Never have I seen such enthusiasm from students towards a single class as I did in ninth grade science. By mere inspiration, our teacher had us finishing our lunches early to get a prime seat and eagerly printing and reading extra material the night before a new lesson. The pure passion he injected into his class was contagious. We truly were motivated to learn. Perhaps one of the most significant measures of his success as a teacher came when he proposed an ungraded video project idea we could work on in groups over the winter break. Four of the five groups returned with a high-quality, finished product they were proud to present to the class, having met up during the break to plan, write, film and edit.
Learning is an ongoing skill that doesn’t stop at the tests and projects we are graded on to ensure a good degree and high-paying job. School is, after all, an artificially created environment that simulates challenges and obstacles in order to prepare the next generation. It is an opportunity to interact with and learn from other lifelong learners, try out new disciplines, and develop a work ethic and set of values that will permeate every aspect of your life throughout adulthood and set you up for a productive life you can feel happy living. It’s a foundational experience, and teachers have a difficult but monumental role to play.
The first step to facilitating this growth process is being an exemplar. An adult or authority figure has the ultimate power: children notice the most subtle verbal and visual cues, consciously or subconsciously registering them as reactions to their own actions. As is the case with full grown adults and even more pronounced in children, construct an emotion and others will emulate it. React with excitement to a new math lesson and students will feel the excitement. Truly love your discipline and they will recognize the beauty in it too.
Next, by constantly ensuring a challenge is available in the form of a new topic, project, or skill, students not only are rewarded for their efforts, but learn to motivate themselves while satiating their curiosity. Moreover, giving students control over their own education is the best way to put this into practice. As a math tutor, I often check in with my students by asking whether they would like to move on to a new concept or keep practicing the same one. This simple adjustment allows me to work with younger students for long periods of time while maintaining their focus and involvement.
Finally, teachers need to communicate honestly and openly with their students. Not only is this the biggest factor in promoting rapport between two individuals, but it’s an important skill for students to learn and value. One of my teachers noticed we were becoming disengaged in grade 12 English, when we were too preoccupied daydreaming of the freedom that awaited us upon graduation in a few months. He said to us, “I too am excited for summer. But I made a commitment to both you and me to discuss this novel. I’ve done my part and now it’s your turn. You get what you put in.” It was a powerful message. The next day all of us came prepared with questions and discussion topics, having finished the assigned readings thanks to a necessary nudge, a fresh perspective, and honest communication.
Like my English teacher said, the easy way out is always an option. We can pass the time doing unchallenging things and sticking to our comfort zones, but no growth ever occurred in the status quo. What is an essay but a chance to articulate the unsaid thoughts that have been gathering dust in the corners of our young minds? What is a math test but a thrilling challenge to put into practice the fresh new concepts we’ve just mastered? From that presentation we will emerge victorious, adrenaline pumping, and with slightly thicker skin and elevated confidence that before. And a social commitment the night before our science test is but an excitingly, nearly-impossible mission to balance two equally fulfilling sides of who we are and who we have the potential to become.
This short essay was my submission to a writing contest where the prompt was:
Explain why teachers need to motivate students, strategies they can use to motivate them and the possible impact or end result of their motivation.