What Zumba taught me about student engagement.

So behaviour management is at the shallow end of Strictly Positive Teaching. Before we get our goggles on and jump in to experience the shallow end more thoroughly, let’s stroll on and look at some of the rest of the pool.

Let’s take that question: “Why are we doing this?”

Strictly Positive Teachers have to be positive that they are carrying the students with them on the classroom journey, and for that to happen, there has to be mutual engagement in the learning. And for that to happen, three things need to  be true:

  1. students must not be so bored that they can’t maintain concentration
  2. the material needs to be set appropriately
  3. students need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing

Indulge me here, because I’m going to launch into a lengthy analogy.

Me and exercise don’t get on

I have an unhappy relationship with exercise. I know I should do exercise, because I need to be healthy. I know that avoiding exercise will not be good for me, but I really REALLY hate exercise. So I pick and choose the exercise that I do; I like dancing, so I pick things which involve moving to music – aerobics, zumba, jazzercise, fitsteps… any of those things with nifty, punning names which effectively mean moving to music in a quasi-exercisey sort of way. There are lots of people like me out there, a fact which may come as a surprise to those who aren’t like me. We need to be encouraged, because we really REALLY hate exercise. (I think I mentioned that.)

The dreaded studio mirror

Now these classes are usually conducted in something called a ‘studio’, which means that it has a nice wood floor and a mirror lining one wall. Which is great for the instructors, because they are universally fit, toned, healthy-looking people who can look at themselves in said mirror from pretty much any angle and enjoy the view. Unfortunately that’s not true for most of their students. Many of us are there precisely because we are NOT fit, toned and healthy-looking, and for us, well frankly there is not a view which is not wince-inducing. We are there hoping that one day we will find a non-repulsive view, and we think that because we are not particularly exercise -minded individuals, moving to music is the least worst way of trying to achieve that objective.

(Bear with me. I promise, I’m getting there…)

So the instructor starts up the music and starts leading the exercise.  And at this point, they show what kind of instructor they are.

  • The narcissist: This instructor is very proud of their own physique, stamina and expertise; their ‘teaching’ starts from the point that the students will aspire to the physical ideal which is set before them and will seek to emulate it by doing what the instructor does. They face the mirror and communication with the class, even visual communication, is kept to a minimum level of yelled instructions, but their gaze roams their own physique appreciatively, while the sweating, uncoordinated, imperfect horde behind them struggles to keep up. The horde cannot keep up, but the sweaty energy expended in trying to follow things without any real instruction may make them feel as though they are doing something. If they’re like me, they soon get bored and leave the class. (There’s a clue as to where I’m going with this…) Most likely to say: “Don’t worry too much about the steps. Just do what I do.”
  • The sergeant major: This instructor is relentlessly jovial. Relentlessly. Their bounce could revolutionise tennis. They are eyes and teeth. They LOVE what they do, and they think that they will communicate this love of exercise by force of personality. and volume. They face their class square on and they demonstrate their involvement in what is going on by making encouraging eye contact while yelling the names of the dance moves as they swing into them.  They think they are AMAZING teachers, and they seek validation at the end of the class, bidding farewell to each student as they leave. They have no real idea of whether what they’re doing is pitched at the right level and don’t really want to find out. They know best what is right for their class. The class might beg to differ though. Exhausted, they either say Yes it was Great and don’t come back, or they get injured… and don’t come back. Most likely to say: “Aren’t we all feeling energised? Fantastic!”
  • The empathiser: This instructor knows what the class wants, which is to lose weight and get more toned. They briefly explain the dance steps in terms of how it will help achieve these goals – they show how the dance steps are actually exercising specific muscles and what physical impact those specific exercises will have on their shape and fitness. They start the class, yelling about specific moves and muscles, and they watch for what each member of the class is doing, gently debriefing at the end of each song, guiding the students to do things right. And so the students will isolate certain muscles as they go along in order to tighten that thigh muscle or flatten that stomach. In short, they will work harder. Most likely to say “Lengthen that lunge – tighten that buttock!”

Only the last understands the concept of engagement, of harnessing goals to make students work harder, of ensuring that there is a reason to do the work set.

Student engagement

Several years ago I was lucky to attend a series of twilight CPD sessions led by Dr Russ Quaglia of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspiration, and Dawn Haywood of the Student Engagement Trust.


When students are engaged in class they are 16 times more likely to succeed academically, according to Dr Quaglia. When faced with the statement “My classes help me understand what’s happening in my everyday life,” the percentage of students plummets from primary school to secondary school, and continues to nosedive as they move through secondary.

The Importance of Student Engagement

“The longer I’m in school, the less I understand why.” What a terrible thing for a student to feel.


In a way, it is not surprising. After all, at the beginning of the educational journey, it is easy for a child to understand why they are learning to read and write and add up. It is easy for them, because when they get home they see Mum and Dad reading, and writing, and adding up and understand that these skills are necessary to the business of being a grown-up. Much more difficult for them to see the everyday relevance of German word order, or the development of coastal landforms, or calculus. So we have to find a relevance and explain it to them.

If we talk about positivity, we have to ensure that students understand why they are learning what they are learning; how it is relevant to them – in this lesson, in their course of study for this year; and in a wider context, how the subject will make a different to them IN THEIR EVERYDAY LIVES.

This relevance may be in the context of exams, internal or public, or in the context of careers, or in a more holistic view of one’s subject and its importance to life, but it must be overtly expressed. Over and over and over again.

It is not enough that we teachers understand why what we are teaching is relevant. If students do not understand why they are learning it, why would they buy into your lesson? I doesn’t take more than a few seconds in each lesson to ensure that students understand the point, so that they can map this learning into their interior scheme of purpose and importance. And we have to keep checking that they understand that interior scheme of purpose and importance.

Even if we’re teaching Zumba.





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