5 Ways to Keep Students Engaged

Keep students engaged and even the worst class will never have time to misbehave.

I’ve never forgotten the 9th graders from Lyceum 33 in Astana. It was the worst class I’ve ever have. One student came to class early, stuck his head out the window, and started to smoke! While I was standing there.

Another student simply refused to hand me back his test. I said I’d give him a 0 if he didn’t give it back to me and he said, “F*** your 0, who cares?” and walked out of class.

I knew it wasn’t all my fault, because I saw kids fighting in the halls. One 14-year-old told me he knew how to drive. He stole his father’s car all the time and drove around with his buddies, getting drunk in the car.

But they definitely kept some extra resistance just for me. I was a foreigner. I didn’t scream at them like the other teachers. I wasn’t cold to them and I didn’t insult them. So they thought they could walk all over me. At least, that’s how I saw it.

Idle Hands

Still, I was their English teacher and it was my job to spend 45 minutes with them. And hopefully try to teach them something. After the test incident, I sat back and reflected on how the trouble started. When they first came in, they were fine. They let me take attendance and listened dutifully while I explained last night’s homework and handed back work. About the time, I finished that and started to explain what we were going to do that class, the trouble started. Someone would start whispering or pull out a cellphone or raise their hand to ask to go to the bathroom or ask me what my favorite football team was.

What was the problem?

The problem was I had made them sit doing basically nothing for 5-10 minutes while I took attendance, passed out papers, and started to give directions. It was too much dead time for a 14-year-old. Not even an adult can sit still that long!

That’s when I realized it wasn’t them. It was me. You can’t expect the class from hell to stay engaged doing nothing! I came up with the 5 places that class slowed down and students were doing nothing. You can read my article on Busyteacher.org: It’s Not Them; It’s Us for the solutions (It’s also on our page of free resources for building rapport.) , but to summarize briefly:

The 5 places dead time creeps in and (kids start pulling out their cellphones and spit balls):

  1. Taking attendance
  2. Handing back work
  3. Doing conferences
  4. After a quiz or test
  5. When one student dominates the class

If you have a class that never seems to pay attention, I highly recommend videotaping your class. Not just you, but the whole class. Watch the video and see when they start drifting off. Figure out how to keep students engaged at that time. Can you avoid that moment in class? Is there a new way to take attendance?

Rapport and Respect

Of course, rapport and respect play a huge role. When I did have a chat with the students in that class from hell, they told me that they had been trained to respect teachers who yelled and screamed and insulted them. They were used to it. I had to find new ways to win their respect, because I wasn’t going to be one of those teachers. I told them as much. And honestly, just the reaching out to them did a lot to build classroom rapport. Knowing I was trying to make class fun and keep them engaged encouraged them to work with me, too!

And let us know how you keep the dead time in class to a minimum in the comments.


2 Responses

    1. Don’t be sorry. It’s not something a lot of teachers or teacher trainers are talking about. It’s just my observation that students get bored and distracted at moments when they don’t actually have to be doing anything. If they don’t have anything to do, they’re going to start chatting or pulling out their phones. So I’ve tried to look at places where we can reduce that empty time, which I call dead time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.