The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

In the early 80’s when my teaching career began, the term “classroom management” was widely used to describe the multitude of things teachers do to minimize disruptions and maximize learning.  I learned to increase my effectiveness through trial-n-error as almost no time was spent discussing and practicing the variables that mattered.  Courses designed specifically to support student teachers with “management” did not exist; the conversations were about the subjects and the “how” of teaching.


During the early 90’s, as a school psychologist, I was called in when individual students were communicating displeasure about their situation by acting out, physically and/or verbally.  They had “behavior problems” in need of  “fixing”.   Classroom management was the cure.  A rigid behavior system that included appropriate consequences was the focus.  I have been a primary author of thousands of individualized behavior plans, and yet I could see the forest behind the trees.

The forest was problematic.  



To help solve the real problem, I had to set my eyes on a larger concept that included not only the humans in a classroom and school, but also the physical environment itself.  I reject the term classroom management and have adopted a more appropriate, supportive and prescriptive notion

Classroom Culture


The culture of the classroom teaches

Ron Ritchhart, Principle Investigator for the Cultures of Thinking Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes there are 8 cultural forces  that define our classrooms:

  1. Time
  2. Opportunities
  3. Routines and structures
  4. Language
  5. Modeling
  6. Relationships and interactions
  7. Physical environment
  8. Expectations

These cultural forces exist at all times.  The argument is that we should intentionally design the culture with the students so that what we value and believe around teaching and learning is immediately evident.  The culture does,  indeed,  teach.  Some important questions to ask:

  • Who holds the power for decision-making?  Students, teacher or both?
  • Have we anticipated variability in advance, offering options for students to engage with new content, master the concepts and show understanding?
  • Does thinking and learning trump work completion and grades?
  • Are there consistent routines in place to help students think and engage in meaningful conversations?
  • Does the physical environment provide options for seating?  Is there adequate natural light and ventilation?
  • Have we created an inclusive, interdependent tribal community where we learn from one another?
  • Do we take time to thoughtfully solve conflict together, as it arises? Do we help ensure equitable resolution?
  • Do we show that we value understanding by taking the time to adequately explore topics?
  • Do we avoid unhealthy competition, shaming, blaming and other interactions that are defeating?
  • Is there plenty of opportunity for time spent solving real problems?  Do all students experience mastery?
  • Do we have lists of teacher-generated rules or have students identified norms for how we will be together?


Students in thriving, engaging  classroom communities do not need to be managed. 


The Engaged Classroom: Current State

The data we have about trends in student engagement are worrisome. A 2015 Gallup poll of more than 800,000 students nationwide in grades 5 through 12 found that, while 50% of all the students polled reported feeling engaged at school, fully 29% of students overall reported not feeling engaged, and an alarming 21% reported feeling actively disengaged at school.  

Engagement decreases steadily from fifth grade through middle school and high school.  The lowest point occurs in the junior year of high school.   In fifth grade, three-quarters of students feel involved in and enthusiastic about school, but by 11th grade, the same is true for only about one-third of students.







Attention varies within an individual, across the day and over time


Phillip Schlecty’s theory on engagement dictates that even highly engaged classrooms will have students who are not committed and whose attention is diverted.  His model reveals a continuum of engagement, going from Rebellion (low committment-diverted attention) to Engaged (high commitment-high attention).  In between we have Retreatism, Compliance and Strategic Compliance with varying levels of commitment and attention.  Many of our most academically successful students do what they need to earn the grade but do not see the value and do not retain what they learned.  These Strategically Compliant students associate value with the other extrinsic things (parental approval or grade) but are not learning at high levels.  They are not truly engaged.


What can we do?

For answers, we can look at the student, parents and/or community.  We can look at the whole school.  Research, however, suggests that the most powerful influence on outcomes that educators can impact relies on the classroom teacher and the culture that is created within.

The classroom teacher is among the most powerful influences in learning.  –  John Hattie

  Next up:  The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

A Model for Student Engagement


Authentic smiles from engaged students

A tremendous amount of research has concluded that student engagement is one of the key contributors to academic (and life) success.

We also know that engagement is influenced by context.  Learners are more likely to engage if their learning environment is supportive, compassionate, attentive and responsive. Just as students need support to be engaged, classroom teachers may require support to be successful in the challenging work of cultivating and maintaining a high level of student engagement throughout the year and across years.


