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Monday / October 23

Three Ways to Engage Students From the Start

The beginning of the new school year offers equal doses of excitement, tempered with a bit of trepidation. “I can’t wait to meet new people!” and “I hope they like me…” seem to compete simultaneously for attention. And we’re talking about the teachers! We don’t know of a single educator who doesn’t experience some butterflies the night before school starts. “How will I engage them?” we ask.

Engagement lies at the center of the drive to increase the positive impact we have on the learning lives of our students. We know that when we fail to engage, our impact lessens. But what do we mean by engagement? At its foundational level, it is about attention. Experienced educators have learned that pacing matters, and they teach with a sense of urgency. Change tasks frequently throughout the lesson so that students have lots of opportunities to interact with each other and the content.

But true engagement is more than just being able to gain (and regain) attention. Heart, mind, and spirit must also be fully engaged in order for learning to occur. This requires three deliberative actions that are cultivated each and every day (even when the cold, gray winds of February are blowing outside the classroom windows). The first is investment in positive student-teacher relationships. The second is in maintaining a level of cognitive challenge that keeps students interested and wondering, but not defeated. The third is in being able to communicate your credibility and enthusiasm for the subject. Together, these three conditions contribute to a motivating environment that promotes engagement.

Build Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

The ability to learn is powerfully influenced by the relationship between teacher and student. Hattie’s meta-analyses of 229 studies involving over 355,000 students pegs the academic influence of teacher-student relationships at 0.72, approaching two year’s worth of growth for a year in school (2012). After all, you are more likely to learn from someone you like and respect. In order to start the year off right, many educators begin with a variety of “getting to know you” activities. Games that encourage students to learn more about one another are common, and certainly offer a first step in building a classroom community. But how often do you make sure students know about you, and vice versa?

There’s compelling evidence that when students and teachers find similarities between themselves, achievement rises. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this holds especially true for teachers of adolescent Black and Latino students (Gehlbach et al., 2016). In a study they conducted, students and teachers took surveys, and each received reports noting five things they had in common. The surveys asked questions such as the most important quality of a friend, and what they might do if the principal announced a day off. Interestingly, the effect, which closed the achievement gap by 60% at this school, was noticed more by the teachers than the students. In other words, these teachers described their own behaviors toward students they perceived as more similar to themselves in more positive terms. It turns out that we teach better when we perceive similarities with our students.

Challenge, and Learn About Challenge

A second factor for engagement is to ensure that the level of challenge is sufficiently high, without being crushingly difficult. Think of challenge as the space where learning can occur. Too easy, and it might build fluency or stamina, but no new learning. Too difficult, and the learning never gets a chance to get a foothold. That is not to say that students don’t need struggle, but rather that we want to ensure that we follow up failures with further instruction. Recognizing that a task is challenging, but that you’re there to provide support, builds confidence in academic risk taking. This is especially so when you assist them in developing goals that emphasize mastery (“I want to learn a new language”) rather than performance (“I want to pass Spanish”).

Learners benefit from learning about others’ struggles and how they overcame diversity. In a study of the effects of struggle in science learning, students read about the intellectual struggles of scientists (i.e., Einstein’s theories were met with skepticism because he couldn’t prove them), and their personal struggles (i.e., the gender resistance of women in science). Lin-Siegler and her colleagues (2016) found that students whose science curriculum included readings and discussions like this in their classes learned more science content than those who only read about scientists’ accomplishments. This effect that was particularly pronounced for low-achieving students.

Sharing appropriate challenges in your own learning lives can help your students. Many teachers are currently or in the recent past investing in their own advanced education. Consider sharing with your own students what is challenging, and how you are approaching these obstacles. We sometimes share the draft writing that others have edited with our own students because it is vital that they see that no writer gets it right the very first time.

Keep Teacher Credibility High

Your knowledge of your subject or discipline is not sufficient for student learning. Simply being in the presence of an expert doesn’t mean that expertise spills over onto you. What does make a difference is teacher credibility. With a 0.90 effect size, teacher credibility is equated with two year’s worth of learning for a single year in school (Hattie, 2012). Teacher credibility is associated with three factors:

  • Competence (knowledgeable, organized, and capable)
  • Trust (the student feels psychologically and emotionally safe in the learning environment)
  • Dynamism (enthusiastic, energetic, and optimistic)

How do you communicate these to your students each day? A clean and well-organized classroom communicates that you care about them and take pride in your work. The way you greet students every day signals that their presence makes a difference in your life. Your gentle sense of humor and excitement about the topic convey to them why you have dedicated your professional life to them and your discipline.  Even when they roll your eyes at your corny puns, the high regard you hold them and your subject in keeps them engaged and learning.

Engage Heart, Mind, and Spirit

Engagement is crucial for learning, but more than simply gaining attention. Engage students’ hearts by building solid relationships that are cultivated throughout the year. Engage their minds by offering challenging curriculum, and giving them opportunities to learn about challenge, including your own. And finally, engage their spirit by showing your enthusiasm and optimism for them and your discipline.  Rabbi Harold Kushner noted that when he interviewed successful adults and asked “’How did you get to be who you are?’ … the answer… always began with the same four words: ‘There was this teacher.’” (Scherer, 1998, p. 22).

You are that teacher.


Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M. E., King, A. M., Hsu, L. M., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T. (2016). Creating birds of similar feathers: Leveraging similarity to improve teacher-student relationships and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology108(3), 342-352.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Lin-Siegler, X., Ahn, J. N., Jondou, C., Anny, F. A., & Luna-Lucero, M. (2016). Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science. Journal ff Educational Psychology108(3), 314-328.

Scherer, M. (1998). Is school the place for spirituality? A conversation with Rabbi Harold KushnerEducational Leadership, 56(4), 18–22.

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Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

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