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Rethinking Student Engagement

Could the model of students learning from one teacher for hours at a time be broken? The executive director for Teach For America Washington shares his thoughts on new ways of considering student engagement. 

Photo of one of TFA Washington's alumni teachers working with a student

By Tony Byrd

December 20, 2019

Each of us can look back and name the teachers that really engaged us. They challenged us, they cared about us, and they believed in us. After 25 years of teaching and leading, I know those teachers. I can name them (I won’t). The students can name them. These teachers are special and as long as this model of learning (teacher-student) is our system, the students deserve to have them in every classroom.

To be clear, the art of teaching is very, very difficult and I have deep respect for those who enter this profession. Those who know me know that. However, my very first interest every single time is the student. That is who we are here to serve and who we are paid to support. They are our future and we have the responsibility to challenge them, care about them, and believe in them. The external contexts (global warming, politics, social media, etc.) is making all of this more challenging, but we must find a way.

Given the rapidly changing times, however, I propose the model of students sitting with one teacher, or several, for many hours a day is broken. This is not the fault of teachers, but a result of the changing times and an outdated system. Educators are tinkering with a model built for a bygone era. If we really stop and think about it, the idea of training as many adults as possible to get as smart as they can to then deliver that knowledge to students so they can be tested on it to prove they understand is completely illogical in today’s times. While some students may respond very well to that, most do not. They are often bored and will find any way they can to get information on their own driven by their own interests.

Fortunately, there are many examples of new ways of thinking about student engagement all over this country. The Teton Science Schools are part of a nationwide movement to engage students by learning outside of the walls of the school. One Stone is a student-led and -directed nonprofit that makes students better leaders and the world a better place. High school students, part of One Stone, learn through experiential service, innovative initiatives, and social entrepreneurship. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, these new models serve a very small percentage of the national student population and are often outside the bounds of a traditionally funded public school model. We could just know that, or we could do something about it. Let’s do something about it. I am currently leading an organization that is pushing from multiple angles on how we re-invent public education. We can do it, but it will be hard. We are going to need transformational leadership—meaning people that understand how to work in broad and diverse coalitions to make sweeping changes across lines of difference. It is actually the type of leadership we need across the country, but we will focus here in Washington on education for now. 

I have decided to commit the rest of my life to re-imagining education. After 25 years in the system, it is clear that is does not work as a whole. To be clear, the students, the teachers, the leaders…not broken. The system….broken. The students suffer the most in this environment and they are my number one priority. I just cannot stand seeing the boredom any longer.