Engaging Students at a Deeper Level

Students laugh and talk together during class

In his personal writings, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose are wasting their time—even when hard at work.” At a point in our history when we are aware that illness can visit us without warning; that all of our carefully constructed plans can be derailed in minutes; that some of our greatest ambitions can fall prey to the harshest realities; that we may encounter tragedy without exploring some very important parts of life, examining our purpose regularly will not only save us from becoming prisoners of our own success, but help us become better for our students. Because we are what we do every day, and the actions we do most make up who we are, it’s important to remember the impact this has on how we show up in our classrooms and in our interactions with students.

Have deep conversations

Prior to becoming a college professor, I taught International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at an urban high school. To establish greater connections, I not only shared my career goals but also my spiritual ambitions. I could see some students quiet down and sit up as I talked about how to avoid being consumed by the rewards of money, power, and status. I shared that although I might experience career decline at some point in my life, it was important to continue to define my purpose and goals. I then asked my students to share their life goals and was left speechless when one student said, “I just want to make life easier for my friends and family. Isn’t that what life’s all about?” It seemed they never had a chance to share what mattered most to them. Whenever the situation allows, I do this with my college students and always find relief and joy come over them as if to say, “Thank you for recognizing both my goals and me.”

Make time for the little things

In Charles Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living, he wrote,

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Charles Darwin

People are often tired and distracted, wearing “busy” as a badge of honor, not because they have done too much work, but because they haven’t done enough of what speaks to their inner being. The more present, purposeful, and self-aware we are in our everyday lives, taking in the true beauty and good in the world while on our journey, the more likely we are to find more moments of joy. We can then effortlessly bring this spirit into our classrooms, and our students will find it refreshing and uplifting to be in our presence.

Create a reverse bucket list

A reverse bucket list is a list of goals you’ve already accomplished. Some examples are becoming bilingual, getting an A in a difficult course, learning how to cook, being consistent at the gym, etc. I still remember the days I prayed for the things I have now. Gratitude makes life so much sweeter. “A 2015 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology looked into how ‘grateful recounting’ enhances a person’s overall well-being. The study showed that participants who recalled three good things from the past 48 hours—and briefly wrote about them—every day for a week had an easier time accessing positive memories. And by routinely recalling positive experiences, it sparked an increase in their subjective well-being” (P.C. Watkins, J. Uhder., & S. Pichinevskiy, 2015 as cited in Meyer-Shine, 2017). One approach is writing five to 10 of your strongest memories and alternating between big and small accomplishments so as not to make light of the smaller ones. Ask your students to do this from time to time so they feel a sense of pride in how far they have come and feel motivated to continue striving for excellence. 

Keep your goals way out in front of you

Without something “big” we’re working towards, it’s hard to wake up in the morning and give it our best. Having both worldly and spiritual goals not only helps us find more meaning, but also models what it looks like to be someone who defines success in more than pecuniary terms. It allows students to see how having a strong sense of purpose creates the discipline and determination necessary to achieve anything they desire.

Three random acts of kindness

Frederick Lenz once said, “Whenever we do something for someone else, we affirm that we are not simply in it for ourselves, that our self is someone else, is everyone else.” Committing to performing a few acts of kindness throughout the week can go a long way in making us feel more fulfilled. Sharing these stories with students will make them feel closer to us and may even inspire them to pay for someone’s cup of tea or offer a kind word and smile to someone who really needs it.

Write down your values

Write down the things that are important to you and circle the top three. Use these to guide your decisions at work. Ask students to do the same and have a discussion with them about it. Watch how overtime many students show up more authentically and with stronger faith in themselves and the world around them. Remind them of the words of C.S. Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start from where you are and change the end.”

Dr. Noura Badawi has 15 years of higher education teaching experience online and on-ground.


Aurelius, M. (2002). The Meditations. Random House.

Darwin, C., & In Barlow, N. (1969). The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: With original omissions restored. New York: Norton.

Meyer-Shine, A. (2017, November 20). How making a “reverse bucket list” Can make you happier. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/40497651/how-making-a-reverse-bucket-list-can-make-you-happier