Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships for ALL Students

Strengthening Student


Dr. Richard D. Jones, Author and Senior Consultant,

International Center for Leadership in Education

International Center for Leadership in Education 1

Strengthening Student Engagement*

by Dr. Richard D. Jones, Author and Senior Consultant,

International Center for Leadership in Education

November 2008

Engagement-Based Learning and Teaching Approach

Simply telling or encouraging students to engage themselves in their class work is seldom

enough. The engagement-based learning and teaching (EBLT) approach provides the

foundation for developing and strengthening student engagement and the overall learning

process. This foundation is built through specific principles, habits, skills, and strategies. All

members of the school community can join forces to develop schoolwide practices that cultivate

student engagement beliefs, values, feelings, motivation, behavioral habits, and skills that are at

the crux of high levels of student engagement.

The three domains of student engagement unfold in EBLT as follows:

• Cognitive domain consists of beliefs and values.

• Emotional domain consists of motivation and feelings.

• Behavioral domain consists of habits and skills.

In the EBLT approach, teachers and parents work systematically across all three domains to

ensure an integrated approach to cultivate and support student engagement at the highest level.

The core habits of student achievement and other skill sets, such as organizational skills and

self-discipline, also will be developed in the student through this approach.

Key Elements of EBLT

The EBLT approach encompasses the following six objectives.

1. Cultivate one-on-one relationships. The one-on-one relationship between student and

teacher is the critical element that can lead to increased student motivation and higher

levels of engagement in academics and school life.

2. Learn new skills and habits. Teachers can learn new skills and habits that help them to

develop, polish, and enhance their already natural inclination to motivate and engage


3. Incorporate systematic strategies. Teachers can learn systematic strategies that facilitate

student engagement. Students can develop behavioral skills and habits that lead to

increased academic achievement and greater involvement with school life.

4. Take responsibility for student engagement practices. It is primarily the teacher’s

responsibility to engage the students, as opposed to the teacher expecting students to come

to class naturally and automatically engaged.


This white paper is excerpted from Student Engagement — Creating a Culture of Academic Achievement,

published by the International Center for Leadership in Education.

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5. Promote a schoolwide culture of engagement. The best way to promote high levels of

student engagement is to develop and maintain a schoolwide initiative that is dedicated to

creating a culture of student engagement, involving students in school activities, and providing a

rigorous and relevant education program for all students.

6. Professional development is an important part of increasing student engagement.

Staff development, combined with staff ownership and recognition, is critical to developing

and maintaining a culture of effective student engagement.

Laying the Foundation for Student Engagement

It is easy to observe the lack of student engagement when students are slouched in their chairs

and not listening to the teacher or participating in the discussion. Many teachers who constantly

see disengaged students put the burden on the student and lament that they could be better

teachers and have better results if they had the opportunity to work with a “better” group of

students. But classrooms with high levels of student engagement are not simply a result of

“student quality.”

It is true that, depending on students’ prior experiences, attitudes, and perceptions, students

can make it easier or more difficult to create a highly engaged classroom. But teachers are not

limited to poor learning results because students are not engaged. When educators examine

more closely the characteristics of engaging instruction, they can begin to identify the elements

that contribute to high levels of student engagement. These elements are a combination of the

background of students and the influence and expectations of family and peers, but they also

include schoolwide and classroom practices.

For teachers to deal with low levels of student performance, they must begin to reflect on the

elements that contribute to student engagement. Teachers can have direct control and make

changes instantaneously in some areas. For other changes to occur, it will take time for both

students and the teacher to develop new skills. Improvements may depend on planning and

seeking out new solutions or making changes at the schoolwide level.

Regardless of the time it takes to make significant changes to improve student engagement

practices, educators should become familiar with the two basic elements that together provide

the roadmap for teachers to focus on and facilitate student engagement. These elements are

preconditions and pedagogy.


Preconditions are the factors that must be in place even before classroom instruction begins.

