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Classroom Management: Engaging the Invisible Student

Jordan Catapano

The student quietly enters class, alone. He finds his seat towards the back of the room. He keeps his head down during the lesson, perhaps doing what the teacher asks, perhaps not. Then class time ends and the student quietly exits without looking up or saying a word.

It’s entirely possible that no one, including the teacher, really knew he was there at all.

This is what we call the “Invisible student”: The Student who does not attract attention to himself or herself, but prefers to stay quiet, does what’s necessary to escape attention, and disappears.

While invisible students may prefer to stay under the radar, it’s essential that they are not invisible at all to teachers. Teachers must respect their students’ dispositions and preferences, but at the same time use classroom management to make sure these students are equally acknowledged and included.

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Classroom Management: What Makes an Invisible Student?

There are any number of factors that might make a student fly under the radar. It’s important that the teacher use classroom management techniques to get to know this student, learns what makes them tick, and understands where they’re coming from. It’s also important that the teacher not try to change who their student is.

One reason the student might be loath to attract attention is simply because of personal preference. They don’t feel the need to have attention, they like living in their own world, and the less personal attention targeted on them the better. This is not necessarily a problem; some people just prefer their school experience that way.

Personal preference might be related to the student’s personality. Some students are the louder, outgoing, attention-grabbing kinds of students. Other invisible students are prone to be more introverted. They prefer to process information independently, their personal interactions might feel stressful, or their personality just prefers to keep to themselves. Sometimes teachers mistakenly see this as a “Problem” that needs to be “Fixed.” But there’s no need to try to be the hero and change an introvert into an extrovert.

Also, sometimes students act differently in different settings, depending on a number of factors. This might have to do with certain elements of their environment that make them more or less comfortable. At times, having at least one friend in a class determines how socially comfortable a student feels. Other times the teacher’s personality or methods play a role in how that student chooses to engage in their environment.

At other times a student might be invisible in more places than just your classroom. Perhaps that student’s home life is similar: One parent is missing, or both parents work long hours. The student’s background might contribute to the way they interact as well. If they have a history of being ignored or shunned by teachers, peers, and parents, they may habitually recoil from interactions by the time they meet you.

But maybe it’s not the student at all who makes themselves difficult to see and ultimately less noticed by the teacher. Many classrooms have a variety of students, some quieter than others. Since the teacher has a finite quantity of attention to dispense, it’s often those students who are the most attention-grabbing who receive focus. The extroverted students, the struggling students, the misbehaving students, or the thriving students are likely to make it to the top of the teacher’s priority list of attention. This problem may be compounded as class size increases: It’s easier to give individualized attention to students in a class of 15 than a class of 30.

Everything listed above may be legitimate reasons for some students to fly under the radar. But reasons are not excuses. A student becoming more “Visible” to a teacher is based on the premise that the onus is on the student to do something to draw attention. But this is a false premise. It is the responsibility of the teacher to proactively give individualized attention to each and every student.

The term “Invisible” is not even a fair term to ascribe. These students do not make themselves invisible; the teacher’s decision to focus on them or not is what determines it. And no teacher should ever allow a student to be invisible to them.

Interacting with Your Quiet Students

Some students will be quieter and less attention-grabbing than others, but teachers must make an effort to individualize their attention on every student. This may actually be even more important to do for those quiet students: It’s possible that they don’t receive a great deal of attention anywhere, and teachers must be on the front line of recognizing value and building confidence in their students.

Teachers do not need to single out these students in front of the class, nor do they need to suddenly become someone their not and develop extroverted qualities. Instead, if teachers want to individualize their attention to their under-the-radar students, they should consider how they could give them attention in a manner that best respects the student.

  • Greet them by name each day. Nothing says “I see you” like a simple smile and warm greeting. Eye contact and calling them by name is essential for letting the student know they are valued.
  • Notice positive things about them. Genuinely compliment the student. “You have a great smile,” or “I’ve noticed you have really improved with _________.”
  • Pass them a note privately. You don’t need to be so public with your interactions with these students. Instead, write a short, private note and discreetly pass it to the student. Share a word of encouragement and positivity. I promise you they’ll keep that note.
  • Hold a private conversation. Like the note, if you do need to speak with the student, do so in a quiet, removed setting.
  • Offer opportunity to work independently. If you frequently facilitate group collaboration, from time to time offer students a chance to process their work on their own.
  • Find out what interests them. A student feels valued and included when what they personally like is incorporated into the classroom. Take time to learn more about your quiet students, and tie in their interests and preferences to your content.
  • Give them a role or responsibility. A student may feel more valued if they can contribute to the facilitating of class in a real, tangible way. Give the introverted student, as well as others, a chance to have a specific role or task they’re responsible for, and allow them to feel like they are contributing to the whole.

It takes intentionality on the teacher’s part to identify those students who are more likely to go unnoticed. Take some time to get to know these students on a more personal and academic level, and show the students you care.

While we do not want to change who our students are, we do want to give them the comfort and freedom to grow into a better, stronger version of themselves. While we do our best to facilitate an environment where our quieter students feel comfortable, we also want to empower them to develop the soft skills necessary for successful interactions with others.

Ultimately, it’s our job to respect the background and unique qualities that make each student who they are, and for as quiet or reserved as a student may be, we can never allow them to go invisible.

How do you give your attention to your quiet students? What would you add to my list above? Share your thoughts with our TeachHUB.com community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.