When I am in a meeting (and I go to lots and lots of meetings) and there are challenges to solve, or the speaker is entertaining and has something to say that I am interested in, and when I get opportunities to talk about what I am learning, I am totally engaged. I don’t check my email. I don’t text my friends. I don’t secretly hope my secretary will call with an emergency. I don’t drink lots of coffee so that I have to visit the restroom. On occasion I have to remind myself to listen to others when I am excited about the topic and be patient with others who may have a different viewpoint. My level of engagement and my ability to attend, though, is more about the content and structure of the meeting and my social and emotional skills are secondary.
Now, when I go to a meeting that is not engaging it is a different story altogether. At first I try to be attentive but soon my attention wanders. I look around. I check my phone. I read my email. I even do my email if it won’t look too rude. I play with anything I can find to fiddle with. I get up and get more coffee. I frequent the restroom. If you watched me you might think I have very poor self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored. Grit, perseverance and resilience are not skills that you develop in environments that are not conducive to obtaining them. I worry that we are jumping on the bandwagon of teaching students skills they seem to be lacking before we examine whether the classroom environment we create may be a contributing factor.
Lest teachers feel I am picking on them, administrators tend to do the same thing. We often look at our staff meetings and see that no one is participating or attentive and think, “Those teachers just don’t care.” But perhaps they are not engaged. Teachers care.
But this is difficult to do because it means we need to examine our own teaching and facilitation practices. And when you are leading or teaching, you are usually engaged. It is hard to step out of our own shoes and look at it from the participant’s perspective. We are deeply tied to our work emotionally and therefore it is extremely difficult to examine our own practices. So we often tend to blame the lack of engagement or poor behaviour on the participants. I know as a beginning teacher my go-to response to a bad day was to change the seating plan.
Do kids need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately? For sure. Do teachers need to teach and support students to develop self-regulation? Absolutely. Is it worthwhile creating norms for adult working groups? Yes. But don’t jump to blame the participants for not using those skills when things don’t go as you wish. Check and make sure that the lesson or the meeting was the very best ever. Seven year olds aren’t going to sit quietly if they have been on the carpet for a long time. Fourteen year olds aren’t going to ignore their phones and friends if you have been lecturing for more than 15 minutes. Adults are not going to engage in professional development if it is not relevant and interesting. Sometimes I hear “Well, everything in life isn’t fun and kids need to learn to behave in those situations.” Really? The job of school is to train kids to be bored? Workplace meetings need to be boring? I don’t think so.
As educators we know more about how people learn and how to engage others in learning than most. We have an obligation to ensure that happens every lesson, every meeting, every day.