I think one of the main things that separate bad teachers from good, and good teachers from the great ones is how motivated their students are. Being a relatively young teacher, having only stepped into the classroom for the first time in the fall of 2002 as a classroom tutor for an inner city school that had low test scores and unmotivated students, I quickly learned that the only way for me to get anything out of the students I was working with was to find something to motivate them. Usually this was a bribe of candy, but other times it was just talking to them honestly, without sugar coating things. Basically, I tried just about anything that would help me get them to work during those 2 years I spent as a tutor. Like any endeavor some days were more successful than others.
When I finally got my degree and my first real teaching job all I heard from the veteran teachers I was working with was just how much teaching had changed for them. I do not know if that is the truth or not, but according to them gone were the days when students came motivated to do their best as they entered the doors of the school. Maybe at some point that was the reality and maybe it is still the norm for some schools out there, however I have not seen it. I have had self-motivated students every year that I have taught but they are not in the majority. The majority of students that I have come across need a lot more inspiring acts by their teachers to get them to do their best. I do not blame them either, I once had a college professor that described my work to his colleague as “if he likes your class you will get A work if he does not then you will get C work.” Now full disclosure, I did end up with a 3.43 average so I must have liked the majority of my classes, but I understand where “modern” students are coming from. I’m not saying that it is right, I’m just saying I can relate.
You might ask how do I motivate? First I try to find out what they like and I do not mean give them a snack as if they are some version of Pavlov’s dog when they do good behavior, though I have been known to give out my fair share of sweet rewards for students that go above and beyond their classmates.
I try to motivate in a variety of ways. I have hosted Xbox tournaments during my lunch hour, usually sports games. I will give them a choice between basketball, football, or soccer. The only caveat is they cannot get a referral or lunch detention in any class, get an F on my test, or get a zero on an assignment during the week that they play. If they do any one of those three they automatically forfeit. Those tournaments really helped bridge the gap between my students and me and it was amazing to see their new found motivation to do well.
Now not every student is a gamer so another way to motivate is to keep them interested in my material and wanting to learn more. I do this by relating as much of their modern world to the time period I am teaching about. I try to use music, talk about scenes from movies that they might have seen, or have what I call “story time with Mr. S” which is where I either tell or read to them the most interesting story I can find about the subject I am going over. I stress to them over and over again that the most successful form of comedy entertainment comes in two levels- the slapstick or easy comedy and the deeper and more intelligent form of comedy, the best shows ever made have used both. I then challenge them to look for the deeper meaning in shows they like and let me know when they find it. Makes for a good conversation starter and motivates them to find that deeper level. For an example of the entertainment that I use check out this Youtube video about the American Revolution.
Another good way to motivate students is to create a level of competition between themselves, other students, classes, or as I like to call them ‘the evil test writers that are trying to trick them’. Not that I really believe that they are evil, though the way they write some of the questions might lead one to think they are trying to trick the students into getting the question wrong more than trying to find out what they know. (sorry…now back to what I was talking about). If the students buy into the fact that each test is a competition they are more likely to try harder. It also helps to have some reward at the end of the year for the class that does the best. It’s even better if you can get other students and teachers involved. Nothing else motivates a class to do better next time than seeing another class and teacher getting to do something fun while they miss out.
The last one that I am going to write about today is humor or sarcasm. Letting students know that I can laugh at myself as well as the material helps take out some of the stress of the high stakes world of testing we are now in, this calms them down and most people work better when they are in a relaxing environment. Usually it is just a play on words, for example, the other day a student was working on their study guide and asked me, “What is 12” and I answered “a number between 11 and 13.” At first you might think that I am being rude but there is a method to my madness. I want them to think about what they are asking, I also do not have the questions memorized so when they say “what is 12″ I need a little bit more to go on, and finally I know my students have the answer in their notes, which I want them to get in the habit of using, so I am not going to give them the answer anyway. I will however help them find it in their notes. I have found that making them work for it is always better than giving them the answer which is the case with just about all aspects of life.
Motivate, Motivate, Motivate… In this day and age every teacher has to find ways to get their students to want to learn. If there is nothing to hook them in to the lesson then it is just lost on them. In the world of high stakes testing, no teacher can afford to lose a child due to the fact that they are not motivated enough to do their best in school. I take motivating my students very seriously because at the grade level I teach there is no real consequence for students who do bad on their standardized tests. On the other hand, if my students do bad I could be out of a job, which is why I am for a balanced approach where both the teacher and student have something on the line during testing. Unfortunately, that is not the case so self-motivation for most students is just a dream of the distant past. So until we have a cultural change it is up to the teacher and hopefully the parent to motivate, motivate, motivate.
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