Basic behavior management tells us that you need to give something back when you take something away. It’s not good enough to say, “Don’t do this” without saying “Do this instead.” Mediocre teachers master the art of saying “don’t” very quickly, with mixed results. The well-mannered, bright, motivated students from positive home environments want to please, and they will many times “don’t” do something “just because I said so.” That’s what they were trained to do. And they will work for an intrinsic reward such as grades because of the motivation from home.
But how many of those students do you have in your class? Most of us work and teach in a school setting filled with students who come from less than ideal home situations and have less than maximum motivation to learn. How do we motivate them? Grades aren’t enough. And I strongly reject the notion of using physical rewards, incentives, and bribes. Those types of incentives are gimmicks that won’t result in long-term changes in behavior. There are a variety of alternatives. Here are three that are easy to implement.
- Show Genuine Care for your Students. Think of the best teachers you ever had. What do they all have in common? They got to know you as a person and genuinely cared about you. They recognized you when you came into their classrooms. You felt welcome, safe, and validated as a person. They recognized your feelings and your needs. They laughed with you, encouraged you, and celebrated your successes.
We have limits on the time and manner in which we can develop relationships with our students, but research is clear that one of the single most important factors impacting student motivation is a relationship with a caring adult at school. You can be that adult. I’ve posted two personal stories of my own in Loving the Unloveable Student and You are a Teacher.
- Demonstrate a Constant Excitement about Personal Learning. Remember the excitement of learning something you didn’t know previously? All of us have an innate desire to learn. As teachers, we must kindle that fire inside students. Practically every student entering kindergarten wants to learn to read. They love new experiences, the wonder of new worlds opened to them. What happens? How do schools suppress that love for learning?
I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I do know that we must find ways to bring enthusiasm back into learning. And the best way is by exhibiting enthusiasm ourselves. Show your excitement about new concepts, new ideas, and make that learning relevant to students.
- Introduce Appropriate Challenge. I remember playing ping-pong with my father. I hardly ever beat him, but I improved with each game. And once in a while I reached that magical 21-point plateau before he did. I begged him to play me every night, even though I knew I would most likely go down in defeat. I never thought about playing my six-year old cousin. That wouldn’t be any fun, even though I could beat him easily every time.
We rarely choose to play a game when we absolutely know we will win. We want the challenge. So do students. Providing appropriate challenge to students is one of the best rewards in motivating students. The trick is to find the right level of challenge. If the task is too easy students have little motivation and too hard leads to frustration. Let students choose. Provide various levels of challenge, with no reward or punishment attached.