Teachers Topic: Motivating Students and Teachers

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TeachersTopic is a periodical feature on about a subject of interest to the teaching community written by a prominent expert in the field. Here, Ms. Susan Graham answers questions about motivating students to succeed. Susan Graham connects learning to life in her Family and Consumer Science classes at Gayle Middle School in Stafford County. She is a Virginia Education Association “I Can Do It” trainer, a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) in Career and Technical Education, a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards/State Farm Liaison for Virginia (NBPTS), a participant in the Virginia Teacher Quality Forum, and a Senior Fellow with the Teacher Leaders Network (  Motivating Students and Teachers, answers by Ms. Susan Graham

What are specific techniques that can increase student’s motivation?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a right answer to this question? The reality is that there are as many techniques to motivate as there are students to be motivated. Maslow, the great theorist about human personality, had it right—every human response is tied to addressing some need. Motivation is directly connected to meeting needs and we all have different needs, so motivation is really a pretty individual matter. Sometimes teachers struggle because they get so caught up in asking themselves, “How can I get these kids to do what I need or want them to do?” The more effective question might be “How can I present these concepts, skills and understandings as a solution to the needs of these kids?” Knowing what individual students need requires knowing students as individuals, and I think this might lay at the root of small class size discussions. With homogeneous groups, the needs may be somewhat similar, but with diverse groups of children, differentiation is not just about ability level or learning styles, it must also address diversity in the value systems and goals of those students.

If college entrance is a motivator for high school students and teacher excitement motivates the elementary level, what is a significant motivator for the middle grades?

Well, middle school is definitely a world of its own, and I do believe the middle school learner might present the greatest motivational challenge. (Of course that might be colored by the fact that I teach middle school.) As you’ve pointed out, young children will work for the approval of the teacher because they need that approval to feel safe and accepted. Young adults in high school are focused on independence and that takes money. If they connect earning potential with learning, then their need to prepare for the future motivates them to perform well in school. Middle schoolers are driven primarily by their need for peer acceptance and approval from their peers. They do not feel the economic pressure of becoming self-sufficient that comes with young adulthood, and they are detaching themselves from their dependence on adult approval. In fact, adult approval can be a disincentive for a middle schooler. In my mind, the challenge of middle school is to create an atmosphere where achieving scholastic success buys status among one’s peers. Achievement should relate to be being “cool” and included because exclusion is often the greatest fear of the young adolescent. Students are more likely to be motivated in a win/win classroom environment where there are multiple paths to success, competition is group oriented, short term and low stake, and risk of public failure and embarrassment is very low.

Do you agree that students in high-needs schools are more difficult to motivate? If so, what techniques can be used to encourage success for these students?

Absolutely not! The higher the need the greater the hunger for success. But we have to address the needs of these students in sequential order. Until the basic needs of food, shelter and safety have been met, motivation to learn is likely to be limited. But what of children of poverty in other parts of the world who seem to value education even under extreme hardships? A friend who recently returned from visiting schools in South Africa was intrigued by children who lacked these basics, had minimal school facilities and yet were highly motivated to participate in school. I think the answer is that they saw a clear connection between education and survival. We assume American kids see that, but they are often distracted by highly visible but low probability avenues to success such as athletics, music, or even playing the lottery. The marketplace has a much clearer understanding of motivation than education. High need students who have moved beyond learning in order to win the safe harbor of a supportive teacher’s approval may need help seeing how learning can get them what they want. When students perceive learning as the best way to meet their personal needs they become motivated. This will probably involve beginning with low risk learning that has visible measurements of success and lots of short-term goals. As students build confidence and can assess their own progress, they will move toward self-motivation. But we must provide a connection between conceptual learning and practical doing if we are to keep them engaged long term.

As a vocational/technical teacher, what are your thoughts about focusing on four-year college degrees as the prime student motivator? Do you find that some students are more motivated by two-year technical programs? Do schools do enough to show students the wide array of career choices?

