youth engagement!

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