Connecting Engagement with Equity

Over the past year, a group of colleagues and I have invested some time exploring Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. In this phenomenal book, Feldman explores inequitable practices that have been historically ingrained in school culture and explains how shifting to more equitable practices beginning with sound and unbiassed assessment practices can lead to positive transformation for all students.

In addition to Feldman’s book, I have been personally entrenched in Heather Lyon’s Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal).  In this profound book, Lyon refers to an Engagement Matrix, a template that theorizes that engagement and disengagement are the sum of two relationships a person has with: the task and the external person and/or consequence. Instead of engagement as a linear progression in which one moves from non-compliance to compliance to interested to absorbed, Lyon shows us that one can move horizontally and vertically across the matrix.

First, while reading Feldman’s book, I have grown increasingly aware of the power my current assessment practices have had not just on student’s personal progress but also as a more equitable approach to grading. My grade book, firstly, is standards-based. Through my design of proficiency-sequences, I have generated a transparent pathway for students so they can see not only their level of proficiency for a standard, but also why and how they can make next steps. Using this approach, I teach each level of proficiency and provide multiple opportunities in a variety of ways, often giving student voice and choice as well allowing and inviting “students to portray their knowledge visually, linguistically, and even verbally, all in service to ensure that [I] accurately assess a student’s content understanding” (Grading for Equity, p 143). Additionally, when tabulating a grade at report card time, I do not average scores or let a grade machine determine an overall standard assessment or course grade, but instead step back and consider the extent by which a student knows and can do. As a result, instead of feeling disgruntled by a grade that is a hodgepodge of practice, homework, tests, and projects which includes data connected directly to behaviours rather than achievement, students feel empowered to take risks and more confident about their overall grade as an accurate assessment of their learning rather than first, second, and final attempts all rolled into one grade. Finally, I whole-heartedly follow the motto that fair isn’t always equal. A grade of Proficient on standard derived from three pieces and earned a Proficient on the standard is just as valid as the same grade derived from six pieces . If a student has been absent and the barrier to completing a learning opportunity is something lengthy, like reading a novel, I will give them a shorter piece to read to eliminate the barrier and make the learning opportunity achievable.

I don’t want a gold star for my work, especially when gold stars are categorically inequitable, but instead I want others to take a walk through my classroom or have a conversation with me about this work. I want them to talk to my students and ask them how my assessment practices have changed some of their negative attitudes towards grading and has developed a culture of mistake-making and learning. I’m proud of my work but my reason for writing this post is not to illuminate that it’s all rainbows and sunshine, but actually to highlight the inherent problems I’ve seen and have frustrated me, which brings me to Lyon’s work.

Despite what I feel are equitable grading and teaching methods, I haven’t seen positive outcomes with all my students. I have a small group of students who simply do the work compliantly because they must and a few others who are non-compliant – they don’t attend, or attend but aren’t productive. I provide the time, energy, structures, accommodations, and even a funny or two (What do you expect from a Drama/Humanities teacher, right?)  So…what the heck? What’s the problem?  Why isn’t my equitable practice working for all my students?

According to Lyon, both compliance and non-compliance are forms of disengagement (“Exploring levels of student engagement with Dr. Heather Lyon,” The Fueling Creativity Podcast). Students who are non-compliant have no relationship to the task, or to the person or consequence. Students who are compliant also have no relationship to the task, but they do have a relationship with the person or consequence. I understand the logic of the matrix at these points, but I wonder, if the student who is non-compliant has no relationship to both the task and the person or consequence, Why?

When a student shows non-compliant behaviour my instinct is to reflect on what I should do differently. When my Spidey senses reveal that students have not developed a connection with me, I try to learn about them, find out their interests, friends, other classes, and home life.  My goal is to move them from non-compliant to compliant. Compliance is not great, but it’s better than non-compliant, I think. I avoid using grades as ammunition even though it’s a card I could play. I’d rather not use grades in a punitive way. Because I am a standards-based teacher, once I learn a bit more about a student, I often custom formulate learning opportunities a student feels more connected to, hoping they become at least connected to the task if not to me. I don’t push this though because it can take some time for students to trust me. It might mean that this task is forfeited in the name of connection and that is okay by me. Sometimes one or both strategies work, and students become increasingly fired up about completing the work because they can see meaning in the learning. Some even move from non-compliance to compliance to interested. It’s lovely. It feels like a win.

But for some students, the thrill of productivity is short-lived. After a momentary kick into high gear, they shut down again, refusing to entertain even the slightest conversation with me. Over several days and weeks, there is no forward motion, at all.  My resolve doesn’t change, and I still try to connect, still try to motivate. They don’t lift a pencil. Their interest to the task, gone, poof! And then, some stop attending altogether. Where did the connection go? It’s like there is another force at play and I wonder, if I have just proven that I can shift the engagement needle via connection, voice, and choice, does that force pushing them away from learning have more to do with the relationship to the consequence?