The factors are:

Learning relationships. Most students will not do their best in classes when they feel that

teachers do not have an interest in them or care about their future. Students can sense whether

the teacher cares or is simply “going through the motions.” All of the characteristics that we

know about building relationships are essential to contributing to highly engaged classroom

instruction. Students show increased effort in classroom activities when teachers take an

interest in students as individuals, get to know them by name, and talk to them not only in the

classroom but during other activities in the school as well.

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Creating the ideal classroom environment. Good instruction can take place in a variety of

settings. However, there is no question that well designed and well maintained classroom

facilities have a positive impact on student engagement.

Classrooms should be physically comfortable for students with respect to temperature, space,

furniture, and structural organization. Classrooms also need to be mentally stimulating, with

attractive displays that include samples of student work and colorful designs. Good teachers

pay attention to the physical learning environment and do not make changes to that

environment that could become obstacles to student learning.

Rewards and incentives. There is much discussion within education communities and by

researchers and practitioners about the role that rewards play in stimulating student work.

Probably every teacher at some point has used a “bribe” of food, recreation, or some other

reward to encourage students to finish a project or to follow a specific procedure, such as being

quiet in a classroom.

There is some concern, and rightly so, that if rewards are used routinely, students are only

exhibiting the learning behavior to receive the reward. When the reward disappears, the

behavior will stop. Rewards and incentives do have their place, but they must be incorporated


A key to effective use of rewards is whether it is offered in advance of a behavior. A bad use of

the reward system is when a teacher says to students, “If you are quiet for the next 30 minutes,

you will get a piece of candy.” In this scenario, the student associates the behavior with the

reward. It is a better practice to give the reward spontaneously after the behavior.

Grades are the big incentive system in schools. Students do the work, but often they do the

minimal amount possible in order to receive the grade. Some students even openly avoid doing

any work that is not tied to a grade. In this scenario, students see their learning experiences as

meaningless activities, but they have to get the good grade to move on toward the next phase of

their lives.

Where could students have gotten this gross misunderstanding of the importance of grades? It

is the fruition of how we as educators have misguided students as to what is important. We

have tried to spur student engagement in otherwise boring and meaningless activities by tying it

directly to a grade, by giving a reward in hopes that students would complete their school work.

Also, many students feel labeled as “C” or “D” learners from prior experiences in school and see

little reason to improve their efforts. Grades are not a motivation to these students, who are

comfortable with completing very little of their work or skipping it altogether. Many schools need

to reexamine grading policies both at the schoolwide and classroom level to ensure that this

reward system provides a situation in which students are encouraged to work hard.

In general, teachers need to reflect on the appropriate use of rewards in the classroom. The

goal should be to build a stronger student perspective on intrinsic motivation as an incentive for

student work and student learning, such as the pride of completing a difficult task or the

satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

There is no perfect grading system or time to give or withhold rewards. However, schools and

teachers need to examine current practices constantly and consider changes that will increase

the level of student engagement with respect to using incentives and rewards.

International Center for Leadership in Education 4

Guiding principles. These are positive character attributes and appropriate behaviors for

achieving in school and becoming good citizens as adults. In recent years, however, many

schools have moved away from programs that deal with behavioral issues and character

education to avoid divisive community debates about whether schools should be teaching

anything beyond the old 3 Rs.

The development of a child’s character and appropriate behavior is first and foremost the

responsibility of the family, but schools can play a strong supporting role. Schools with the

highest levels of student achievement do not sidestep the issue of character education. They

embrace it. These schools acknowledge that their success is due in large measure to their

attention to guiding principles, through which they have been able to create the supportive

learning environment that is essential for students to achieve high standards.

Following are some guiding principles used by many schools.

• adaptability

• compassion

• contemplation

• courage

• honesty

• initiative

• loyalty

• optimism

• perseverance

• respect

• responsibility

• trustworthiness

Habits. These are the routines and procedures that teachers create in the classroom. Habits

include the way that students enter a classroom or engage in an activity at the start of every

class period. Other habits include the ways that students open and organize materials that they

need for the day, move from large to small groups for various activities, and work on individual


Teachers can create improved classroom environments and higher levels of student

engagement if they focus on appropriate procedures and have students practice those

procedures until they become habits. When students fail to follow the procedures, teachers

need remind them of the rules and ways in which they can practice them. Good habits help to

make effective use of instructional time and reduce the disruption that distracts students from

the learning process. It is through practices that these procedures become powerful habits and

keep students engaged in learning.

