It's Not a Teacher's Job to Get 100% Student Participation

teacher inspiration Oct 14, 2021

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, turn in their work, collaborate in groups, or do well in your class. I wish we could! It would be really nice to snap my fingers to get my virtual college students to turn on their screens and unmute. But I can’t. 

Sometimes I feel like an inadequate teacher. 

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

Me too.

This shame seems to be pretty common among teachers. I mean, I devote my 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 inadequate, that I share strategies that don’t work with my own students. 

That I’m an imposter. 

That I’m full of crap.

Your responsibility is the process; not the product.

Especially after a class where I give everything I’ve got and yet getting student participation is like pulling teeth. But then I’m reminded of the fact that my job is not to get 100% participation from my students. My job is to keep giving them opportunities to succeed. That is where I have influence. And when I internalize this, when I believe this, I’m released of this pressure for results, and I can focus more on the process. I can be better at making those opportunities for students more engaging, inspiring more participation. 

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

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.” 

The pressure on teachers to control outcomes is real.

Yeah, I hear you. The pressure on teachers to control outcomes is real, and there’s no point in sugar coating 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. 

I think 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. 

And 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.

Let’s eliminate the internal pressure. 

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 of 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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