Engagement has become a key thread in current educational discourse across Canada and, indeed, around the world. The understanding that the deepest learning occurs when participants are highly invested has led many educators, policy-makers, researchers and parents to become more attuned to what it is that excites, animates and holds the attention of our young people, as well as those things that have quite the opposite effect. Over the past several years, engagement has become an appealing theme for keynote addresses, journal submissions, blog entries, podcasts, professional magazine articles and books. All over the world, we have become truly engaged with the idea of engagement!
And for very good reason. Taking seriously the implications, effects and demands of creating engaging environments and compelling learning tasks for our students could very well be pushing us closer to a tipping point when it comes to the growing desire to see change and transformation in public education.
To be sure, the vast majority of energy around the engagement conversation has focused on the student. It is energy well-spent – important, as far as it goes. The truth is, however, that our conversations about engagement need to go further if they are going to allow us to capture a fuller sense of the dynamic of what actually happens in an engaging learning environment. It was this drive to go further and to understand the challenges and opportunities more deeply that inspired the Canadian Education Association (CEA) to begin shining a light on teacher engagement. Conceived of as an attempt to explore the space between the teacher I dream of being and the teacher that I’m sometimes expected to be, the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach initiative was developed in an effort to raise the voices of Canadian teachers around the hopes and dreams they have for the work that they do.
For the past two years, the CEA, with the generous support of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and its affiliates, has crossed Canada leading a series of focus groups designed to get to the heart of engagement from an educator’s perspective. Using an “appreciative inquiry” approach, each of our conversations with teachers began by inviting them to remember the story of a time when they felt they were teaching at their best – a time when they felt strongly connected to that motivational ideal and passion they have for their work. We were looking for times when they felt that they were working in the zone described as flow by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Encouraging participants to explore their stories in a variety of ways, we asked them to consider the conditions that had allowed those experiences of peak performance to take place. In addition to working with them to explore the contributions made by students, colleagues, parents and school leadership, we led them to consider the personal attributes that helped to animate and inspire their stories. Finally we engaged in deep conversations about what might happen if those conditions were in place more often.
Not only did the process, itself, turn out to be extremely engaging, but what we have learned from teachers across the country complements the insights gathered from students in CEA’s What Did You Do In School Today? research, and from other educators in our related professional development sessions. They are insights that can only help to deepen our conception of what it means to be highly engaged.
Rereading classroom context
One powerful insight coming from the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach project has to do with the idea of context. Quite often when we think of context, our minds shift to the physical environment or the socio-political conditions that might have an impact on what happens in that space. Reflecting on the etymological roots of the word, however, we’re brought to a much more intimate understanding of the term.
Derived from fabric production, the word text originally referred to something that has been woven together. Thus context, quite literally, describes something joined together by weaving.
Classrooms are places of interwoven identities, beliefs, values and practices, and as students and teachers work together in the classroom space, there is a real sense in which context becomes created and recreated, the result being a strong and intimately woven fabric.
In fact, one of the most resounding themes emerging from our work with the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach focus groups is that the relationship between teacher and student is not only something that takes place in a context, but that, in fact, it is the context that lives at the heart of the teaching and learning dynamic. At its most intimate level, the classroom is a place where individual student lives are interwoven with that of the teacher, creating a mysterious and rich context for learning. The stories of deep engagement that we heard, and the vision statements that we read, revealed a deep moral investment in finding ways to create learning spaces that both honour and nurture this powerful element of the work to which educators aspire:
In the teaching to which I aspire everyone works with the understanding that students will always surprise you with their dedication and enthusiasm when you allow them to extend past the typical assignments… When students learn you are always building toward something, they will believe in the process and engage.
Towards a richer definition of engagement
Most often, definitions of engagement tend to focus on the degree of commitment that an individual makes to a particular context. Our conversations about engagement usually focus on strategies to get someone to make a stronger and more intentional investment in a particular task or role. In this way, our work on engagement often takes place from the outside looking in.
Through the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach project, however, we developed a more nuanced understanding of the term. The teachers to whom we spoke identified a deep dedication to the work that they do – a commitment that became active and visible as they told the stories of their most aspirational moments. As we encouraged them to take a closer look at their current teaching situations, imagining the conditions that would enable them to feel that way more often, we felt called to rethink our concept of teacher engagement. Instead of focusing on the investment that teachers could be convinced to make in their work, we began to take more of an inside-out perspective: how much of themselves – their knowledge, experience, strengths, talents, passion, humour, curiosity and love for the profession – did their working conditions encourage and permit teachers to bring to the context?
I aspire to be the best I can be, to bring all my knowledge, creativity and commitment to my students – to give to them but also to gain from them – satisfaction, a sense of success and the feeling that what I do matters in the life of a child.
Conditions for engagement
So, what have we learned about the hopes and dreams that teachers have for the work that they do? What did we hear about the conditions that participants believed would enable them to bring more of themselves to their role as teacher?
Prominent among the themes that emerged from our research was time. Teachers longed for more uninterrupted time to spend exploring the curriculum in deeper and more meaningful ways. Class timetables that allowed limited flexibility often bumped up against a daunting number of curriculum expectations, leaving many feeling rushed and struggling to meet the demands for quality teaching assessment. For many, their stories of deep engagement recalled an experience when they were able to spend the time required to slow down, differentiate instruction for a wider selection of learners, or simply feel that they could take the time necessary to develop stronger relationships with their students and to be fully present to them.
