Do you have two or three students with their hands up all the time . . .
While the rest of your class sits on theirs?
Because it’s a clear sign that a majority of your students don’t feel safe enough to participate.
It also means that learning is suffering—right along with enjoyment of your class.
Now, it’s common to assume that those few outgoing students are the problem, that if only they weren’t so aggressive, then others would be willing to participate.
So, in response, many teachers will tamp down their enthusiasm.
They’ll pretend they don’t see their hands in the air. They’ll ignore them and call on students who aren’t volunteering.
They’ll even pull them aside and say, “Hey, maybe don’t raise your hand so much and give others a chance.”
But this is a misguided approach and a detriment to your classroom. Because those few students are doing nothing wrong.
In fact, they can serve as role models for the rest of the class.
So the problem isn’t a few extroverted students. It isn’t bored and disinterested students (although that can be a factor). It isn’t quiet and shy students.
No, I don’t mean that you’re at fault. It’s just that the ability to fix it and get everyone involved is within your control.
You see, class-wide participation is a function of how well you protect your students from interruption—and not just during discussions, but all the time.
If you’re struggling with classroom management to any degree, then it’s a foregone conclusion that you’re also struggling with holding healthy discussions that encourage everyone to have a say.
They go hand in hand.
Most students need to feel safe enough to share even their most off-the-wall ideas before they’ll test the waters of participation.
Others may give it a go the first few weeks of school, but as soon as they begin to feel uncomfortable, they’ll clam up.
The few with their hands up all the time are the rare breed who are immune to what others think or say about them.
They’re also filling a void. Meaning, if the rest of the class would participate more, they would participate less.
The upshot is that to improve participation class wide, you must first convince your students that they can voice their deepest thoughts and opinions without being interrupted.
It seems like a small thing, but interruptions make students feel belittled and their ideas insignificant.
But providing that sense of security doesn’t happen on its own. It also doesn’t happen through lectures, community circles, or heart-to-hearts with your class.
It happens naturally and predictably when you establish a set of rules that cover every potential interruption.
The rules we recommend here at Smart Classroom Management do just that. But they’re only worth the paper they’re printed on.
It’s your commitment to safeguarding the sanctity of learning, through your consistent adherence to your classroom management plan, that will have the most profound effect on participation.
It’s important to point out that this feeling of security is a prerequisite only—the critical first step. Once it’s in place, then your ability to teach compelling lessons steps to the forefront.
So many teachers have it backwards.
They focus their attention on making their lessons more interesting—often under the advisement of a well-meaning administrator—yet neglect the one thing that students need first and foremost:
Make your students feel safe to take chances, step out of their comfort zone, and contribute their innermost point of view.
And they will.
PS – I’m often asked how to deliver lessons that captivate students (and that don’t take forever to plan). I lay out my exact method in The Happy Teacher Habits.
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