The Key to Full Engagement is Energy

When I heard the news that Phil Schlechty had passed away it was sudden and I felt sadness. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been deeply impacted by his work throughout the years. You see it’s one of the things I’m learning about education and writing in this whole connected place: We get to know people through their work, we get to know people through their passions, and we get to know people who we actually don’t know face-t0-face.

Schlechty’s work around engagement is one of the most enlightening and simple frameworks for educators to use. What I found fascinating about his levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.

Schlectly level of engagements

As a teacher, it’s easy to work towards compliance. And most of us have been taught that compliance is a good thing. We’ve seen this in our own lives as students. We’ve seen this in our own personal lives. We’ve seen this as employees. Compliance is almost always rewarded.

And so compliance is easy to do, it is easy to teach, and it is easy to reward. But when all we work towards is compliance, we don’t get nowhere near full engagement.

What Schlechty explained so well is the difference between compliance and engagement. In his levels, the two factors that dictate whether a student is compliant or engaged are commitment and attention.

In an article I wrote titled, “An Epic Guide to Student Engagement“, I put it like this:

For some reason, classroom management’s connection to student engagement was not part of my discussions as an undergrad, student teacher, or even first year teacher. We seemed to miss the piece that a “well managed classroom” doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning, and classroom management is actually very easy when students are engaged.

Students in an engaged learning environment have high attention and high committment because of their intrinsic motivation and desire to actively learn, create, and contribute to the experience.

Students who are strategically compliant or ritually compliant may have levels of attention and commitment. But the attention and commitment have been forced by extrinsic factors (grades, tickets, rewards, quiz tomorrow, etc).

Today I want to look at a slightly different take on engagement which is the power of full engagement. By Schlechty’s definition, this would be high attention and high commitment (from intrinsic factors).

The Power of Full Engagement

I recently read, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr.  It ties in nicely with Schlechty’s work. The authors make the case that engagement is tied directly to our energy levels. That energy (not time or any other factor) contributes to whether or not we have a full level of attention and commitment.

The book lays out Four Energy Management Principles for Full Engagement (and the benefits of full engagement impact our performance whether in the workplace or as a student in the classroom or on your own as an individual entrepreneur or creator):

Principle 1: Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Human beings are complex energy systems, and full engagement is not simply one-dimensional. The energy that pulses through us is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. All four dynamics are critical, none is sufficient by itself and each profoundly influences the others. To perform at our best, we must skillfully manage each of these interconnected dimensions of energy. Subtract any one from the equation and our capacity to fully ignite our talent and skill is diminished, much the way an engine sputters when one of its cylinders misfires.

Principle 2: Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.

We rarely consider how much energy we are spending because we take it for granted that the energy available to us is limitless. … The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion. … We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints— fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront us.

Principle 3: To build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do.

Stress is not the enemy in our lives. Paradoxically, it is the key to growth. In order to build strength in a muscle we must systematically stress it, expending energy beyond normal levels. … We build emotional, mental and spiritual capacity in precisely the same way that we build physical capacity.

Principle 4: Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy— are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance.

Change is difficult. We are creatures of habit. Most of what we do is automatic and nonconscious. What we did yesterday is what we are likely to do today. The problem with most efforts at change is that conscious effort can’t be sustained over the long haul. Will and discipline are far more limited resources than most of us realize. If you have to think about something each time you do it, the likelihood is that you won’t keep doing it for very long. The status quo has a magnetic pull on us.

These apply to us as teachers, leaders, and parents. But they also apply to our students. Many who are stuck sitting in classrooms for hours at a time with their energy concentrated in other areas of their life. Answer these four questions to take a quick pulse on where you are (and where your students may be) in terms of full engagement:

  1. Are you physically and emotionally prepared to give your attention and commitment to the learning process?
  2. Is your energy level consistently a series of highs and lows or is there a steady pace you can keep to stay engaged?
  3. Do we consider learning a process like athletic training? How might that mindset change energy levels?
  4. Do you (or your class) have positive rituals and habits that lead to sustainable energy and engagement?

I’d love to hear some answers in the comments. This is something I both struggle with as a learner and as a teacher. Energy is so quickly diffused, but so essential to the learning process. Would love to hear how you keep energy levels up and engagement high for both yourself and your students!

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  • Mark Richner says:

    Your pulled quote, “a ‘well managed classroom’ doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning, and classroom management is actually very easy when students are engaged” makes me think of the part in E.B. White’s Stuart Little when the superintendent asks Stuart how he will manage the classroom as a substitute teacher. Stuart replies, “I’ll make the work interesting and the discipline will take care of itself.” An engaging curriculum is certainly part of the mix. Classroom management sure has a lot of parts!

    During the past two years, I have taught my fourth graders about Lawrence Kohlberg’s six levels of moral development. These levels are posted in our room and help to guide an ongoing conversation about how we want to be as a team. I want kids thinking about the difference between doing something for a reward and doing something because they care about others or have a personal code of ethics. I want them to think of their behaviors as a series of intentional choices and as something that can change and develop over time.

    One classroom ritual that I think leads to sustainable energy and engagement is how our morning routine is organized. Each day begins with kids taking care of the usual routines (attendance, backpack, getting their Chromebook off the cart, taking a moment to check in with their buddies) and then settling in with a priority. Some kids will come in and get to work on a writing project. Others will work on spelling/vocabulary. Or, if they are in a good spot with project work, they might choose to practice typing or read a book. I have found that this way of organizing our morning routine allows kids to transition into our room and meet the day where they are at in their energy. For kids who take a while to come into the day, having a moment to sit with a good book can be more welcoming than having assigned morning work (bell work), which can feel like one more thing to do. The morning routine helps set the initial conditions for energy for the day. This organization also frees me up to read the room and check in with kids.

    Thanks for sharing about engagement and energy.

  • Renee says:

    I teach 4th grade. I try and engage my students in the classroom by voice and choice. I give students choice in their projects. The students are the center of the classroom. Everything revolves around them. Project based learning, hands on,…they think they are “having fun” when they are really learning!

  • Becka says:

    I really enjoyed this article! I teach Year 7/8 (11/12yr olds) in New Zealand and notice this especially at that age where they’re hormones are a little out of whack and their energy levels are often all over the place. We’ve just started teaching in an open plan space with three teachers and classes, and start the day much like Mark mentions above. The kids choose something to do that is quiet and settled but the choice is theirs. The kids themselves have talked already (we’ve only been in there for 2 weeks) about their engagement levels being related to choice and working on things they’re into.

    Also last year I noticed that my students were particularly tired and ‘yawn-y’ in the morning so started something called ‘Move it!’ where each morning we’d go and run around, play a game, do yoga, brain gym or something for 15min to start the day every day. It made a massive difference! When they came back in they were focused and ready to start the day.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Love “Move it!” – have you done GoNoodle with your students? Our elementary teachers and students love it for Brain Breaks 🙂

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