A consequence is either the positive or negative impact of an action (“The consequences of engagement: the good, the bad, and the ugly” by Jonathon R B Halbesleben, University of Alabama). If the consequence is a reward, we want to do it to receive the reward, not because we find the task rewarding. If the consequence is a punishment, we want to do it to avoid the punishment, not because we find engagement in the task itself. Think carrots and sticks. In our classrooms, if the carrot is big enough, a student will complete the task, but if the stick is equally big enough, a student will also complete the task. If a student has a history of receiving sticks versus carrots, the trauma of those sticks can effectively numb the student into non-compliance. Lyon mentioned this on an episode of The Tom Schimmer Podcast; she suggests that students can in fact be intrinsically motivated to be non-compliant. Wowsa.

Similarly, if it has become a custom or habit to only become compliant once the stick is big enough and the consequences are dire, as in failing and having to repeat a course or not graduate, could that relationship between the stick and the student infiltrate how students view school and result in it being a trigger or stressor?  How can we stop the cycle?

This pattern works for me because this is what I know. I’m afraid of the stick, but I don’t want to be a failure. I don’t view school as anything but sticks. I don’t feel involved in my learning. I don’t see myself in my learning. My teachers don’t understand me. They don’t care about my story. If I don’t feel connected to school, why would I go? My parents want me to succeed but isn’t it too late? Why should I trust this teacher? It just feels hopeless.

This seems like historical and cyclical trauma-induced non-compliance.

Let’s say my hypothesis is correct. That means the equity piece and the engagement piece are interconnected. If a generation of students has a personal and familial history of non-compliance, disengaged with both the task and teacher until they are quite literally standing on the edge of the cliff and the fear of failure sets in, we cannot ignore that the reasons why and the impact on our teaching. We can’t ignore that forces beyond our control are at play and need to work harder to move students from non-compliance to compliance to interested, for them to succeed. This also means we need to applaud rather than condemn the last-minute desire to achieve success. Traditionally, we have scoffed at students for their eleventh-hour push, disgruntled by building packages for them in the last few weeks of a semester, but should we? Is our dismay at helping students developing a growth or deficit mindset? Trust me, I, too, have felt the sting of a student begging to hand in a learning opportunity, many, many, MANY weeks overdue and seconds before the term cut-off. I’m also sure that I didn’t keep my dismay private. I’m human. My eye rolls can be loud.

Could connecting with students, applauding their sudden resolve, and appreciating their last-minute effort to connect to make them feel like their shift, no matter when it happens, our secret superpower?

What do we have to lose? It’s an inconvenience to accept last minute work, sure I get that, but what if we didn’t make it about us? What if we made it about the student. It’s about their progress. If our knee jerk reaction is the same as they’ve always experienced (and even the same as their parents experienced), we could be contributing to the pattern of non-compliant behaviour because our negative energy has become part of the pattern. Instead of treating these situations like we’re doing them some fantastic favour by allowing them to hand in their work at the last minute or pass without hesitation, what if we made them feel welcome and celebrated this positive change? I’m talking LIGHT UP!! Instead of making students feel guilty, what if we praised their sudden ambition to succeed regardless of if it is extrinsically motivated?  Could this connection build the engagement connection between non-compliance and compliance, and then voice and choice help navigate them towards being interested?

Showing consideration for the back story of these kids who push the panic button at the last minute is also an equitable move because we are, as Shane Safir writes in Street Data, listening to the whole child and this whole child’s story and allowing that to help us determine their learning trajectory individual by individual. I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve heard teachers discuss strategies about how to get a student to pass or to graduate, but the focus is on the grade book and the number of assignments they need to hand in to do so. I’ve inquired, Do we know why this student is suddenly interested in passing? What’s their story? The answer I often hear is, They’ve been allowed to get away with it until now and they pull this every year knowing that teachers will be their eleventh-hour saviour which is doing them no favours. These comments don’t answer my question, so I push a little more. But why? Why are they expecting this every year? What’s their story? What’s life like at home? What’s going on with them?


We see the importance of our courses because as adults who have the big picture. High school kids don’t have the big picture. They have no inkling of the big picture. Their brains aren’t developed enough to have the big picture. By grade 12, a rare few know what they want to be when they grow up, and yet we expect them to suddenly be these mature beings who have this big picture grasp. Worse than that, we think that through punitive strategies, we’ll teach them what life is like in the real world. Let’s fail them! That will teach them.