Fundamental skills. These are the basic proficiencies that all students need to be able to

participate in class and complete their work. Student need basic reading skills, for example, to

be able to understand directions and materials used in any subject area. Students also need to

acquire the skills to facilitate discussions and to learn how to listen to the teacher as well as

other students in group discussions. They also need basic skills in technology for doing Internet

research or preparing PowerPoint presentations. In addition, students need to learn basic social

skills. To function in the classroom and workforce and as responsible citizens, they have to

International Center for Leadership in Education 5

learn how to greet others, respect space, resolve conflicts, and ask questions. Teachers should

ensure that students have these skills through pre-assessment and by constantly monitoring

student engagement levels.


The following key aspects of pedagogy help teachers create an environment in which rigorous

and relevant learning can take place.

Designing for rigorous and relevant learning. One of the barriers to high levels of student

engagement is the lack of rigorous and relevant instruction. While it is essential that students

acquire fundamental skills before they proceed to more complex work, teachers should not keep

students hostage by requiring that they complete all the isolated basics before they have the

opportunity to engage in challenging and applied learning experiences. Relevance is just as

critical as rigor. Relevance can help create conditions and motivation necessary for students to

make the personal investment required for rigorous work or optimal learning. Students invest

more of themselves, work harder, and learn better when the topic is interesting and connected

to something that they already know.

Personalized learning. Each student brings a unique set of characteristics to the classroom:

different background knowledge, a unique learning style, a variety of interests, and varied

parental support and expectations. To anticipate that each student will learn in the same way, at

the same speed, and using the same material is an unrealistic expectation.

Some teachers fall into the false assumption that the student is responsible when he or she fails

to demonstrate adequate achievement. But often it is the lack of personalizing learning that is

the source of failure. There are many individual practices and strategies that contribute to

overall personalization. As a start, teachers can create a more engaging classroom situation by

getting to know their students and using examples during instruction that relate to students’

backgrounds, cultures, and prior experiences.

Parent involvement also is a part of personalizing learning. By reaching out to parents and

establishing cooperation and support for learning expectations, teachers are able to achieve

greater personalization. Students also need to experience differentiated instruction instead of

constant large group instruction moving at the same rate of speed. There should be

opportunities for them to do individual assignments, to work at their own speed — to move more

slowly on more difficult material and more quickly on concepts or skills in which they have

higher proficiency levels.

Active learning strategies. While it may sometimes be efficient to have students listen to a

short lecture, view video material, or read a textbook, doing these types of isolating, sedentary

activities on regular basis becomes mind-numbing rather than mind-engaging. There are

strategies that naturally contribute to a much higher level of student engagement. For example,

cooperative learning strategies in which students are organized into structured discussion

groups and play specific roles in analyzing problems and seeking solutions are more engaging

than listening to a lecture. Moreover, varying instructional strategies adds interest and increases

engagement. Even the most exciting activities, if done continually, lose their appeal.

Focus on reading. It may seem as a misplacement to talk about literacy as a key ingredient in

student engagement. However, many successful schools emphasize the importance of focusing

on literacy instruction for continuous learning in all subjects.

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Having a literacy focus means that all teachers, regardless of subject area, know the reading

levels of the materials that they are using, whether that material is incorporated in textbooks,

classroom directions, Internet-based resources, or other reading sources. They also know the

reading levels of their students. They are able to match reading materials with individual

students and identify where there are significant gaps that might require a change in

instructional strategy.

Teachers also need to incorporate vocabulary strategies as part of their individual course

instruction. Paying attention to specific terms related to a topic of discussion and using

strategies to gradually introduce and reinforce the vocabulary leads to comprehension and

better student engagement in every subject. Teachers need to use comprehension strategies

such as pre-reading and summarization that provide an opportunity for students to be more

engaged in the required reading for a particular instructional activity. Reading is fundamental

and cuts across all learning. If teachers expect high levels of student engagement, they need to

pay attention to reading levels and establish instructional strategies with literacy as a primary

focus in all they do.

