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Let’s Talk About Engagement

This summer saw a big life event for me! I became engaged to be married! It is not, however, this sort of engagement that I want to discuss.
It feels somewhat that the words “fun”, “engagement” and “exciting” have become terms to be sneered at by some in education.

This saddens me. My classroom was many things: chaotic, musical, productive, often loud but ALWAYS… FUN! Not because we always did fun things or because the subject was always fun. Often the topics were dry, heavy and arduous. It was my job to bring the joy. For the most part, I really believe I did this. I still meet ex-students 20 years on who remember me and my lessons. They talk about them whilst smiling. Many continued with my subjects long after they thought they would because of the enthusiasm they found.

It would be a lie to say that everything we have to learn in life is 100% engaging and enjoyable and young people do need to learn that life is not a huge slumber party full of giggles and sweeteners. We can, however, take a tip from Mary Poppins here. A spoonful of sugar really does help most medicines go down.

I suppose my other question would be this… what purpose does “DISengaging” learners have? If we create learning that is so dry and unpalatable that young people retch and feel unwell at the thought of it is it really going to “stay down”?!

My childhood was crammed solid with learning moments. Walking through the woods with my father learning the names of trees, birds, flowers and fungi. Listening to my mum talk with animation about French history, architecture and culture. Reading with my older brothers and grandparents with open mouthed wonder as worlds and creatures took to life in my imagination. There were never the constraints of four walls a seating plan or a timetable. Learning happened as easily as breathing. And I learned to adore it.

This is why it was such a painful discovery to learn that I HATED school. Where we were rigidly NOT allowed to read when I desperately wanted to know what happened next. Where I was not permitted to speak my mind or ask the millions of questions that filled my thoughts. Where I was told to sit still. Be quiet. Sit straight. Look neat. Don’t speak. Listen. Learn….

Except, I didn’t like this learning. It felt forced. And the older I got the more I felt stifled by schooling and the more learning became a thing I avoided. It became synonymous with boredom, frustration, irritation and rage. Learning became a chore.

The girl who memorised Latin plant names, who wrote stories about magic and who spoke fluent languages became withdrawn, sullen, often sickly (especially in maths lessons!!). I was never badly behaved. My parents’ learning stayed with me enough to remind me of my manners.

I was disengaged though. From age 5 through to 18. I have very few moments of genuine joyful recollection. Mostly these were provided by extra curricular activities where we had more freedom and room for independence.

I sometimes wonder what I would have become had someone nurtured the natural learner that resides within me. The potential I had was enormous. I was alight with imagination, curiosity, tenacity and bravery, as most young people initially are.

Instead, I was “normalised”. Assimilated into the system to become yet another grey, two dimensional child who got grades, failed and passed but rarely flourished.

I have spent decades of adulthood trying to find my inner learner and free her again.

I PROMISED myself I would give the opportunity to other sparkly, effervescent learners to shine.

After two decades of placing myself between these fragile creatures and the brutal wheels of the system, I was broken and exhausted. I had failed. Ahead of me, I saw my poor, drained students being pummelled into convention and compliance.

So I suppose this is a plea to anyone who still genuinely LOVES learning. Anyone who remembers the ease with which real, joyful engagement happens.

Don’t let learning be a succubus to joy. The two should go hand in hand. If there is no laughter or sparkle in your class ask yourself why. If the children look or feel “packaged” and stifled then ask yourself if that is what learning really SHOULD be.

I have no clever acronyms and I’m sure there are thousands of pages of research to disagree with me. This is just my experience and gut senses guiding me.

But we need to re-engage learners. Help them find the joy. Remember the joy ourselves.
And if we cannot see any joy at all…. Step AWAY from the impressionable young people whom could we influence.

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The author

Cate has been a teacher for 20 years. She has worked internationally and across all key stages in the UK. Her secondary specialism is Performing Arts with a keen interest in PSHE/RSE. Cate is recently married with two cats who keep her busy and an allotment that requires more time than she can give it!

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