What is a principal to do if teachers express concern that their students’ struggles in life are bigger than their struggles with their assignments? How often has a teacher wanted to forgive a student’s missing assignments after becoming aware of the student’s challenges at home? John was suffering from serious grief after his father was killed. He could not talk about it. He could not consistently perform schoolwork, but he kept showing up. For a year he disappeared academically, but he gradually recovered from his grief and eventually rejoined us with academic productivity.

During that year of virtual absence, we had no device for measuring his progress. Our teaching team sensed progress, and we had occasional evidence of academic activity. We lacked, however, a systematic way of measuring his progress toward the ultimate goal of earning enough credit for a diploma. The only tool available to us was the number of credits earned, and for months John was not moving that needle enough for a result.

Working with our counselor and other resources, we found ourselves making comments about “meeting students where they are.” Unfortunately, we had no device—except credit accumulation—for assessing student progress that would allow us to measure incremental growth toward becoming a successful student.

We needed a tool that would allow us to create more precise interventions unique to the student and that were measurable to a standard. Such a device would give us a way to measure growth without drowning a struggling student with expectations beyond reach.

The Meter Stick  

Essentially, Stages of Studenting helps determine an individual student’s level of participation or engagement in the process of education or “doing school.” I devised it for three primary purposes. The first was to create a consistent lexicon for the teaching team to use when assessing how engaged a student is in school. The second purpose was to provide a metric by which to identify a particular student’s level of performance or engagement. The third—and no less important—purpose was to provide a simple structure that allows a student to mark his or her own success. By matching a student’s behavior to a particular stage, the team can better plan an intervention program and appropriate rewards for success.

At each level of engagement, the principal, teachers, and counselors can associate specific behaviors. Because students are human, there will be an inherent imprecision in the measure, but through observation and discussion, a team can make an assessment of what a student’s level of engagement is. The stories we relate below about students will help to reveal, and thus inform, where they can be placed on the Stages of Studenting measuring device.

The Nine Stages of Studenting 

There are nine basic steps in Stages of Studenting that progressively indicate more engagement in the act of being a student.

Stage 0. Not attending school.

Stage 1. Attending school.

Stage 2. Attending classes.

Stage 3. Remaining in classes for the entire period.

Stage 4. Being prepared for learning.

Stage 5. Engaging in class.

Substage 5.1. Listening.

Substage 5.2. Answering questions.

Substage 5.3. Asking questions.

Substage 5.4. Participating in group work.

Stage 6. Producing work.

Substage 6.1. Following the given instructions.

Substage 6.2. Completing classwork.

Substage 6.3. Turning work in.

Substage 6.4. Accepting feedback.

Substage 6.5. Making revisions.

Stage 7. Initiating communication with teachers about progress in classes.

Stage 8. Initiating communication with counselors about graduation and post-high school plans.

Stages of Studenting is not a precise system of assessment. There will be frequent and inconsistent movement from one level to another. It should be noted that Stages of Studenting is not an intervention itself. It is meant to be a way of discussing the struggles that students are having in the context of success at school. Stages of Studenting is a metric that is simply descriptive of “where a student is” in their engagement in learning. With this knowledge, we can better provide needed assistance for the struggling student.

Student Examples

A student, such as Rochelle at Stage 1, is barely making it to school on a regular basis and is usually found in a counselor’s office or in the back of a favorite teacher’s room. When faced with an assignment a teacher expects to be completed, she feels hopeless. To help a student like Rochelle, a teacher can set a goal and a reward for Rochelle to simply attend class or remain in class. Moving up the metric to another level of engagement, Rochelle can register a success in her school life.

Charlie is an active student while in class, but gang associations have interfered with consistent work production. He felt he was a failure at school, which he was by traditional measures. When acknowledged for the successes he was having at Stage 5 (engaging in class), he began to feel like a real student, and eventually, he found the strength to resist some of the gang temptations and become more consistent in his work production (Stage 6).

Another student, Carlos, had to work late nights to help his family with rent. He often slept through class and struggled with being prepared for learning (Stage 4). By working with his struggles “where they were,” Carlos gained perspective on his level of activity and found success in his school life. Obviously, this worked out to be a better solution than disciplinary action for sleeping in class.

Acknowledging Success

Prior to using Stages of Studenting, concerned teachers would come to the principal to report troubles with a student, often expressing frustration and/or a tone of hopelessness. By using the levels of progress in Stages of Studenting, the conversation changed. Teachers began to talk about strategies for acknowledging successes and for moving students through their struggles. Teachers also became more creative, designing incremental steps toward success. The team of principal, teachers, and counselors had more to work with for creating interventions. The focus of interventions shifted to addressing immediate student needs while still working with the ultimate goal of earning credits toward graduation.

Students have all variety of struggles. We see students who are pregnant, students who suffer from the effects of trauma, students with learning challenges, students with family struggles, and students with all sorts of other difficulties. These difficulties uniquely contribute to and interfere with the potential for success.

Our job is to educate. While we have concern for these other issues—and even assist students in finding resources to help address them—our primary focus is on the education of the students. With this focus, we need to have a measuring tool that is flexible enough to identify success while also accommodating the unique struggles of each student in their school performance.

We cannot solely use the crude measure of credit accumulation when working with students who possess such an array of nonschool-related issues. With Stages of Studenting, we can help a student identify where to focus on his or her progress in school, and be honest with students about reasonable expectations. With this metric, educators can more accurately communicate with a student about the expectations in class, in school, and in learning generally.

Stages of Studenting is a brand-new tool that is still in the development phase. Observing my colleagues use this tool in such a wide variety of ways is exhilarating, with the potential still far from being met. In my school, the teachers have the stages displayed prominently in each classroom, and frequently reference them in conversations with students and their parents about success (such as when creating behavior contracts or during parent conferences). Just watching educators become more creative and hopeful has been tremendously rewarding, and I expect more benefits will be realized over time as the device is adjusted and further developed.  

Wade McJacobs is a learning specialist in the Tigard-Tualatin School District in Tigard, OR.