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Are You Not Entertained?

James Yates recalls the character of Maximus in Gladiator ‘Are you not Entertained?’
We’ve all had hard lessons so how do we engage our students?

Many wish it was this simple: teachers are here to teach and students are here to learn and that’s what happens all the time. No misbehaving, everyone listens and all students are engaged all the time. Yeah right! Some forget there are so many things that will impact on your lessons and how well students are engaged in their learning. I touched on it in my last blog about disadvantaged students but every student will have barriers of some kind which can limit their progress. The important thing for us as educators is to make sure we’re not one of those barriers.

Someone once told me that every teacher is a scholar/salesman/actor all rolled into one. He then explained that you have all this information they need to learn but if they are going to take it in they have to be interested and buy into it. He added that sometimes you have to act like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.  I know exactly what he meant; I’ve seen teachers who have PHDs struggle to engage a class. On the other hand, I’ve seen a trainee teacher engage one of the toughest classes going. Now, I know not everyone is a natural performer or has a voice as entrancing as David Attenborough, but I’ve sat in CPD and inset sessions in the past thinking, I am so bored. I wanted to learn and develop but it was hard work as the speaker was so monotone and seemed as enthused as someone about to go to the dentist. There are so many ways in which you can entertain and engage classes and get the outcomes you want/need to.

I always think of Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator shouting those words, “Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” We’ve all had those lessons where on paper you think that’s a good lesson but for some reason the students just don’t engage. The thing is, Maximus soon worked out what the crowd wanted, the experience they desired and he gave it to them. He adapted what he did to ‘fit with them’ and not the other way around. Let’s be honest, I can’t imagine the thousands in attendance settling for the gladiators just play fighting. It’s about knowing your classes and that can take time but one of the best things I think you can do is ask them what they think. Over the last week, I’ve asked all my classes five questions:

  1. What qualities do you look for in me as your teacher?
  2. What type of activities in lessons help you learn the most?
  3. What are you passionate about?
  4. What are your strengths and how could we use them in lessons?
  5. What does success look like at end of the year for you?

The first two are great for establishing common ground and creating a learning environment where everyone is a stakeholder. That way, they don’t feel that the lesson is simply being done to them but they are immersed in it; they are part of the lesson. Just make sure that you compromise your expectations. There must always be clear boundaries. Empowering students and asking them what they want to see makes so much sense. Businesses have been doing it for years: they ask their customers what they want or what they think about a product/service. Therefore, if they listen and get it right then customers will continue to buy it and the business makes money. The third question is partly about building a rapport and find out what they like etc. but it also allows them to think about motivation in general. The fourth question is a confidence builder – every student will have a strength, even if you’re scraping the barrel, try talking to the student like you could see that strength a mile off. The last one is about the end game, again motivation, why are we here doing this? What is the point? Most students will say a good grade is what they want but one boy said “I want to like biology by the end of the year because I hate  it at the moment.”

We all know engagement is key but it has to lead somewhere. More engagement in the gladiator arena meant more money for the owners, more money for them means they treat the gladiators better – it’s all connected. It’s the same in the classroom. If you have a great lesson, then you feel happy – all those positive hormones being released by the brain to reward you for your efforts. If you have a shocking lesson, (we’ve all had them) it can ruin your day or sometimes your evening if you let it. I don’t know anyone that likes having lessons where students weren’t interested; we are all passionate about our own subjects and want to share that with our students. I’m almost offended when a student says they don’t like science.

You may have noticed I haven’t used the word fun. Engaging lessons don’t have to be fun, but fun is often engaging. The two things are different but there are times when they intertwine. I’d say there are 5 key tips to engaging students:

  1. Seem enthused – fake it if you have to but make them think this is worth knowing.
  2. Make sure lessons aren’t the same every time. Yes, have your routines and structure but make sure they aren’t always given the same thing. They want to see or do something they’ve not done before.
  3. Put a bit of you into the lesson – have human conversations where appropriate because students don’t engage well with people they don’t like or respect. Sacrifice 5% of the lesson just connecting with them so that the other 95% they are with you interested.
  4. Celebrate their successes in the lesson but also allow them to be able to identify their own progress and achievements. This makes it meaningful and have a purpose to what they are doing/ there’s an end goal in some form.
  5. Give them a ‘wow’ moment, something they can leave that lesson with, in science and other practical subjects it can be easier than others but it is possible. There was an English teacher when I was at school that would do the most amazing voices when reading a text. I still remember now the voice he used for the witches in Macbeth. “What we do in life echoes in eternity” was a phrase Maximus used – what we do sticks with students and the experience they have in our lessons goes beyond their school years.

Collaborative learning is another powerful facilitator of engagement in learning activities. When students work effectively with others, their engagement may increase because of this, mostly due to experiencing a sense of connection to others during the activities; having a feeling of team/group success is very powerful. To make group work more productive strategies can be put in place. Assigning students roles within groups for example empowers them and gives them real purpose and ownership of their learning. That way, you can not only comment on the group’s success but also identify individuals roles within the groups. Collaboration between colleagues is important too. Maximus didn’t work alone he had people around him, some guided him and made suggestions and gave direction. Others he led, gave instruction to and shared his experience with them. Teaching, at times, can seem like a very lonely profession but only if you let it. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing teachers and they have shared so much good practice with me that I never felt alone and this helped me in the classroom.

When you enter the arena everyday, go in there knowing what you need to achieve and have a clear idea of how you are going to do it but knowing how the crowd will respond to it is key. As the noble senator and an Allie to Maximus, Gracchus said: “I don’t pretend to be a man of the people, but I do try to be a man for the people.” We do it for them so let’s think about what we can do to make it the best experience possible.

Go forth with Strength and honour……..

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The author

James Yates has been teaching Science for almost ten years now. He is a self confessed Superhero geek and this led him into teaching which makes sense as he is passionate about helping people. James soon picked up Pastoral leadership responsibility in school and well as some teaching and learning roles. James is always looking to improve himself and those around him which is what he tries to promote to the young people he teaches .He is passionate about teaching the person not the student. He believes every child deserves a champion and has the right to an education. That education isn’t just subjects and qualifications but life lessons and how to socialise.

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