Honestly, this post has to start with a disclaimer. I have only been teaching for a little over 3 years in a middle-class school at an elementary level. Because of this I have had few run-ins with highly unmotivated students, as well as older students. And yet, unmotivated students surround us, they show up in our schools at an alarming pace and already at the elementary level we struggle to reignite the fire. So perhaps an elementary perspective is not so awful after all.
“Mrs. Ripp, this is so boring.” That sentiment greets me on semi-regular basis from one child. Most days he is passionate, funny, and involved, that is, if he likes what we happen to be during. Today is no different, he has been involved, engaged, and eager most of the day but now the fatigue has set in and the writing prompt just does not want to get done. This is a regular occurrence throughout America, passionate students that are mostly motivated at all times but sometimes hit slumps. This post is not about them.
Instead, this post is about those kids that put their head on their desks, that groan when we give directions, that could not care less about threats, rewards, punishment or motivating pep talks. Those are the kids we all meet; the truly unmotivated. Those students that do not see the relevance, the importance, or even the wisdom behind school. Those students that feel that this is just a temporary illness, something to be waited out for real life to begin. And yes, we have them even at the elementary level.
The other night, I shared on Twitter, “I always wonder if having unmotivated students just mean that what I am teaching is unmotivating, I think it does.” Lo and behold a man I admire greatly, Tom Whitby, was kind enough to engage me in my train of thoughts. As we discussed, my own thoughts became much clearer:
Motivation is linked to the teacher whether we we believe it should be or not.
If a student fails, the teacher is most often the first to be blamed before any outside factions are investigated.
We have the most control over what happens within our classroom.
As part of this discussion, Tom Perran offered up this article discussing how teachers only have control over 10 of 16 motivating factors. And yet as teachers we do have to own up to our part in motivation. Last year, when I sat through another round of book report presentations I yawned often, stretched to stay awake, got droopy eyelids, and yet admonished the students for getting restless and unfocused Hmm, that doesn’t seem right.
As teachers, part of our job is to provide engaging lessons, but it is this definition of engaging that seems to mess us up. I used to think that by engaging it meant me lecturing for a while and then giving the students work time, as long as I kept the questions coming, the students were engaged, right? For some reason most of the time my results were less than stellar. I also used to think that as long as I provided some sort of choice then the students would find their motivation. And while our more self-reliant students did because they already have a sense of duty instilled by the teacher, some students didn’t. Enter in punishment and rewards. If a student didn’t turn in their work then recess was taken away, and if that didn’t work then a 0 was given. Ooh a failing grade. They even got their name on the board and were not offered a chance to enter the weekly drawing for the monthly pizza party, confused? So was I.
The problem with punishment and reward though is that it often only motivates in the short term. A student knows that as long as they hand something in, even if it is awful, then that counts as a finished product. As a teacher, I often lost sleep over what to do with these students. they seemed already by 4th grade to hate school, finding it a punishment for childhood, and worst of all, they knew how to work the system. So what to do? Again, I realized that the problem wasn’t the students, it was the curriculum and how I taught it, so really it was me. See, I am the biggest in school motivator there is. While I may not be the one that decides what to teach, I most certainly am the one that decided HOW to teach it. And if I thought that lecturing (which even put me to sleep in college) was going to capture the imaginations of 9 year olds then I was an idiot.
So after almost a year of changing things up, this is what I have realized as far as motivation:
- Choice matters. When students choose not just what they will do for a project but also what they would like to learn about within a perimeter, you get buy-in. This continues to be one of the most exciting simple realizations I have come across.
- Motivation is contagious. When one student gets excited and has an opportunity to share that enthusiasm, it catches. My students get to blog about projects, we have huddles where we share and we are a bit louder than we used to be. But guess what? Those loud noises are usually students super excited about something.
- Eliminate punishment and rewards. This short-term motivator seemed more harmful than helpful to me. This year we have class parties when we feel we want one, I have lunch with all my students several times a month because they ask me to, and no one is excluded from anything. When homework doesn’t get done, I ask them how they plan to fix it, most students choose to do it at recess. Fine by me, they are free to go if they choose.
- Be excited yourself. The fastest way for kids to lose interest is if you are bored. I realized that I hated some of the things and taught and how I taught them (goodbye grammar packets), so something had to change. Now my students joke about how I almost always introduce something new with “I am so excited to do this…”
- Look at outside factors. Some students have a lot more on their plate than we could ever realize. Ask questions, get to know your students, and be a listening ear. When my husband lost his job, it was hard for me to be excited about things as well because I was too busy worrying.
- Control what you can. We will never be able to control what our students go home to but we sure can control what happens in the room. All the teachers I know choose to create a caring environment where all students feel safe. This alone means students let their guards down and feel it is okay to work hard and have fun.
Loss of motivation doesn’t just happen overnight, I believe all students start out motivated and then life gets in the way. At some point during their school years they start to hate school feeling it is stagnant and irrelevant. I therefore do everything in my power to ensure that students leave my classroom still liking school, perhaps a small goal, but an incredible important one. If they like to be in your room, then it is up to you to figure out how to keep them engaged.