Turning Reluctance into Resilience

GUEST POST  by  Dr. Cheryl J. Wright

As effective educators, we strive to meet students where they are. But what if where they are is “I don’t care”? Rather than conceding that students can’t do better, it is important that we

  1. Make connections to build on students’ interests and strengths.
  2. Take time to clearly define crucial teaching content and create achievable goals.
  3. Teach intrapersonal skills and real-life applications of lessons.
  4. Provide effective support while emphasizing student effort and acknowledging progress.

Here are some ways these tenets might play out in the classroom, especially when students struggle to muster their motivation.

Cultivating the Will to Succeed

Taking time to know students and welcome them to the classroom fosters not only a positive culture but a productive one. Students perceive a safe environment where asking questions, sharing ideas, and linking learning to prior knowledge are the norm. When establishing classroom culture, it is beneficial to “focus on what students need to succeed and build it into the learning and social environment every day” (Jensen, 2016, p. 111).

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Inspire hope: Greet with a smile, give high fives, and embed genuine affirmations (e.g., “It’s good to see you.” “Nice job getting here on time.” “Welcome back.” “You nailed it!”). Specify how learning is beneficial in students’ lives and be receptive to their thoughts and feedback. Integrate examples into your teaching of how individuals overcome adversity. Ultimately, interactions with students should serve as stepping-stones for trust and growth.
  • Express enthusiasm: Exhibit a caring disposition for students and excitement about the topics you teach. Convey instruction with positive energy and purpose. Students will be more likely to ask questions and pursue learning.
  • Be approachable: Have clear and consistent expectations for both learning and behavior while also promoting civility, equity, and respect. Nurture students’ curiosity for learning by guiding them to discover their talents and view situations from different perspectives.
  • Embrace teachable moments: Encourage students to reflect on learning experiences and tell them that their voices matter. Analyze what is going well, what adjustments are needed, and how different methods can get better results. Look at drawbacks as opportunities to solve problems creatively and build confidence.

Fostering Essential Connections

How often, despite our best intentions, do we assume we know what motivates learners? Do we take time to genuinely know students or explore their attitudes about school? These questions call to mind a middle school student I once met. He was sometimes sheltered from challenging work out of a misplaced concern that pushing him to think critically would be too frustrating for him. Basic lessons that required mere regurgitation of facts conveyed low expectations and insulted his potential. When I asked him, “What influences you to do well in school?” he said, without hesitation, “When teachers don’t give me the easy stuff!”

Educators who motivate clearly define objectives and provide opportunities for “learning by doing.” Feedback and multiple opportunities for practice help students understand expectations, monitor progress, and foster a can-do attitude.

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Focus on success and set achievable goals.
  • Clearly identify the topic and what students will learn.
  • Use multiple, kid-friendly ways to explain learning goals so that students purposefully engage in the learning process.
  • Connect lessons to what is relevant to students, including real-life examples and analogies to foster deep understanding.
  • Pinpoint crucial information; too much at one time can be overwhelming and confusing.

Not Academics Alone

Competency in our content areas alone does not inspire effort. We must be sensitive to the fact that students may have experienced failure many times before coming to us. Students can be apprehensive that teachers will talk to them in a condescending manner or won’t value them. A savvy teacher knows how to convey instruction in ways that give and garner respect.

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Share a personal experience.
  • Acknowledge when you get it wrong: “Sorry, this is my fault.”
  • Say, “I have no doubt we can get this done.”
  • Encourage self-confidence: “We’ll take it one step at a time.” “You’ve got this!”
  • Invite feedback: “What are your thoughts?” “How might this be done differently?”
  • Follow the 2×10 strategy and “invest 2 uninterrupted, undivided minutes a day for 10 consecutive days with the sole purpose of relationship building” (Mendler, 2000, p. 51).