Learning Relationships

Strong positive relationships are critical to the education process. Students are more likely to

make a personal commitment to engage in rigorous learning when they know teachers, parents,

and other students care about how well they do. They are willing to continue making the

investment when they are encouraged, supported, and assisted. Building good relationships

complements rigor and relevance. For students to engage fully in challenging learning, they

must have increased levels of support from the people around them.

Perhaps what is needed is a taxonomy to help educators identify and quantify relationships that

improve learning. The International Center has developed such a tool, called the Relationship

Framework, which consists of seven levels of relationships.

Level 0 is Isolated. This is the lack of any positive relationships. The individual feels alone and

isolated from social relationships that would enhance learning.

Level 1 is Known. A person must know someone before a relationship is formed. When

teachers seek to develop positive relationships with students, the first step is getting to know

them—their families, likes, dislikes, aspirations, and learning styles.

Level 2 is Receptive. Often, a learning relationship is described in terms of providing the

assistance and support that a student needs. However, a preliminary step is showing that we

are interested and genuinely care about developing a relationship. This comes from frequent

contact in multiple settings and taking an active interest.

Level 3 is Reactive. In this case, one person receives guidance or support from another. This

relationship yields emotional support or cognitive information.

Level 4 is Proactive. At this level, people have made a proactive commitment to do more than

assist when needed and take an active interest in supporting the other person.

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Level 5 is Sustained. Positive support is balanced from family members, peers, and teachers.

It is a relationship that will endure over a long period of time. This is the level of relationship that

effective parents have with their children.

Level 6 is Mutually Beneficial. Although this is the highest level, it is rare in education, for at

this point, both parties contribute support to one another for an extended period of time.

The following chart describes the degrees of student support at each level of the framework.

Relationship Framework

Learning Relationships — Support for Students

0. Isolated Students feel significant isolation from teachers, peers, or even parents.

Students lack any emotional or social connection to peers and teachers.

1. Known

Students are known by others and are frequently called by name. Teachers

know students and their families, interests, aspirations, and challenges.

Students are known by peers with whom they interact in school.

2. Receptive

Students have contact with peers, parents, and teachers in multiple settings.

Teachers exhibit positive behaviors of “being there” that show genuine

interest and concern.

3. Reactive Teachers, parents, and peers provide help to students when requested, but

support may be sporadic and inconsistent among support groups.

4. Proactive

Others take an active interest in a student’s success. Teachers take initiative

to show interest and provide support. Students and others express verbal

commitment for ongoing support and validate this commitment with their


5. Sustained There is extensive, ongoing, pervasive, and balanced support from teachers,

parents, and peers that is consistent and sustained over time.

6. Mutually


Positive relationships are everywhere and commonplace in the way that

students, teachers, and parents interact and support the student as learner.

Once teachers make relationships important, they can begin to reflect on current practices and

discuss how to improve them. Relationships are not simply good or bad; they exist on a

continuum. Furthermore, relationships can change over time.

The Relationship Framework first helps teachers understand that there are degrees of

relationships. When they think about their relationships with students, teachers can use the

framework to apply a qualitative measure to the relationships they make. This qualitative

measure helps teachers reflect on their current levels and allows them to decide if they wish to

make changes to improve relationships. When relationships are categorized as a simple

dichotomy of good or bad, teachers are not likely to reflect on their practices or make selfdirected

changes. If relationships are “good,” there is no need for change. If relationships are

“poor,” it is easier to become defensive, blame the other party, or accept things for the way they

are. When a specific framework is used for describing relationships, it has a different effect on

teachers. Even if relationships are poor, there are at least some positive aspects on which to

build. This makes teachers less defensive.

At the other end of the scale, relationships categorized as generally “good” are usually never as

good as they could be. There is the potential for growth and further improvement. This

motivates even the best teachers to continue to work on improving relationships and strive to

reach higher levels. In this scenario, all teachers need to work on improving relationships

regardless of their current level of success.