We asked students and staff all over our county what student engagement mean to them.   Students from Huron Valley, MI created a song to accompany the varied pictorial responses in a video you can view here. 


According to the Glossary of Education Reform ,

In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of student engagement is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise ‘disengaged.’ Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.”

Model For Engagement


Members of the Culture/Climate Unit at Oakland Schools, including Karen Gomez, Dr. Jay B. Marks, Dr. Julie McDaniel and myself, created the model above to depict important features of student engagement.  Work out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Archambault, et al (2009) facilitated our thinking.  Students (and staff) experience varying degrees of affective, behavioral and cognitive involvement.

  • Affective engagement:  the experience, feelings, attitudes, and perceptions a student has towards school, including their sense of belonging, interest, willingness to learn, and general sense of liking school.
  • Behavioral engagement: a student’s willingness  to follow rules and adhere to cultural norms and  involvement in the classroom and with extracurricular activities.
  • Cognitive engagement: cognitive functions involved in learning

Four other major contextual features were identified.  These either inhibit or support engagement for students and staff.  We must intentionally attend to these features,

  1. Culture Is the environment inclusive and learner-friendly?  Are cultural forces intentionally designed to support belonging, thinking and learning? Are there predictable routines that remove roadblocks and facilitate smooth transitions?  Does the physical environment provide access to resources; create an inviting backdrop for deep learning? Is the culture collaborative, void of unhealthy competition?
  2. Student Voice Are students stakeholders, articulating their perspectives and directing activities? Do they have a collaborative role, leading change and contributing to data sources?  Do adults share authority, demonstrate trust, protect against cooptation, learn from students and facilitate equitable conflict resolution?
  3. Relationships  Are adults and students able to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups?  Can they communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed?  Are interactions authentic and respectful?
  4. Social Emotional Learning  Can adults and students recognize and interpret emotions, understanding their causes and consequences? Do they have the ability to label and discuss emotions? Do they know when and how to express particular emotions?  Can they effectively regulate emotions when they are triggered, managing stress, maintaining impulses and staying motivated?

When the context is healthy, authentic, supportive, encouraging, compassionate,  attentive (and responsive) adults and students are more likely to be engaged and stay engaged.

You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
                                  – Abraham Lincoln

Archambault, I., Janosz, M., Morizot, J., & Pagani, L. (2009). Adolescent behavioral, affective, and cognitive      engagement in school: Relationship to dropout. Journal of School Health, 79(9), 408-415; 415.

Next up:  The Engaged Classroom:  Current State

Inquiry and Collaboration

“As teacher-inquirers begin formulating their initial wonderings, they often ponder in a similar fashion.”  The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research

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Teacher inquiry always involves collaboration.  Why is collaboration key?  

  • Research is hard work
  • Teacher talk is important
  • There’s safety in numbers
  • There’s strength in numbers

The question is how?

Options for collaboration

  1. Shared Inquiry:  when two or more practicing teachers or prospective teachers pair or group to define and conduct a single teacher research project together
  2. Parallel Inquiry:  Teacher pairs conduct two parallel but individual teacher-research projcest, working collectively to support each other’s individual endeavors.
  3. Intersecting Inquiry:  Two or more teachers are engaging in inquiry on completely different topics with similar wonderings or the same topic with different wonderings.  Collaboration occurs at the juncture.
  4. Inquiry Support:  Prospective or practicing teacher-inquirers can take full ownership of their inquiry project but invite one or more professionals who are not currently engaging in inquiry to support their work.

A growth mindset matters………………..for students and teachers.  Let’s make it happen in a way that supports relationships, collaboration, and practice change.


Dana, Nancy F. & Yendol-Hoppey, D. The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research.         California:  Corwin, 2014.


Inquiry in the Age of Evaluation


Teacher inquiry is a viable way for educators to improve their practice.  It can lead individuals toward collaborative, supportive relationships with peers and meaningful change in practice.  It is professional learning with an internal locus of control that is focused on an individual and their context.    It begins with a question.  The question, or wondering, becomes the focus and goal.



Ties to the evaluation process  To make professional learning both meaningful and relevant for educators, it seems wise to connect goals and growth to the evaluative process that exists for everyone.  With the educator creating their own goals, energy and effort can be focused with intent; progress is almost guaranteed.

