My first years of teaching high school math were, let’s say, like most people new-on-the-job. I kept thinking to myself, I’m presenting good lessons; but I’m not a motivator. I came into teaching after being out of high school for nearly 20 years. I would take student surveys and be depressed for weeks. Most liked me, but far too many disliked math. I had some behavior issues that I couldn’t control on my own. One very wise colleague told me that I would know how good I was by the way they acted, but what was that supposed to look like? I was passionate about helping them. I was passionate about teaching for concept over procedure. I was passionate about doing the right things. But their performance scores were mediocre at best.
I was passionate about what I was doing, but my passion didn’t translate into student motivation. I was developing an awareness that whether or not my students feel motivated is far more important than how I feel about what I do. My passion was a plus, but I had a long way to go. I had to learn how to motivate.
I have often heard that being able to motivate students was dependent upon one’s personality. I was older than most of my colleagues. I couldn’t change that. But I’d also been married for nearly 20 years to the same man. We learned to act (e.g. put our own desires and thoughts aside and encourage each other). We learned to be enthusiastic about things we had no personal interest in. We learned to love each other when we would have rather slammed a door. We learned to make each other feel respected and valued. Our determination to live in peace with each other overrode our personalities and we motivated each other to love. Learning to motivate students to do the right thing, to master mathematics, to grow….has been one of my most interesting and productive growing experiences. In addition to encouraging students (like I have from day one), I motivate my students through researched-based pedagogy, intentional respect, and credibility.
One way I show my students respect is by consistently giving them the benefit of the doubt. I refrain from assuming I know what they are thinking or why they did something. I confront them with an attitude that is far more like curiosity than like impending condemnation. If I can find a fair and reasonable way to go along with what they want to do, I do that. I don’t expect more from them in terms of focus than I expect from myself. I defer to them when they offer insights that aren’t in my plans. I look for specific things they do that I can spotlight as evidence of genius. As I validate their thoughts, trust is built.
Credibility is built when I share what I read about teaching and learning. Math teachers are often so overburdened they can’t even think about learning for themselves. There can be all kinds of consequences for that; but when a teacher has time to keep on top of trends in their profession and share those insights with their students, credibility is built. Students can often understand why educational trends are trends and appreciate our efforts to grow with them.
Encouragement is hugely important. Some of my colleagues are really good about attending athletic events to encourage their students, but I work from the time my feet hit the floor until I hit the bed at night. I stopped feeling bad about not attending many of those events when I realized that I could see an even greater impact by sending a personal email to a counselor, principal, and parents about something a student did that stood out. Homework graded at 11/10 for any evidence of extra thought motivates 110% effort. Students are motivated when they are recognized for excellence in any context. It doesn’t have to be from their extracurricular activities.
Students are motivated when they feel confident. Growth mindset is huge. One way I have found to be very effective is offering mastery quizzes for key skills that students can redo and get additional feedback before tests. Other motivational strategies I have learned and blogged about include:
- stamps and stickers
- power grouping
- minimize lecture minutes, rewarding engagement
- tightly focused lessons
- being accessible
- individualized instruction
- not wasting time with questions
- getting them to do their homework
- making Algebra relevant to everyday thinking
- responding productively to immaturity and irresponsibility
- differentiating between social justice and entitlement
- maximizing collaboration with power grouping
- helping parents to understand long-term academic consequences and options
Okay, I’ll admit that passion motivates me to motivate my students. But the ultimate goal (destination) is motivation. Passion is just the fuel.