Since I first began teaching, in 2011, there have been numerous times that I have had a classroom full of cardboard students. A room full of blank faces. I would ask what I thought were engaging questions and would recieve an uncomfortable vaccum of silence in return. I'd rephrase the questions, thinking it's perhaps an issue of clarity, but again that plane of space above the student's heads remained void of eager hands. Their eyes were open, they were looking at me, they glanced around at eachother, but no one felt compelled to actually engage in the proposed discussion.
"Are they even listening to me?"
"Do they not understand how important this information is?"
"Are they really THAT disinterested in the subject matter?"
"Are they all distracted by something that I'm not aware of?"
"Is it me?"
"Am I a bad teacher?"
All of these thoughts have run through my head during those moments of awkward silence, when I'm praying to whatever forces that control the Universe for someone - anyone - to raise their hand.
So what is to be done?
In sharing these painful experiences with other teachers, I've noticed how easily so many of us tend to put the blame on the students.
"I have a terrible group this month."
"I have one of those classes again."
"They're just not understanding the material."
"My students just don't care. I bet they'll start caring when they fail the class."
I admit that I've been guilty of wielding the same blame-thrower.
I've learned over the years, however, that blaming my students for not giving a crap about my class is pointless, unproductive, and misses the entire point of being a teacher.
It is not my students responsibility to care about my class.
It is my responsibility to make them care. Just as it is your responsibility when you face those blank stares.
Making students care about the information they need to understand has nothing to do with berating them, desperately stressing to them how important it is, or threatening them with failing grades.
It has everything to do with connecting with them.
In his book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, John Maxwell points out that the biggest mistake presenters/teachers/preachers make is assuming that every audience is the same, or that every audience member is just like them.
Where I teach, I get a brand new group of 60 - 95 students every month. That's a potential 720 - 1,140 different students, per year, who come through my class.
Mine is the first class they are all required to take, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
I'm aware that I am the first impression those students get of what the rest of their educational experience may be like. I'm also aware that many students tend to come into my class viewing it as a fluff-class that they just have to get through, and are already tuning out to the potential relevance of the information.
With my performance background as an actor and a magician, and my minor (*cough* MAJOR *cough*) obsessions with nerd culture, I have a fairly unique style of teaching.
My teaching philosophy is "Entertain, enlighten, and inspire."
90% of the time, I am very successful in connecting with my students, getting them engaged, and leaving them inspired.
That other 10%, however (when I notice the blank stares and reluctance to engage), is when I have to take a step back and, before giving up and putting the blame on them, I have to ask myself -
"Am I connecting?"
"What is unique about this specific group?"
"How am I going to present the material in a way that is relevant to this specific group?"
It is never their fault if I'm not able to illustrate how my material is relevant to them, personally.
That's on me.
Often times I find that the majority of the students are in one of the more computer/technology-centric degree programs. Many of these students tend to be more on the introverted side, in my experience, and so less willing to openly engage in class. Knowing what it's like to be fairly introverted, myself, I have to adjust the way that I approach that specific group of students. I use more relevant and targeted examples, analogies, images, videos, and stories to convey the information.
Sometimes, the difference it makes is drastic. Other times, it's a little more subtle.
But it is always noticible, and it is always positive. I start seeing more heads nodding, more leaning forward, and yes, even a few hands start to go up.
So, the next time you're faced with a cemetary audience, where there are many individuals to talk to but no one is talking back, resist the urge to give up and to blame them for not being engaged.
You are the teacher. It's your job to make your content relevant to your students, whoever and however many they may be. Know that what works for one class won't work for every class, and it is your responsibility to adapt to the needs of your current students.
It is not their responsibility to adapt to your teaching style.
So, before you ask - "Are they even listening to me?"
Try asking - "Am I connecting?"