Teacher “Evaluation”

Indeed, the new teacher evaluations have caused much grief to more than a few educators.  The word “evaluation”, alone, infers many uncomfortable things.  The deficiencies of the traditional view of teacher evaluation includes:

  • Outmoded evaluative criteria, usually in the form of checklists.
  • Simplistic evaluative comments, such as “needs improvement,” “satisfactory,” and “outstanding” without any consistency as to what those words mean. Many teachers end up being rated at the highest level on every item, with no guidance as to where they might focus their improvement efforts.
  • The same procedures for both novice teachers and career professionals— no differentiation that reflects veteran teachers’ experience and expertise.
  • Lack of consistency among evaluators; a teacher might be rated at the highest level by one administrator and much lower by another. This makes it much easier to attain tenure in some schools than in others, a violation of a fundamental principle of equity.
  • One-way, top-down communication. Evaluation is a process that’s “done to” teachers, and it often feels punitive, like a “gotcha.”

The purpose of evaluation often gets lost in the series of observations and checklists, causing much fear and general harm to the teaching profession.  The real purpose needs to be made visible:  Evaluations should be about helping teachers learn.  “Evaluations” should be inextricably tied to the educator’s personal professional learning plan.

According to Learning Forward’sStandards for Professional Learning ,

Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment and aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards.


The State of Michigan and the Michigan Council for Teacher Effectiveness has approved several tools to assist administrators in supporting the growth of the teachers.  The Danielson Framework is frequently used.  It is characterized by Four Domains:

  1. Planning and preparation
  2. Classroom Environment
  3. Instruction
  4. Professional Responsibilities


Connecting passion and growth to the evaluative process



A continuum of professional learning that provides surface learning in the eight passions along with opportunities to engage in deep, collaborative inquiry with other educators would seem to be the most meaningful way to help educators learn and grow.


In this evaluative age, collaborative inquiry is an empowering way for educator’s to own their own learning.  Focusing on one of the eight areas of passion, their growth can easily be tied to the evaluative process.  The benefit, though, is the sense of empowerment that comes from inquiry.  Teachers lead their learning; direct their “evaluation”.  No fear.


Teacher Inquiry: It Begins With A Question

 “Where teacher inquiry occurs, there is a radical, but quiet kind of educational reform in process.”



I am fortunate to have the opportunity to join inquisitive educators engaging in classroom inquiry.  The Job Embedded Professional Learning Network (2014-2015) at Oakland Schools is several years in, facilitated by Lauren Childs.  Our textbook is a guide.

Teacher inquiry is about growth.  It is a systemic, intentional study of one’s own professional practice. The following also holds true:

  • Purpose:  to improve classroom practice
  • Focus:  to provide insight into teaching in effort to change
  • Owner:  an insider
  • Impact:  local

It differs from mere reflection in that it is intentional, problem posing, visible and collaborative.

The inquiry process begins with a question or “wondering”:

Eight Passions

  1. Help a student
  2. Improve the curriculum
  3. Develop content knowledge
  4. Strategies/techniques
  5. Beliefs/practices
  6. Personal/professional identities
  7. Social Justice
  8. Teaching/Learning Context


‘As a teacher-inquirer in charge of your own learning, you become a part of a larger struggle in education  – the struggle to better understand, inform, shape reshape and reform standard school practice.’


It all begins with a question.




Losing a Pet in an Autistic Household

Such an intimate post. Reflecting on how a child with autism understands the emotions involved in the loss of a beloved cat.

A Quiet Week In The House

When our beloved seventeen-year-old cat was dying, Tyoma, our autistic son, reacted thus:

“Oh. So, then we’ll get a new kitty.”

No emotional depth. No concern. No sadness.

This did not fool us.

Kitty Pearl filled our son’s daily imaginings. Wobbly scratching posts and sinister-looking grooming contraptions were built in her honor. He wrote her sentimental “I-love-you-kitty” letters and taped kitty-centric schedules near her water bowl. Homemade Kitty Forts stretched across rooms and cluttered staircases.

Kitty Portal

Then there were lists. Page after page of numbered instructions pertaining to the cat:

  1. Pet kitty gently.
  2. Add ice cubes to fresh water.
  3. Brush with the fur.
  4. No pestering.

Tyoma needed to organize his interactions with Pearl, not just to remind him of his duties but also to cope with the delicious and abhorrent impulse to pull her tail.

Pearl’s declining state preoccupied Tyoma later that evening. He spread inky equationed papers on the bed…

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