Fostering Persistence

In the short life of this blog, I’ve noted several times that I have a lot of opportunity for trying new things in my classes.  Here’s one experience from my first year (October 2009 through September 2010) .

When I began teaching, I struggled mightily with the walk-in aspect of our classes.  Such a class is convenient for students, but the administrative load is huge.  If you can’t predict how many students will be in class, you must produce materials for all of them.  Each lesson plan must be written with full upward and downward expansion options because you don’t know which  students will be present.  Lessons can’t build on previous material because students can’t be counted on to be present from class to class.  If a new student drops in, you must be prepared with intake paperwork and pretest materials.  Students disappear and you have no idea if they will be back — so you end up  taking extra time outside of class to do a missing persons survey by phone and your pretest to post-test ratios get nailed.

The administrative solution is managed enrollment  (this link is an example of what I mean by that phrase).   Since I’m not an administrator, that wasn’t my call.  I needed to know how to deal with the situation I was in (while pressing for administrative change in the meantime).  Sometime in 2010, I decided to focus on “persistence”.  There was always a core group of students who showed up faithfully to every class.  If I could expand that group, not only would several of the above issues be improved or resolved but my class would eventually become “full”. I would only need to accept new students when a seat opened up.  In a way, this would create a managed enrollment situation.

My organization hosts a regular in-house event where all staff is encouraged to present on a topic that will be useful to others.  I offered to share about “persistence”, which gave me motivation and a deadline.  My intention was to try smaller steps that a teacher can take in the classroom immediately and to share my experience in my report.  In addition to many other resources, this list from Jefferson Community College in Kentucky was full of good ideas.

I tried the following in my classes:

  • Learn student names quickly and facilitate their use by other students.  I’m not the best at remembering names; with a swirl of students from many countries, I was not doing well!  I had a classroom activity where students made United Nations-style name plates (paper, folded in a triangle and taped) with their name as they prefer to be addressed and their home country on it.  Each student gave the class a tiny pronunciation lesson on his or her name and invited questions and comments about his or her home country. I included myself, listing my place of birth.  I asked students to keep and reuse their name plates every day.  When a new student joined, others helped him or her with making a name plate.  This became a symbol of initiating a new person into the group (fostering a sense of membership).  This activity alone was remarkably successful.  Students tend to focus on the teacher and getting their own needs met.  This caused them to turn to each other, literally. Personally, I also began a habit of saying student names aloud when working on my data reports.
  • Give out certificates.  Students who attended 50 hours and completed their post-test received a nice certificate, to the applause of their classmates.  In one of my classes, I had quite a few students who did not have a lot of formal education in their home country.  For them, this certificate was a powerful motivator.
  • Orientation.  In 2010, my PM took a step toward managed enrollment by limiting student walk-ins to the first class day of each month.  (This had unintended effects, but that’s another post!)  We still didn’t have a formal orientation process, but I didn’t see why I couldn’t create one in my class.  The first day of each month was a good day for our name-plate activity as well as a review of attendance and classroom expectations.  I simplified our organization’s  policy documents as much as I could and gave copies to all new students.  I kept orientation to the first hour of class and gave a shortened lesson for the remaining 90 minutes.  (I would like to have our policy documents translated, actually.  Expectations must be clear to all students; many students don’t know English — that’s why they’re enrolling!)
  • Have visitor sessions.  If a potential new student showed up on some day other than the first day, I invited him or her to sit in 0n the class as a visitor (if a seat was available).  I gave the student our class policies and wrote the date of the next “orientation” day on it.  The intention was to give the student a chance to check me and the class out and decide if what I offered would meet their needs.  I hoped that this would improve the number of committed students who showed up on orientation day.
  • Have social events.  I began a habit of having a class party every three months.  I chose the change of seasons as a nice, consistent, non-denominational excuse.   Those dates (3/21, 6/21, 9/21 and 12/21) also tend to be near holidays in many cultures, so it works on several levels.  This, too, was effective in strengthening student connections to each other and to the class.
  • Promote setting short-term goals.  This initiative did not contribute toward my own short-term goal of managing enrollment by filling my classes with persistent students.  It turns out that this is no small project.  I decided that this could be an entirely separate multi-stage initiative.

Classes have different personalities and I’ve seen that these steps vary in their effectiveness from class to class.  But I did achieve my goal.  My classes are now “full” and I take a limited number of new students in.  Ever pushing toward managed enrollment, a fellow teacher and I have just decided (with PM approval) to only take new students in every 3 months and to require that continuing students complete a post-test and commit to the next 3 months.

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