Making a Difference

Unmotivated students can challenge any teacher. However, consistently framing each day as an opportunity to get stronger, and giving students the supports to do so, can encourage them to persevere. Over time, reluctance shifts to resilience, and students’ excitement for learning reawakens. What could be more rewarding than giving struggling students hope and a chance to hold their heads a little higher?

References

Jensen, E. (2016). Poor students, rich teaching: Mindsets for change. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Cheryl J. Wright is an instructional coach in Kansas City for Kansas Public Schools.

Originally Posted in ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 23. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved.  Reposted with permission from the author.

Motivation Starts Here

In our district, secondary literacy intervention teachers are asked to focus on three elements of development for a productive literacy learning community:  skill, motivation, and self-perception/self-efficacy.   Secondary struggling/striving readers are unspecified-5a complicated lot.  Many factors have contributed to their general lack of success with reading and writing.  Lack of skill and the reasons for that are important.  However, students must feel motivated to give the effort required for growth, and they must believe their effort matters.  That needed motivation is significantly fueled or hindered by a student’s perceptions of who he is as a learner, more specifically, as readers and writers. Students must find what intrinsically motivates them, or we need to help students determine what intrinsically motivates. According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive,  “humans are built to be intrinsically motivated, but have been taught to be extrinsically motivated through years of overt control applied to ‘encourage’ us to work,” or in this case learn.   Do offers of rewards or threats of consequences ever do more than get kids to comply?  The evidence suggests that learning is rarely the outcome of extrinsic motivators. 

Motivating a middle or high school student is no easy process.  Their journey has already been long and arduous.  Along the way students lose track of why reading is matters to anyone, and more personally, why it matters to them. We have to presume that many other capable teachers have attempted to build literacy skills in our students and many have tried to convince students that the extra effort will be beneficial.  More often than not, the students have decided that their ability level is a pre-determined, innate part of them. They are not readers.  They aren’t built to be good writers.  Their future will be built on something that requires some skill they innately possess, and reading or writing isn’t it. Now, after multiple years without proof to the contrary, a secondary literacy teacher is telling them that being a proficient reader is a life skill and that they must possess it to be successful.   Worst of all, it is going to take many challenging hours of practice with skills built around the very things our students have learned to despise: reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing.  

Relationship building is the first step, no matter what the next steps are.  The next steps may be more influenced by the motivation philosophy you accept, but relationships are first.  I’ve yet to see a student authentically motivated without the foundation of a positive relationship.   We’ve all heard that students need to “know that you care, before they care what you know.”  That is never more true than with adolescent students-in-the-gap.  A great deal of what we do and say to convince students that the effort matters to them, must be built on acceptance from the student that the message comes from a credible, fair and consistent source holding high attainable expectations. They must believe the message is built on sincere love and respect for students.  That’s heavy stuff.  Nothing life-changing really happens before that exchange of positive beliefs occurs.  Often, when an adult reflects on the place in their journey when they found focus and direction for life, it was through the relationship with an excellent teacher.  (No pressure, right?) 

Resources for building relationships with resistant, challenging students: 
Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students
The Teacher as Warm Demander

So I am on a rabbit hole journey through the concepts of motivation, habit development, and growth mindset.   My hope, over the next few months and through this blog, is to make practical connections between effective classroom instruction and the research on how motivation and growth mindset happen for humans in general. There is a great deal being published about these topics. Theories and research can seem overwhelming and difficult to apply.  However, above all else, teachers seem to want to understand how to motivate students and help them build the skills needed for an information-rich society. Frequently, teachers feel forced to desperately offer extrinsic rewards for short-term gains, but their sincere efforts rarely lead to good habit development, stronger motivation to engage or a change in the students self-efficacy.

Personally, I don’t believe that the universal struggle to motivate our readers-in-need is simple or easily assigned as a characteristic of a generation.  I am driven to help teachers address the causes and effects for our students.  I would appreciate hearing from you about your questions and concerns for your under-motivated students.   I will use the questions you offer up, along with the ones from my colleagues, to guide my posts about this topic over the next few months.