Time resources and the ability to be flexible in the process would foster the sense of continual inquiry. When the roadblocks of standardized testing and static expectations are removed, teachers are free to release their creativity in order to reach every student and empower the whole child.
I am part of a collaborative team. Each member is driven to learn and improve and develop. I have time to learn, time to discuss, time to plan.
The theme of time spilled over into another condition that was explored by many. Teachers told us of the importance of having opportunities to work more closely with their professional colleagues and how this could contribute to their feelings of connectedness and confidence. Having the time to plan, assess and reflect with teaching peers was an important element in the aspirations they had for their work. While some envisioned contexts where integrated forms of curriculum teaching and co-teaching would inspire deep levels of collaboration and collegiality, others mused about the importance of having the opportunity to meet with grade or subject level partners on a regular basis. Flexible teaching schedules and agile organizational structures were seen as ways of enabling and supporting new types of professional relationships and were presented as ways of enhancing the work done in the classroom context.
My ideal teaching environment is full of energy and life. It is a place that fosters true collaboration on multiple levels. Teachers are working together to share ideas and improve their programs, always with the best interests of their students in mind… In addition to this, there is also true collaboration between teachers and administrators. Just as teachers value the ideas of their students, principals also value the ideas and expertise of teachers.
Many teachers highlighted the desire for greater autonomy in their work. Responding to an increase in the standardization of various aspects of teacher practice, many participants aspired to a teaching context where their own professional judgments, personal strengths, and knowledge of their students were valued, respected and trusted. The freedom to create learning experiences based on the “here and now” of the classroom emerged as an important theme, while rules and protocols that did not resonate with the needs of their students were seen as unhelpful:
I am a professional who can make decisions about what my students need based on my understanding of them and what they tell me. I am able to do what’s best.
The theme of trust also emerged when participants spoke of the need for supportive leadership. In addition to the familiar forms of hierarchical leadership, many teachers imagined how distributed responsibility right across the school could serve to engage both teachers and students in new and interesting ways. Many teachers described schools where the classroom context was seen as the centre of the organization; it was a vision where top-down control gave way to an authentic culture of caring and attentiveness for their students:
[In the teaching to which I aspire] it is common protocol to view every rule, every lesson, every routine, every decision through the lens of ultimate care: concern for the students.
Why should we care about teacher engagement?
We know that teachers come to the profession with different images of what their ideal work would look and feel like. Although these images are naturally tempered and tested by the authentic experiences that teachers have throughout their careers, it was inspiring for us to recognize that most of the vision statements that we collected were written with the same level of passion, heart and aspiration that one would expect from someone just starting out in the profession.
The relationship between teacher and student… is the context that lives at the heart of the teaching and learning dynamic.
Beyond being inspired, however, our conversations with teachers have led us to a deeper understanding of just why it is so important to take seriously the idea of teacher engagement. Teaching is one of the few professions where client and professional (for want of better terms) are involved in almost constant daily contact, with the relationships that emerge forming the vital core of the teaching and learning dynamic. In this sense, teacher engagement is intimately linked to student engagement and vice versa. As we read through the data collected from our focus groups, we discovered that the conditions that allowed teachers to teach at their best were also the conditions that encouraged students to learn at their best.
Clearly, high levels of committed involvement on the part of teachers can have a significant effect on the way that students approach their work. But the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach project called us to look beyond the single thread that connects teacher engagement with student progress and achievement. While the relationship between student and teacher is the central context around which everything else moves and takes on meaning, it is a context deeply embedded in a myriad of conditions that profoundly affect the texture of classroom life.
By framing the engagement conversation in terms of how much of themselves educators are permitted to bring to the teaching/learning context, we can begin to see the profound impact that factors outside of this immediate context can have on both teachers and students. The engagement conversation is really a conversation about change and transformation – a conversation that, if it really took root, could have a tremendous effect on this place we call school. In the words of one of our participants from Newfoundland:
In the teaching to which I aspire, teaching has developed into an honourable profession… Teachers have the tools (resources, skills and attitudes) to facilitate learning for all young people – regardless of level of need. All students are seen as capable and worthy. Teaching is a science (requiring specific skills and methods as a basis for facilitation) but is also an art (teachers have the public trust to adjust their facilitating to ensure that all students are authentically engaged in their learning).
An engaging vision, to be sure!
First published in Education Canada, September 2013
EN BREF – Au cours des deux dernières années, l’Association canadienne d’éducation a entrepris d’importantes recherches pour compléter son travail d’avant-garde en matière d’engagement des élèves. L’étude Enseigner selon nos aspirations était destinée à écouter des enseignants d’un bout à l’autre du Canada et a exploré avec eux les anecdotes qui illustraient le summum de l’enseignement. L’article rend compte de cette recherche, se concentrant sur la salle de classe en tant que lieu où les identités et les pratiques des élèves et des enseignants sont tissées ensemble pour créer un contexte réel d’apprentissage. C’est dans ce contexte que nous trouvons les éléments essentiels de l’engagement tant pour les élèves que pour les enseignants. Si toutes les conditions que nos enseignants considèrent importantes dans les contextes d’enseignement auxquels ils aspirent existent effectivement, il est impossible de rompre le lien entre la réussite des élèves et un enseignement reflétant ces aspirations.
 CEA’s flagship research project, What Did You Do In School Today?, suggested that student engagement can be observed through three different lenses: social, institutional and intellectual engagement. This multi-dimensional perspective has enabled us to better appreciate the rich opportunities and complex challenges involved as we strive for high levels of engagement in schools throughout Canada.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).
 All quotes are CEA focus group participants, from locations across Canada.