Student Motivated Against All Odds

I had a student who simply wouldn’t open up his book to Chapter 13, sections 2 and 3 and work on his World War I timeline.

The classic “this-is-part-of-your-grade” approach didn’t work, as didn’t combining the “you-have-time-in-class” and the “you-might-as-well-do-it” methods.

Humiliation wasn’t something I wanted to try. I was a substitute teacher at the time, and this student didn’t look like he cared about much of anything.

“I really don’t care,” he said. I shrugged. Brash and stubborn, he had also been kicked out of his last world history class.

That’s what happens, my other master teacher had said. If you don’t get rid of them quickly, you get stuck with them.

There’s another way to deal with this.

Contemporary pop psychology and corporate wisdom emphasize the importance of goals. Most of these are relevant to teaching.

Students must have a goal to be motivated, and not just any. Goals must seem:

1. Achievable. It has to appear just within their grasp. It doesn’t have to be easy, it just has to look that way so that students aren’t disenchanted. Over time, with higher-level learners, this matters less and less.

2. Desirable. The short-term benefits must be worth their time.

3. Immediately worthwhile. Similar to the desirable trait, this adds an element of immediacy. This is the toughest to crack.

Students don’t see the dead end beyond the turn, to borrow a metaphor from the only good inspirational-teacher movie ever. Students don’t see the long-term benefits of being interested in, engaged in and knowledgeable about any subject. If they don’t see how it benefits them now, they won’t want to do it now.

I cracked my student with this last one.

Within his earshot, I ended up talking with another student about what I was doing at their high school. I explained that I didn’t get paid — “that really sucks,” he observed, and I agree — but that I was particularly interested in a specific teacher here.

This teacher — who takes student teachers every spring, if possible — has a combined government-English class two periods every day. As a trained journalist, I was interested in teaching to multiple modalities in multiple subjects, and she was the only teacher I knew of who did it at the high school level.

“They’ll write essays, but about government.” For whatever reason, this resonated — I had him, and I don’t think he knew it.

“What do I have to do to get in these classes?” he asked.

“First, you have to pass this one,” I said. “It isn’t like it’s Advanced Placement or anything, but you need to have somewhat good grades. That means you have to do this assignment.”

“Well, I mean, that sounds really cool. English and history are my favorite subjects.”

Go figure.

Moral of the story? Don’t expect students to make sense. That doesn’t mean give up.

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