It’s the first day of school, and Nina cannot help but feel excited. With the pandemic and some tough classes, seventh grade was hard to handle, but now she is on top of the heap. Eighth grade should be much better! The day begins, and Nina moves from one class to the next. Each period starts with the usual course overview or icebreaker activity and ends with a homework assignment. As the day progresses, she begins to deflate.
When Nina finally gets to her last class of the day, her new English teacher asks everyone to write a timed essay on the summer reading text, which feels like an exhausting task after such a long day. As she rides the bus home, Nina pictures herself repeating similar days for the next nine months. At home, her parents ask how the day went. “The same as last year,” Nina says. “I can’t believe it’s only the first day. I’m so tired.”
Burnout is considered an adult affliction, but students experience it as well. A gradual drop-off in student engagement, particularly after fifth grade as accountability measures intensify, is one significant reason that kids lose their enthusiasm for school. However, a consequent feeling of being overwhelmed is the more pressing cause of student burnout and can become severe enough that kids completely disengage from their classes.
To mitigate this sense of learned helplessness, the most effective strategy is to build better structures for incorporating student voice into instruction. That way, students have more input into what approaches work best for them.
Genuine Involvement, Not Just Lip Service
It is important to ask students to share lesson takeaways and suggestions on a regular basis. Why hypothesize about what students need when they can make their thinking visible? However, soliciting feedback is only the first step; following through on what kids reveal is even more important. Nearly every teacher can identify with the frustration of being asked to weigh in on a school-based issue, only to realize that the decision is a fait accompli and the feedback they provide is for the sake of appearances.
Students are apt to feel the same way when they are asked for their thoughts and see little follow-through. Specifically, making transparent changes to instruction and showing students how and why their ideas influence subsequent lessons is key. If students are not given a genuine voice in the classroom, they will feel less invested in whatever is happening.
To help students see their role in the learning process, go over student contributions with a “feedback on feedback” protocol. Whenever I lead a training session or teach a class, participants need to know their voices matter. For students who are less accustomed to being heard, taking the temperature of instruction is doubly important. However, asking for feedback at the end of a class is just the first of two steps we take to gauge the needs of learners.
Even more important is how we follow through on what people tell us. When we use feedback on feedback effectively as a two-way street, the result is mutual trust and engagement, and in turn less burnout for both teachers and students, the latter of whom especially value the open way in which their ideas are acknowledged. Even if teachers cannot fulfill a request expressed in feedback, explaining why that cannot happen is also a trust-building move.
Provide Product-Focused Feedback
Another move that helps build student voice while increasing focus on how to succeed with a specific product or process (an assignment, a presentation, etc.) is to ensure that kids see teacher feedback as objective. Too often, students burn out because they perceive that adults are grading their hard work unfairly, and they lose motivation to strive.
To mitigate this problem, clearly delineate the differences between feedback, guidance, and evaluation. In Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance, author and education consultant Grant Wiggins defines feedback as objective information free of value.
For example, if a class is assigned a paragraph of between five and eight sentences to write, and a student writes only three sentences, the teacher can provide the neutral feedback that the paragraph is shorter than the stated expectation for the product. However, many teachers confuse feedback for either guidance or evaluation. In the first case, that might look like a suggestion (e.g., “You need to write more and include details”), and in the second, a judgment-based response (like a letter grade or a “Getting there!”).
The advantage of focusing on clear criteria for success is that students see where their work is in relation to the expected product rather than on who they are as individuals. When they see mistakes as part of an objective process, students are less apt to become upset with the feelings of powerlessness that accompany burnout and more likely to continue engaging in the class.
Respect Individual Working Styles
Adults are often encouraged to use their own individual working preferences (i.e., the conditions under which they are most successful) to their advantage. For example, I know that I write best early in the morning and that if I wait until later in the day, my productivity plummets.
Why are students not afforded the same opportunity to play to their strengths? Perhaps not every day can be devoted to honoring individual work preferences, but teachers who create space for students to choose how they use some of the allotted instructional time will reap the benefits of increased interest and productivity. This student-centered approach also gives teachers more flexibility during the class period, which lowers the exhaustion that leads to burnout for everyone.
To structure a class that gives students the leeway to choose not what they work on, but how they work on it, think of an instructional week in which three products have to be submitted by Friday: a short proposal for a research project, two slides that state the project’s purpose, and a list of possible sources to cite. In addition, the class is also reading two chapters from the textbook and the teacher wants to administer a formative assessment on the reading somewhere in the middle of the week. While some days may be devoted to teacher-directed instruction with the whole class, others can be structured into smaller configurations for student-centered learning.
For example, some students may wish to work on reading the assigned chapters either silently or to one another in a corner of the room, while others draft their project proposals in another corner. As they work, the teacher is free to circulate, conference with individuals, or lead small-group learning. This choice-based philosophy of “hover-free” teaching, shared with specific tools for application in my recent book Teach More, Hover Less, reduces burnout for students by giving them the rare chance to complete work in a way that best suits their needs.
Nobody enjoys feeling burned out, regardless of how old they might be. If we save students like Nina from the burnout that leads to disengagement by implementing the strategies outlined above, our own teaching experiences will be that much richer and more invigorating. Students are not just our most valued clientele; they are also our partners in the classroom, and increasing their voice in the classroom will lead to a better experience for everyone involved.