Thoughts on Motivation

I had a Twitter conversation last week about motivation for teachers. Since then, numerous posts, tweets, and situations have popped up right in front of me, and I knew I needed to write about this.

The gentleman¹ I was debating on Twitter (the actual thread isn’t important to recount in its entirety) about motivation was correct in his statement that motivation is intrinsic. I can’t truly motivate another person to change behavior. I can, however, provide an environment that helps to inspire, challenge, and provide opportunities for autonomy and creativity. That was my point in the debate. When the environment is lacking, it’s difficult to stay motivated. We can’t and shouldn’t always blame an individual for a lack of motivation.

Since that tweet thread, I read tweets from an account called AnonymousProfessorAngus Johnston quoted this one and added his own thoughts:

This resonated with me and led back to the conversation I’d had earlier. How do we expect students to be motivated when they’re treated as adversaries? Even if the kids aren’t treated in that manner, they still sense it. Kids are entirely more perceptive about their teachers than most people believe.

This goes for teachers and administrators also. If the environment in which we learn and work stifles who we are, how we learn, how we help others to learn, it is very difficult to be motivated. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but day after day, month after month, the drudgery wears on a person’s ability to remain motivated. In some instances, it’s quite soul-crushing.

I read another post on Facebook this morning by a former teacher who watched a video of a guitar-playing youngster on Steve Harvey’s show, Little Big Shots. His comment with the video was something along the lines of “I wish some of my former students had shown this kind of drive.” My first thought after reading that was… what did YOU do to help those kids recognize their own passions? Knowing this person, I’m sure he did a lot. He was a fantastic teacher… but this comment still wore on me.

Do we recognize and honor our kids’ passions? What could they be excited about and want to learn more? Because the drive to excel at something is personal, we have to ensure that kids have the opportunity to show us those things that excite them! Additionally, we have to help introduce concepts/skills/topics to kids in a way that might create a new spark. If kids don’t know what they don’t know, how can we help them explore new ideas that might generate a new passion? This is all about the culture of learning in our schools. Is the culture in YOUR school open to these ideas to help kids explore their own interests, or only that which is in the written curriculum?

Drive… motivation… whatever you want to call it. You can’t be motivated about things that aren’t interesting to you. You might summon up some willpower to trudge into the things you just have to get through, but that’s not motivation.

I don’t want kids to have to see learning as something to suffer through. I don’t want classroom teachers to feel like they just have to make it through until summer break… or worse, until they can retire. In either case, for students and teachers, that’s a lot of years to go uninspired.

I get it. We are human beings. We’re going to have ups and downs. If I’m in a classroom (which I am currently), it’s up to me to stay motivated for my students. And I’m not a superteacher… I have my sucky days like anyone else. Where I’m fortunate, though, is that I am in a learning environment where I have autonomy and room to be who I am… to teach in a way that suits me, but also inspires my kids.  I am inspired daily by our school leader and my colleagues, and we have each others’ backs. Our students benefit from that, because that’s what we hope to provide for them as well. But not everyone has that type of environment.

So what can we do? Collectively, there are ways to help.

  1. Recognize and be aware that some people – students and teachers- go to school/teach in a place that wears on their emotional well-being. It’s not always a matter of “just suck it up.” You can only do that for so long.
  2. LISTEN. Don’t interject ideas of what they could do better… just be a listener. Sometimes people who feel they are trapped in a no-win situation at a school just need a friendly ear. Yes, it’s probably going to be negative, but just be there for that person. Use supportive phrasing, such as “I can imagine that would be very difficult,” etc.
  3. Instead of giving them platitudes, motivational memes,  or “go get ’em, tiger” suggestions, ask them how you can provide support.
  4. Probably the most important: If YOU are in a place to help change the surroundings, DO IT.
    • If you’re a teacher with students who don’t seem motivated, don’t blame them. Look at yourself and make the changes your students need. ASK THE KIDS ABOUT THEMSELVES. <– This is a good place to start.
    • If you’re an admin, and there is a morale issue in your building, that’s on you to help change. Enlist some people who are willing to step up and help you turn things around. Change “business as usual” by asking for input, and then actually read it and implement some new practices.
    • Ask for help. Ask other people what they do to inspire.
    • Find someone who inspires you, and then model some of those same practices in your own leadership.

I think the most important way to help another individual to be motivated is to look around, reflect on the surroundings, and be brutally honest with yourself… how are you contributing to a place where it’s easier to be complacent or just go through the motions? I know from experience how hard it is to admit that YOU might be the problem… but YOU can also be part of the solution.

Thanks for reading.





¹I’m not sharing his name here, because this post is a) not about our debate, b) not a wish to prove him wrong, nor c) an attempt to out or shame another person in any way.

² This account makes me embarrassed for the people who contribute and for those who like/share its contents. This is a shameful practice for educators, and you can #dobetter.

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