Faculty Spotlight Series: Jeremy Bletterman on Maintaining Engagement in Older Students

Jana Cook

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 

Some research suggests that as students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease.  How can schools combat this trend?  

Shortly after graduating college, I worked with a career counselor who taught me an invaluable lesson about the importance of identifying one’s “motivated skills.” She had me complete a Venn diagram, with one circle representing the skills I am objectively good at, regardless of whether I enjoy employing them, and the other representing the skills I enjoy utilizing, regardless of whether I am any good at them. The overlap of these two distinct circles represented my motivated skills, those I am both good at and enjoy putting into practice. One can argue that motivated skills are absolutely vital to sustained career satisfaction; if you enjoy your work and experience efficacy while doing it, chances are your interest and engagement will last, and you will be less likely to become stagnant or disinterested over time, as many people unfortunately do. Once you’ve identified your motivated skills, the challenge thus becomes identifying career paths that necessitate using those skills on a consistent basis and, of course, finding the grit and resilience to see it all the way through.   

Two years ago, I gave a talk to a group of seventh graders about this very topic. They were interviewing various adults throughout our community for a bulletin board project, and this group selected me. At the time, I was in my second year as an administrator and missed the classroom terribly. I relished—and still relish—speaking directly with students, and when I mentioned that education represented a change of career for me and how I had gone through the process of identifying my motivated skills in order to find a career that better suited me, the class appeared not only interested but completely engaged, as they asked a litany of questions about how they could go about finding similar satisfaction in hypothetical careers they were just beginning to entertain.  

Hinting at the future and the weighty prospect of achieving one’s hopes and dreams —or at least starting to contemplate what those might be—can provide purpose and motivation for students that is both personal and real.

Too often, I fear, educators underestimate students’ ability not only to understand, but also to take responsibility for, the long-term consequences of their actions and how the decisions they make now can and ultimately will impact their future selves. Like many kids, these students had hopes and dreams of their own and visions of future experiences that would not only shape their development but also have a meaningful impact on their lives and on the world around them. Hinting at the future and the weighty prospect of achieving one’s hopes and dreams—or at least starting to contemplate what those might be—can provide purpose and motivation for students that is both personal and real. 

Of course, it's completely age-appropriate for middle-school students to pump the brakes academically, thinking they've conquered middle school and that they deserve a break before another eight-year slog through high school and college. And, it's also developmentally appropriate for kids at this age to "try on" different personalities during the tumult of adolescent development. (I had an Honors math teacher during my senior year of high school who can attest to the fact that even straight-A students can be tempted to take a semester off from time to time.) So, I remind students every year that, in middle school, they are at roughly the halfway point of their academic careers. If they plan to go on to high school and college, they are at Mile 13 of a 26-mile, ultra-endurance marathon, a physical and mental endeavor that will test their will and may make all the difference in their lives. 

While being mindful not to heap additional pressure or anxiety on our students, who are facing unprecedented challenges that few, if any, of us have experienced firsthand, I feel it is absolutely critical to help students understand the work they are putting in now will open the doors they hope to pass through in the future.  At the very least, developing positive and productive works habits and a growth mindset will certainly benefit them, regardless of the paths they ultimately choose.