Wednesday, April 08, 2009
posted by Q6 at 12:49 PM
Educators have grappled with the issue of student motivation for decades, and I'm no exception. I've been working all school year with lower-income seventh and eighth graders who, were it not for the constant prodding by the school staff, couldn't be bothered to walk upright let alone learn anything. As many of you know, I spent seven years before that working at a school site where most were competing for some of the best universities in the world and were motivated to do much more than the minimum requirement.

Why are the two groups so different? I refuse to believe that either group of students has enough forward vision to anticipate what they'll need to accomplish. I know that every parent wants the best for their kids (though I admit that the latter group probably has parents who are better at expressing it and more empowered to give rewards). I know that both groups have an equal chance for success (not for the all the reasons that Malcom Gladwell explains in Outliers, though I'll get to my review of that book in due time). So why is the motivation missing from my current students? What am I missing?

About a year ago an unoffical black mark was put on my record. It was said that I didn't believe that all kids could be successful. (This apparently came from an interpretation of something I said at some point, though I couldn't tell you what it was I said that gave people--including some district officials--this idea.) It's a misunderstanding I've tried to clear up since it happened; I honestly don't know if it's worked.

Here's what I do know: Every kid CAN be successful, but not every kid WANTS to be successful. We can deal with different definitions of success and this statement is still true. Some students set the bar too high, some set it just high enough, some set it far too low (by any standard), and some don't set a bar at all. It's like having given someone a gold brick only to discover he's been using it as a doorstop.

So I'm left with this overwhelming feeling of frustration because I can't get these kids to care enough about themselves to do well. It's a terrible feeling that comes from watching young people blow off the opportunity to succeed--not miss it, but actually turn it down--and I try not to let it get the best of me. Chuck Palahniuk put it best in Fight Club: I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn't screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.

I wish I could figure out a solution to that problem. Of course, if I could, I'd probably be writing the books instead of reading them.


At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Oooooh. You violated the first article of faith that must be adhered to if you are to be allowed to work with students. You indicated that you do not believe all of them will succeed! And we know from voluminous stacks of research that students do much better if their teachers have high expectations for them. So if you do not think they will succeed, based on your observation of their behaviors and motivation, you are guilty of having a low expectation! You bigot!

This is the Peter Pan syndrome in public education. We must believe in our students even if they do not believe in themselves. Then we will set the bar high, give them challenging work at or above grade level, even if they are only capable of working several levels below grade level. So long as we believe in them, they will rise to the challenge! Jaime Escalante did it! What’s wrong with you, you slacker? They will fly as long as we believe. If you they fall, it must be because you didn’t believe in them!

Repeat after me. “All students can achieve at high levels.” Say that over and over again fifty times before going to bed every night. Once you believe it, then your students will begin to absorb this confidence and will soon be soaring just like Peter Pan.

This is one of the big stressors for teachers. They are told that their students’ success depends on us believing in their ability to perform at high levels. But then SOME of the students don’t give a care about their school work, and are not motivated to succeed. I have been there, I know. You cajole, you bribe, you reward with praise any sign of effort, you phone home to get parents on the case, you provide structure and guidance, and still, some of the students do not respond.

Don’t get me wrong. We should not give up hope on ANY of them. I am not saying we should not TRY all the tools and tricks at our disposal. We should! We should always offer opportunity and hope for every student. But it is beyond the pale to expect ME to defy my two decades of classroom experience and magically expect a student who shows little interest and even less ability to perform to leap ahead to “perform at a high level.”

That student may begin to show some interest – and actually start working for the first time in my class for the whole year. THAT could be a great achievement for him, and for me! I might not be satisfied, but at least I should be grateful that he has begun to work. I want to be grateful for such a moment.

If we set the bar so high for our students and our teachers, we make success feel so distant, and teachers never can feel any satisfaction, because most of our students do not magically sprout wings and fly ahead to cover the two or three years they are behind.


At 7:53 AM, Blogger Angela

This is such a honest post! I've included it with this month's Cornerstone Accolades.