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Why It’s Easy To Ignore Something Proven to Create 30 Times More Engagement

Why It’s Easy To Ignore Something Proven to Create 30 Times More Engagement

by Paul Haluszczak

Have you ever noticed how often education conversations are about what’s wrong rather than what’s strong with our learning communities?

Local and national headlines fill our social media and email feeds with apocalyptic warnings like:

  • “Learning loss will be a lasting legacy of COVID safetyism”
  • “Record levels of teacher burnout and resignations”
  • “Stress and short tempers: Schools struggle with behavior as students return”

What if we changed the conversation and took stock of what drives academic achievement and student well-being?

Research shows that learners are 30 times more engaged when they feel known and they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future.

Simply put, knowing our learners is a force multiplier—a factor or a combination of factors that gives us the ability to accomplish greater feats than without it.

When we see something that powerful, “30 times more engaged,” it begs the question: Why wouldn’t knowing our learners and getting them excited about the future be our number one priority in our learning communities?

The answer is rather simple. The upfront investment required to create an environment where knowing our learners is prioritized over things like test scores, content delivery, and behavioral compliance is large.

Knowing our learners is not a prioritized or even stated outcome of the conventional education system’s design. In fact, knowing our learners is antithetical to the system’s design given it’s one-size-fits-all credo.

The moment we begin learning a little more about each learner in our communities is the moment we learn that the conventional system’s design is actively working to limit the success of every child.

Let’s look at a simple example.

Bobbi is 10 years old and just shared that she attended a sailboat race with her mother over the weekend. She was fascinated by the design of the sailboats, the teamwork required to maximize the boat’s speed, and the strategic conversations happening all around her by other onlookers.

Her excitement is undeniable. How will this excitement be translated into her learning experiences this week?

In a conventional learning environment, the excitement will quickly deteriorate in the face of rigid curriculum and pacing requirements. It’s great to hear Bobbi had such a good time, but it’s time for all of us to read Holes by Louis Sachar and then to learn about the asteroid belt.

It’s important to note that neither Holes nor the asteroid belt are bad things to engage with. They simply aren’t relevant to a learner who just shared her fascination about sailboat racing and therefore stumps whatever value might be contained within each of those learning experiences.

Now, let’s look at what might happen in a strengths-based learning environment that celebrates the individual interests of every learner.

In this environment, an educator can invite Bobbi to consider how becoming a strong mathematician helps sailboat racers go as fast as possible, encourage Bobbi to begin reading about sailboat racing or sailboat building, and welcome Bobbi to write a letter to a local sailboat racing team expressing her fascination and seeing if she can attend one of their training sessions.

Math, reading, writing. Sounds like foundational learning doesn’t it? It’s just wrapped in a context that is meaningful to the individual learner. And because this learner feels known and has been inspired to dive into her newfound interest, her engagement goes through the roof.

To have this type of learning be commonplace throughout an entire school or district requires a cultural shift, which can feel like an enormous undertaking if you aren’t in a position of power to get the wheels in motion.

But don’t underestimate the power of possibility. An individual teacher, by taking ownership in getting to know each of their learners and getting them excited about the future, will quickly be known as that classroom where “problem kids” aren’t problems, “quiet kids” bust out of their shells, and “bored kids” are teeming with excitement.

All it takes is one other teacher to wonder how they can make a similar impact. With two examples showcasing the value of knowing our learners, it becomes almost impossible to ignore and the dominoes will begin to fall.

Getting to know your learners is a daily commitment that can happen in formal and informal ways. To catalyze your efforts, Thrively has a free, evidence-based strengths assessment that reveals the top five strengths of every learner.

With this information at your fingertips, you will immediately have an unlimited supply of conversation starters for each and every learner. You will be able to make their strengths visible, which will inevitably make them proud of their unique identities and get them excited about how they can utilize those strengths at school and outside it.

The only question is: Are you ready to ask what’s strong with your students?

What If Teachers Saw Themselves As Youth Developers?

Learners with varying smiles on their faces sitting in school desks. The picture is taken at an angle, so each learner can be seen starting in the lower left quadrant of the photo all the way back to the top right quadrant of the photo where the last learner in the back is standing up.

What If Teachers Saw Themselves As Youth Developers?

By Paul Haluszczak


As a teacher, you identify with a certain set of responsibilities that cause differing amounts of joy and frustration. Such is the nature of work, right?

Perhaps. But, what’s a reasonable balance?

According to a 2017 survey of 5,000 teachers conducted by the New Teacher Center, teachers said 70% of their workdays were spent feeling “frustrated,” “overwhelmed,” and “stressed.”

Is a 70/30 split between frustration and something (hopefully) better than frustration the balance you’re looking for?

Probably not. But, what can you do? The job is the job, and given the chaotic state of affairs we are all navigating, what’s really in your power to shift this balance?

Playing With A New Identity

Let’s pretend for a moment that something is in your power. What might enable you to reconnect to the reasons you got into teaching in the first place?

What if we started by pretending your job title wasn’t “teacher” and took a moment to think more broadly about the role you play inside a classroom. At the highest level, you have every reason to call yourself a “youth developer.”

Now, youth development has no agreed upon definition, but Peter L. Benson and Rebecca N. Saito, authors of The Scientific Foundations of Youth Development, make a strong proposal:

That’s an impressively concise working definition that includes both the “what” and the “why” of youth development.

What enables positive youth development? Communities. 

What does youth development aim to achieve? The development of strengths in youth that promote health and well-being.

How might you fit inside this definition? 

Certainly you play a role in developing the strengths of youth. 

Now, what would happen if you focused on the outcome of promoting health and well-being and did so in the context of community?

Like youth development, “community” and “well-being” are also a bit ambiguous and can be related to in myriad ways. Let’s expand our table of definitions that we’re working with:

Whether you’re imagining a community as small as a classroom or as big as a country, it all starts with creating a sense of belonging, and feeling a sense of belonging is at the core of promoting positive well-being.

The really interesting thing about the well-being definition is it invites us to think about well-being as both an outcome and a tangible set of skills we can cultivate.

Part of the strengths youth developers (remember, that’s you) help young people cultivate are well-being strengths. If a young person has strong well-being skills, they will naturally develop positive health and well-being within their daily lives. How cool is that?

Bringing This Identity Into Your Everyday Work

Let’s recap. As a youth developer, you’re primary responsibilities are two-fold:

  • Develop a community of learning that promotes a sense of belonging; and
  • Support young people in developing strengths that promote health and well-being.

You might be asking how you can do these two things while still honoring your more formal job description. But, that’s not quite the right question.

It’s by focusing on these two things that will empower you to fulfill the accountabilities in your formal job description AND do so in a way that brings joy and fulfillment—rebalancing the scale once and for all.

It’s not just about shifting your focus though. You need tools at your disposal that will reinforce that focus every day.

That’s where Thrively’s Well-Being Index plays a powerful role. With the Well-Being Index, you can establish a daily well-being baseline and plant a seed for students to feel emotionally secure, develop high executive functioning, and find meaningful achievement in their work.

Best of all, the Well-Being Index is completely free to all Thrively users. Sign-up for Thrively today and begin developing a sense of belonging in your classroom. You can help flip the script on average teacher sentiment by transforming frustration into joy, overwhelm into fulfillment, and stress into satisfaction.