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.

Standing Desks Are Not Innovative

Standing desks in a classroom– whether they’re for students, teachers, or both — are NOT innovative. It is not changing how kids learn, no matter what some advertisement is trying to sell you.

Standing desks are not going to change the classroom environment for the better, especially if the “tasks” the students are doing don’t change.

If you don’t feel you have the power to change the “tasks” the kids are all doing in the classroom (you do, but we’ll debate that another time), let’s first discuss the the problems with promoting this type of  “innovation” (that is not really an innovation):

  1. If you remove all the traditional sitting desks in a classroom and replace them with standing desks, you still have a problem: All the kids are still physically doing exactly the same thing, and you’re making the assumption (consciously or not) that all kids need the same thing.
  2. Kids need to MOVE. The research is still unclear about whether sitting all day or standing all day is worse for you. Research about movement for all ages, on the other hand, is VERY clear. Kids of all ages need to move. (I only added one article on movement here. There are MANY. Search for “why kids need to move.”)
  3. Multiple options in a classroom will always be better than one option. Why not have some places where kids can stand, some places where kids can sit, some places where kids can be together… I think you get the picture. I have different options in my classroom, and the kids choose sometimes to simply sit on the floor with no furniture. When I taught high school students, it wasn’t any different. Kids need choices of where to be, and those choices should be determined by the kids… not by the adults assuming they know what the kids need. Multiple options are especially helpful in cramped-for-space classrooms.
  4. It’s really difficult to collaborate with other students when they’re all standing at individual desks. Humans are social learners, and they should have options to group up and discuss.
  5. Could we also talk about how “ableist” this “standing desk” assumption is? Not everyone can stand. Not everyone can stand for an entire school day… and that goes for adults as well as kids. I’m not going to use this space to rehash my own health issues, but I would be an absolute wreck if I had no place to sit during the day. I don’t sit there all day– I teach 5-7 year old kids. That would be impossible. BUT… my body tells me when I need to sit down. I need options, and so do my kids.

So instead of advocating the “latest, greatest” fad in standing classroom desks — or pedal desks (seriously?), why don’t we stop and think about advocating BETTER options altogether?

Provide spaces where kids can be comfortable.

Provide options for many different types of spaces in the classroom.

Provide for more movement throughout the day (sorry, Florida. BIG FAIL on the recess issue. Kids need to be moving outside every single day!). Hands tied on giving the kids more recess? Then do something, ANYTHING to help those kids move around in their space. There are yoga videos on YouTube. You can have a dance party. Just help them to move in whatever way they can.

Your best bet? Ask the students what THEY want and empower them to help make that classroom design happen. Flexible spaces can be significantly less expensive than one desk for every student. Get creative. When you involve students, you may have to help them through the creative process more than once. Make sure they “shoot for the moon” in the design process, because they might stick with the only thing they’ve ever known.

Then… make it happen. I know this is possible, because I’ve been in places where it’s changed, even this late in the school year. A teacher from Texas came to our 5Sigma Educonference (at Anastasis) in February. When she returned to her school, she shared with me,

“I came home from Denver and completely gutted my room. All desks gone including mine. Changed the mojo completely! We got tables. We are also starting our mornings with a group activity rather than desk work. So far we are loving it.”

Don’t let advertisers tell you what is best for your students. Ask the kids. Read the research… and then make it happen.

Thanks for reading.