The 100% Participation Myth

Nov 20, 2023

Hot take: If you’re a teacher, your job is not to get 100% participation from your students. Your job is to keep giving them opportunities to succeed. Did you hear that? There’s a distinction between the two. You are not a puppet master who can will every student to participate in discussion, or turn in their work, or collaborate in groups, or do well in your class. I wish we could! But there is a limit to your capacity. 

The Weight of Inadequacy: Addressing the Emotional Toll on Teachers

Honestly, sometimes it can make you feel inadequate when students don’t participate, or when that one kid who you pour so much into doesn’t seem to change or grow. Do you ever feel this way? Like you’re not great at your work because sometimes it feels like you’re just spinning your wheels and not going anywhere?

Me too.

Thinking back on the pandemic when everything went virtual, my classes were held on Zoom, but I couldn't require students to turn on their screens or unmute themselves. It would just be hours of talking to blank screens, well aware that there weren't necessarily students behind those screens, or if they were, they were also behind other screens. It was so disheartening. All of the tips, tricks, and wisdom I learned as a teacher about how to engage students and get them to participate just went out the window. I felt ashamed of myself that I couldn't get more participation.

Shifting Focus: From Expecting Certainty to Providing Opportunities

This type of shame seems to be pretty common among teachers. I mean, I devote my work-life to working with and trying to inspire teachers with ideas to engage students, and yet I often hear this voice in the back of my head that I am insufficient, that I share strategies that didn’t and don’t work with my own students.

That I’m an imposter.

That I’m full of crap.

But then I’m reminded of the fact that our job is not to get 100% participation from our students. Our job is to keep giving them opportunities to succeed. That is where we have influence: leading learning experiences using best practices to engage students. Obviously, we differentiate and vary what those experiences look like, with the hope of meeting the needs of students. Strong tier one instruction is essential, and so we create lessons and units with the hope of meeting the needs of all students, but we can't expect all students to respond. We can hope for it, but expecting with certainty is just not realistic.

The Power of Process Over Results

When we internalize this, when we believe this, we can be released from this pressure for results and focus more on the process. When we do that, placing our energy towards the opportunities we provide rather than the outcome of them, we find we can be better at making those opportunities for students more engaging, thereby inspiring more participation.

If at the end of the day you do this, you feel like your students were in an environment where they felt comfortable learning, and you gave them opportunities to succeed, you’ve done enough. Whether they actually take you up on these opportunities is beyond your control.

The Pressure for Participation

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Tell that to my principal. Or, "tell that to my students’ parents who think the reason their child isn’t succeeding is because of me." Or "tell that to college admissions boards who don’t care about the process, but only about the product.”

Yeah, I hear you. The pressure on teachers to control outcomes is real, and there’s no point in sugarcoating it. I think we need more school leaders to understand this and demonstrate their understanding by supporting their teachers and identifying strong teaching even if the student participation and success fails as a measurement for it.

Teachers and other educators need to keep finding ways to communicate to parents what kind of work is actually happening in the classroom, helping them see that the opportunity for success is there, and their students might not be taking advantage of it. Maybe this is a class newsletter, more regular phone calls home, or just getting better at communicating to parents, but letting them know what’s going on in your classroom and that you need their help getting their children to take advantage of opportunities.

For college admissions boards and standardized tests, we just need them to read the room and realize test scores only give a snapshot of student and teacher success.

Releasing Yourself From the Internal Pressure to be Perfect

But if you’re a teacher, a lot of this is out of your control. A lot of this pressure is external, and you can only influence that so much. So maybe today, let’s eliminate the internal pressure. You work in a system that needs improvement and will hopefully keep moving forward. So in the meantime, maybe you just need to release yourself from the pressure to be perfect.

Maybe it’s time to shut that voice up that says you are inadequate because you’re not getting 100% participation from your students and instead be reminded that 100% participation is not your job (and not even possible), and your job is actually to use your expertise to keep giving students opportunities to succeed. If you’re doing that, you’re doing enough. So rest in that, take off the burden of this pressure, and you might find you have more capacity to be a better teacher.

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