I’m going to call you on your earlier question: “If college entrance is a motivator for high school students…..” That’s a big “IF.” This is an assumption that sets both students and teachers up for failure. Where did we get the idea that every student ought to get a four-year college degree? When asked why they plan to go to college, students will consistently say, “Because I want a good job.” As professional educators, we risk becoming overly enamored with learning for learning’s sake. Too often there is a subtle message that the project-based learning of career and technical education classes is somehow inferior to the mastery of theory in “academic” classes. But in reality, most people are motivated to learn by their desire to earn. Two-year technical programs are often articulated through high schools into community colleges. They result in industry certification in fields such as medical imaging, computer networking, computer assisted drafting, and auto mechanics that allow their graduates to enter the workforce with salaries that are often equivalent to those of many college graduates, including teachers. Too often our schools do a poor job of informing students about mid-level options and imply that either people go to college or spend the rest of their life in dead-end low paying jobs. Many students realize that college is an economic and intellectual long shot by their high school freshman year. Unless we show them another way to win, the chances of motivating them to apply themselves is slim indeed. Delayed gratification may have its place, but postponing meaningful work until after a college education dulls interest, reduces student confidence, limits reinforcement of learning, and may result in years invested in preparing for a career to which an individual is poorly suited.

How can you motivate clearly gifted students who show little interest in the material presented to them?

It is difficult to answer this without exploring why the student shows little interest. Is it because the material is old news to this student? Could it be that the quality of the material is shallow and that the student is not challenged? Does the form of assessment chosen by the teacher allow the student to express a deeper understanding and explore a new perspective on the material? Is it realistic to presume that because a student is gifted that they are also intrigued by all instructional content? Gifted and high performing are not interchangeable terms. High performing students are often motivated by tangible measures of success—grades, class rank, awards and acknowledgement. They may need the acceptance that comes through recognition. Truly gifted students may be indifferent to the values or rewards offered by their teachers because they are driven by their own interest and desire to know more about whatever it is that fascinates them. Their need is more likely to be self-actualization than recognition and acceptance. So what can a teacher do to ignite and direct that self-motivation? Successful teachers of gifted students encourage student learning through problem solving, applications, or research that relates content to the student’s giftedness. They find ways to cut through busy work and they don’t waste the time of these students. By providing access to resources, by removing barriers that constrain and frustrate self-teaching, and by offering a testing ground for new ideas, teachers can encourage these young people to construct on their own learning.

Apart from motivating students, how can teachers motivate themselves?

Most of us come to the profession because learning is so gratifying we want to open that same door of discovery for others. Sometimes teachers either don’t acknowledge their own need to continue to grow intellectually, or they simply lose sight of that need as they get bogged down in routine. Highly accomplished teachers thrive when their own needs for acceptance and self-actualization are met. Unfortunately teachers spend much of their day in isolation from their colleagues or in a very limited community of individuals who teach on their hall or have the same planning or lunch period. But if we are willing to participate, technology is broadening both our world and our experience as educators. For about three years I’ve been part of a virtual professional community at Teachers Leader Network. Discussions there let me look into the practice of teachers in wildly diverse school settings all across the country, and expose me to teaching and learning research and education journalism from a variety of sources. My pedagogy has improved, my perspectives have broadened and my opinions are more informed. When two or three motivated teachers begin to create community within a school they often build this same kind of scaffolding and, as other teachers become more engaged, the motivation begins to ripple through a faculty.

Is there a role that administrators can play in student motivation?

Administrators have a huge role in both student and teacher motivation. But well-intended administrators sometimes get caught up in motivational stunts like sitting on the roof or kissing a pig if some school-wide performance goal is met. The idea seems to be that if students will do what is their own best interest for learning, then the principal will do something that appears to be unpleasant, dangerous, or in some other way not in his or her best interest. These school leaders sometimes forget that what we are all most interested in is ourselves, and stunts like this have more to do with the administrator’s good sportsmanship and willingness to meet his obligation than the academic or community service achievement of students.

How much more meaningful and motivating it would be if more school administrators found a little extra time to drop into a class when students are presenting projects, to offer an informal and unscheduled compliment on a band solo or a piece of art, or to attend an athletic performance? How big of a motivator would it be to call a student into his office just to ask how life is going and what is going well at school? This sort of recognition is student focused, but the motivation often spreads out to the student’s peers and up to parents and teachers who have invested in that student’s effort.

The need for recognition is universal and even though older students may not acknowledge it, they want to be known and valued at school for who they are and what they have accomplished as individuals. After all, school is their workplace, their play place, their social setting, their primary contact with the world beyond home. Administrators are the leaders of that community and they set the tone. Will school be a place where students move toward taking control of their own lives or taking orders from someone else?


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