August 12, 2016

"Energy Vampires"

Have you ever walked into a classroom and faced and audience of students with a look on their faces that says "do you best to motivate me. I dare you." You leave at the end of the day completely drained from the "energy vampires", as I call them.

It seems that no matter how much you give, it is never enough, or no matter how much you try, your efforts vanish. I have felt this way and thought I was reaching a point of burnout. There are a few chance conversations I have had in my career that came at just the right time and changed everything.

The first change was inspired by a simple piece of advice that was "Shawna, if your students like each other, then it doesn't matter if they like you."

I took this to mean that if they developed good relationships with each other, they would want to come to class and participate. I could then focus my efforts on teaching, assessing and giving feedback; focus on doing my job rather than waging a war against motivation and engagement.

I also thought that this meant I should spend time on creating a positive learning environment, which might also encourage discussion, participation, and learning. So, I redesigned my methodologies to include only activities that had the student experience in mind.

I have reminded myself of this advice every time I step into a classroom and it has freed me from energy vampires.

Creating Positive Classrooms

I came across this article from Edutopia. They collected teacher-tips on creating a positive classroom from their online community. ​I have summarized it below and added a few links to additional resources. These teacher-tips generally fell into three categories:
1. Good Relationships
Get started early. Build positive relationships with students starting with the first day of school. Let students get to know you (and each other) by preparing fun icebreakers or exchanging letters. Ask for help. Your fellow faculty and staff are your greatest resource. Reach out to the teachers next door. Sharing is caring!

2. Clear Communication
Speak their language. Use humour, technology, or other strategies to get on their level. That extra effort will go a long way in relating to students. This strategy can be used to present traditionally "mundane" information, like classroom rules and regulations. Start from scratch. You might know your rules backwards and forwards, but remember your students are most likely new to your teaching style and expectations. Try not to assume your students know how to do seemingly basic tasks, like collaborating or taking notes. Ask current students to help out.

3. Trust
Let your students make decisions. From classroom layout to project ideas, let students have a say. Fewer decisions for you to make and fun for students to feel like they helped create their environment. Put your trust in technology. New new technology can be daunting, but find one or two ways to make your class digital. This will help keep student interested and engaged.

You can find the complete presentation here: with all 32 TIPS

Understanding Resistance

Secondly, in taking the Provincial Instructor Diploma Program, I have had an opportunity to reflect on many facets of Adult Learning. One I have just read about for the first time is in Brookfield's The Skillful Teacher.

He explains why students resist learning. What? The thought of students actively resisting never crossed my mind because I am a life-long learner addicted to learning and think that all learners share my enthusiasm. But I guess this is true...some students attend class and just resit. For teachers, it is important that we recognize why they might be resisting. Possible reasons include (Brookfield, p. 217-224) and in this Faculty Focus article:
  • Poor-self image as learners
  • Fear of the unknown
  • The normal rhythm of learning (first enthusiasm, then confusion, then desire to understand, then movement forward)
  • Disjunction of learning and teaching styles
  • Apparent irrelevance of the learning activity
  • Level of required learning is inappropriate
  • Fear of looking foolish
  • Cultural suicide
  • Lack of clarity in teacher's instructions
  • Student's dislike of teachers

Combating "Energy Vampires" and Resistance

To overcome resistance in the classroom, even the kind that leads me to calling my students energy vampires above, teachers should consider implementing some of the following strategies. These strategies are divided into categories, and I have only included one of them in this post. You can see the full list suggested by James Mbuva in his article for the National Social Science Association.

Every teacher wants to have solutions to the problem of motivating learners, especially those who resist learning. Gross’ suggests that teachers must ask the following “six question to identify the causes of resistance to learning -- whether it’s for a single student or for an entire class.”
  1. What can I do to establish a positive learning ATTITUDE?
  2. How can I best meet the NEEDS of my learners?
  3. What about this learning will continuously STIMULATE the learner(s)?
  4. How is the EMOTIONAL CLIMATE?
  5. How does this learning increase or affirm the learner’s feelings of COMPETENCE?
  6. What is the REINFORCEMENT for this learning?
Upon answering these questions, teachers can reassure themselves that they are doing almost everything in their power to combat the resistance. I would suggest adding a 7th question, which is:
     7. What can I do to help my students "like each other"?

The questions I used as a morning warmer each day, were based on 36 questions from The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. The results of this experiment can be read here. I staged a 10 minute mingle, followed by timed writing. This lead to grammar and language feedback the next day, followed by the same warmer. My students developed stronger relationships with each other, motivated one another, and class became a strong community of learners. Give it a try! Save your energy!

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