What Student Engagement Looks and Feels Like

A few years ago, I was taking my son to school, and I asked him, “How’s it going?” He said, “Oh, Dad, it’s just another day.” As I looked in his eyes, I could see the very life being sucked out of him because there was no anticipation or expectation.

There was no engagement.

In education, there’s a lot of talk around the word engagement. “The content should be engaging! Make everything digital so it’s more engaging! Active learning is more engaging!

But most classrooms are still missing truly engaged students. Why?

Engagement starts with people. It implies interaction. Energy. The experience of learning. Engagement cannot be created between a textbook and a student (or a computer and a student). Engagement must take place between individuals.

There is no singular, one-size-fits-all format, but you know it when you see it. So how do we teach parents, teachers and educators how to infuse their schools with such a nuanced and complex concept as engagement?

We tell them what it looks like and what it feels like — so they will know it when they see it. We tell the stories about how engagement can be created and what it can do.

In Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education, we introduce (among many stories) Sheena Alaiasa, principal at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, HI. Sheena made a huge impact in multiple struggling schools, turning them into some of the highest performing educational institutions around.

Sheena created an acronym that clearly communicated her expectations: SAM. It stood for Student Achievement Matters. She inspired staff to reach down and pull up students.

Sheena understood that this interaction between teacher and student is where true engagement starts. Teachers needed to be the ones to show students they were worth caring about!

Then Sheena exhorted teachers to give students experiences in learning—not just talk to them. She wanted them to show children the excitement of learning and what it feels like to grow in their learning. She knew that the active experience of learning, more than content, is what gave students energy around their education.

This also meant helping teachers experience what engaging teaching looked and felt like. When educators have trouble seeing outside of their traditional methods of teaching, she literally walks them into other classrooms where students are alive and engaged. THEN the teachers get it.

It’s one thing to read it—it’s another thing entirely to see it.

We know it when we see it.

Parents, teachers, administrators, friends of education: to learn, teach and create engagement, we must first understand what it looks like and what it feels like. Discover it for yourself, and then share that with others. Explore and retell the stories presented in Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education. Find YouTube videos of innovative methods of teaching. Create a Pinterest board.

Above all—when you see it, share it.