Originally Published December 2011
Every school year one I ask myself, how I can increase student motivation? Many of my choices as an educator are driven by this question. My experience in sales, corporate training, community building, and customer service suggest that motivation is a prime factor in creating forward momentum. So when I decided to become a classroom teacher my students’ motivation was a principal area of interest for me.
My incentives to meet state benchmarks are high. Approving scores indicate I taught the year’s curriculum effectively. Student gains demonstrate that I helped students fill learning gaps. There is also an unspoken teacher ranking system that comes from comparing the numbers of passing students.
My first year, I was a hired to teach writing for 80 fifth graders 3 months after the school year had begun. I was motivated by the surprise job opportunity, by the subject, age group, and the drive to prove rank as a new teacher. I spent evenings and weekends analyzing assessment data and grouping kids for differentiation. I conferenced with students, talked enthusiastically about their writing strengths, and wrote elaborate notes as reference points. But with all this effort, something still wasn’t right. I couldn’t figure why I felt more ownership and motivation for my students’ success then they did themselves.
I was determined to make sure that all my kids crossed the finish line at the end of the year, but they all didn’t seem to carry the same vision. I pictured myself as their coach. We just needed to train hard and prove we had a great team.
Yet the more I considered this analogy, the more I realized I wasn’t like a coach at all. Coaches have detailed playbooks they share with their players. They lay it out; here’s the challenge facing us, and here’s our strategy to beat it. They make connections for players between practice and how those skills create wins.
I, on the other hand, had a playbook of moves my students weren’t privy to. I had data on who had mastered each standard, remediation lists, indicators on individuals learning gaps, but the kids didn’t see what I saw. They saw indicators like Writing 78%, or English Language Arts 73%. This grading policy didn’t tell a student or parent that the deficiency was in using capitalization, commas, and writing conclusions. Students didn’t gage their success on logical data, they gaged it their parent’s expression when report cards went home.