In a recent episode of The Educrush Podcast, “Being a Bad Student Made me a Good Teacher,” educator Alex Noel shares his experiences as a student and highlights the shift that occurred when a teacher believed in them after being told by others that he’d literally amount to nothing. Given his own experiences, Noel sees himself reflected in his students and because he sees himself in his students, empathizes with their current struggles and acknowledges their current struggles which ultimately has shaped him into being a “good teacher.”

What we can learn from Noel’s words, even if we don’t have a similar story to our students, is to consider every student’s story and believe their stories. This is empathy. In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown, an American research professor, writes, “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences” (p 123).

Did you catch that last bit? Even when it doesn’t match my experiences. Understanding and empathizing are not the same thing. We might take in what our students are experiencing in a surface-level way, but unless we also allow it to impregnate our whole view of the student, we aren’t truly connecting with them. Brown also mentions, “Empathy is a tool of compassion. We can respond empathetically only if we’re willing to be present to someone’s pain. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s not real empathy” (p 121). What I understand about Brown’s words here with relation to our students is that we need to be open to our student’s histories and struggles. We don’t need to take it on emotionally but do need to let it be a construct of how we connect with students. We need to trust the student’s story rather than subject those stories to our scrutiny which is often entrenched in colonial conventions.

Students’ stories include trauma that we may have no experience with. I’m not a trauma expert but I am aware that a student’s history of trauma, remote learning, violence, poverty, and Covid has mixed a mental health crisis cocktail. We can’t judge our students on a superficial level and just because we aren’t equipped to peel back the layers, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t assume that there aren’t layers of crises that need our attention.  We’re not trying to fix the trauma, but we can help students walk through it.

But they won’t be ready for post-secondary? We aren’t doing these kids any favours by letting them pass. Their professors at post-secondary will never let them get away with this!

Here’s what I see. When students are forced to repeat a course because they “failed it,” many don’t suddenly, magically, understand the impact of failing. They only see themselves as now being removed from their grade level peers and held back. It makes them feel worthless and stupid. Feeling worthless and stupid is not exactly the breeding ground for connection and engagement. If we think they are disconnected in our classes now, why the heck would they start attending if they are being held back? It’s fruitless. There is no epiphany, Dammit, I should have known better. You don’t build bridges with kids by pulling the rug out from under them.  We need to stop taking it so personally.

It’s a colonial construct that learning at a particular grade level begins in September and ends in June. It’s a colonial construct that students have “failed at a subject level” if they haven’t met minimum proficiency by June and need to repeat If we want to build an equitable framework, we need to ditch such constructs and meet students where they are at. Many standards in British Columbia’s redesigned curriculum repeat from grade level to grade level. So instead of failing students what if their transcript showed which standards have insufficient evidence and which standards have been met at a certain level of proficiency. That way, their next teacher can help them level up using the new content of the new course. At the same time, instead of segregating students into programs that don’t provide advancement what if we allowed students to drop into these place when they need a specific intervention. What if the interventions came to them and could be accessed by all students. This could benefit so many students. Imagine enlisting all support workers in a building, learning assistance, alternate education, special education, aboriginal education, youth care, etc as floating around the school to serve all kids.

Lee Ann Jung, Lead Inclusion‘s specialist and consultant, suggests, “Special education isn’t a place. And it’s not an identity. It’s a service. There are no special education students,” the “more universal design for learning we put into place, the fewer special accommodations and modifications we need to add later,” and “When making placement decisions, the question should not be whether the student can meet grade level expectations. The question is, ‘Can the student learn in this setting?'” (Twitter, May 31, June 9, June 10, 2022). Jung suggests that we consider how we can manipulate the construct to serve students instead of trying to make students fit the construct. It’s a huge shift in thinking, but one necessary to move forward, and and necessary to build connections with kids, especially those who have been traditionally underserved by traditional school and assessment constructs.

I’m not going to win every student’s heart and while it breaks my heart that I may lose students because I don’t have all the answers, what I do have is heartful reflection and the willingness to connect and keep connecting. I have wise experts like Heather Lyon, Joe Feldman, Alex Noel and Natalie Vardabasso, Shane Safir, Brené Brown, Monte Syrie, Lee Ann Jung and others who teach me to keep wrestling with engagement and equity, to keep learning. They are helping me, everyday, walk through this so I can help my students walk through their personal journeys.

Dr. Jody Carrington says, “Kids these days have never felt so unheard, so disconnected.”  I’ve got the tools to build equity in my classroom, and these tools have set the foundation for engagement, but while the structures are there to support engagement, the structure needs constant renovating to support each unique learner. Connecting with kids will help keep the structure standing. Connecting with educators so we can keep doing this proud work and will make us stronger.


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