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The various levels in the Relationship Framework help to identify the changes that need to be

made to improve relationships. If a teacher observes that a student is isolated, the first step is to

engage in interventions by getting to know the student and facilitating activities among peers to

expand what they know about one another. Just because students “hang out” together does not

mean that they really know much about each other. Sometimes a student in a group can be just

as isolated as one who sits alone in a school cafeteria.

If a teacher observes that current student relationships are at the “known” level, relationship

interventions can focus on frequency of contact and exhibiting behaviors of receptivity. The next

level moves to behaviors that provide support to students.

Classroom Management vs. Learning-Based Relationships

The teacher’s responsibility for teaching and learning in the classroom often is divided into

instruction and classroom management. Instruction refers to the content and pedagogy of what

is learned. Classroom management refers to the processes and techniques that teachers use to

set the climate for learning. The words “classroom management” create the impression that the

classroom is an industrial process rather than a collaboration among people. It suggests that the

teacher applies certain management techniques without any emotion to make sure that the

classroom runs smoothly and efficiently. The term originates in the industrial model of

education, the same model that gives us rigid bell schedules, differentiation of labor, and large

school houses.

School leaders have begun to question many of these industrial model characteristics. Perhaps

one of the changes schools should make is to abandon the term “classroom management” and

replace it with “relationship building.” Teachers need to create a climate for learning in the

classroom. However, this is not a process to be managed. The classroom is made up of a group

of students who desire and deserve high-quality personal relationships with adults and peers. It

is the quality of these relationships that drives their behavior and leads to learning. The following

charts describes some differences when looking at the instructional climate as relationship

building rather than as classroom management.

Classroom Management Relationship Building

Classroom Rules Mandated Negotiated

Power Without question Power with respect

Observation of

Effectiveness Students passive and quiet Students actively engaged

Risk-Taking Discouraged Encouraged

Control Mechanism Negative

feedback/punishments Positive reinforcement

Primary Teacher Role Absolute attention Source of encouragement

Relationships in school always can be improved. Schools can engage in specific practices to

improve the quality of those relationships that influence student learning and the operation of a

school. These practices fall into three categories:

International Center for Leadership in Education 9

1. Supportive behaviors are ways in which teachers act and interact with students to support

learning and good relationships.

2. Supportive initiatives are school initiatives that contribute to learning and good


3. Supportive structures constitute major organizational changes that contribute to learning

and good relationships.

Following are examples of adult and peer behaviors that influence learning relationships in a

positive manner.

• Showing respect

• “Being there” for students and frequent contact

• Active listening

• One-on-one communication

• Encouraging students to express opinions

• Avoiding “put-downs”

• Writing encouraging notes

• Students praising peers

• Displaying students’ work

• Identifying unique talents and strengths

• Exhibiting enthusiasm

• Using positive humor

• Serving as a role model

• Celebrating accomplishments

Following are examples of supportive initiatives that influence learning relationships in a

positive way.

• Social activities to start the year

• Team building

• Mentoring

• Rewards, recognition, incentives

• Student advocacy

• Advisory programs

• Peer mediation

• Students as teachers

• Character education

• Parent partnerships

• Business-community partnerships

• Service learning/community service

• Extracurricular and co-curricular activities

• Sports programs

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Schools also can implement major changes to their structures that can make it easier to

develop positive learning relationships, such as the following.

• Small learning communities

• Alternative scheduling

• Team teaching

• Teaching continuity

• School-based enterprises

• Professional learning communities

Related resources available from the International Center for Leadership in Education,

visit for more information.

Resource Kits:

Leadership for Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships

Strategic Reading in the Content Areas — Boosting Achievement in Grades 7-12

Student Engagement — Creating a Culture of Academic Achievement


Student Engagement — Teacher Handbook (available January 2009)

International Center for Leadership in Education

1587 Route 146 ● Rexford, NY 12148

(518) 399-2776 ● fax 399-7607 ●

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