Yesterday I wrote about a moment in my English class where a boy refused to be bested by my passive-aggressive pencil sharpener. This event not only stuck in my mind because it was funny, but it gave me a feeling that I never thought I’d feel before: jealousy of my pencil sharpener. I know this sounds like I’ve fallen to a new low, but let me explain.
Jerry, the subject of yesterday’s story, averages a low B in my class. He could easily earn an A, but instead he spends class leaned back in his chair and complains to me about the work. Half of the time he doesn’t look engaged, and the quality of his work leaves much to be desired. The day he decided to tame my pencil sharpener he was motivated, focused, and engaged. The sharpener gave him a challenge and frustrated him and put his pride at stake. Jerry didn’t give up, nor did he give a half-hearted effort, and in the end, he succeeded. Granted, what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but it is why he struggled so hard for the sharpener, but not for me, that gives me pangs of jealousy.
Building student motivation is a struggle for all teachers. In a perfect world students would show up to our classrooms ready to learn– excited to learn rhetoric, analyze theme, practice using semi-colons, and write essays. They would arrive with their homework completed, armed with thoughts to add to discussion, their textbooks, paper, and writing utensils. For many students this is the reality. They work hard, learn the material, and really want to improve and do well. For many others, they are content doing the very bare minimum and, some, nothing at all. And it’s not like teachers are ignorant about what motivates students. Every book about teaching will explain that motivation arises from building connections with students, stating lesson objectives, building lessons around their interests, showing how the information connects to what they have learned, will learn, and their life, providing timely and constructive feedback, being enthusiastic, and the list goes on.
All of these are great strategies and contribute to the overall ambience and expectations in the classroom. But they’re not a panacea for motivating each and every student. The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s personal and individual. How was I to know that Jerry had a great motivation to work my pencil sharpener? In reality, Jerry’s motivation is the least of my worries. He does his work, asks questions, and we have a good rapport. It’s the others I worry about.
One student of mine from a few years ago stands out. I’ll call him Ford. Ford was a lovable knucklehead who was failing all of his classes– including PE. In my class he goofed off, wore his hat even though I asked him to take it off, never did his work. His only motivation it seemed to me was to write rap lyrics and get me to call him by his “tag” name (his graffiti nom de plume). In order to motivate him, I bantered with him, refocused his attention, stayed one step ahead of his antics and created lessons where he could write rap lyrics in connection to our readings. We got along, but there was nothing on the production end although many of the other boys enjoyed writing and performing their rap songs.
One day there was meeting after school with his counselor, teachers, admin, and his father. Since I had him in during the last period, I felt it was my responsibility to get him there. He refused to go, told me his dad wasn’t going to show up, and worried that he would miss his ride home. To convince me, he called his dad and had him tell me that he wouldn’t be there. His father explained that something came up “last minute”, but he did tell me that Ford walked home everyday. Ford was shocked when I asked his dad if I could drive his son home after the meeting; he agreed. With no out, Ford walked with me to the conference room.
The meeting was a revelation. The only one who really seemed to be fighting for Ford to get back on track was the AP; everyone else seemed disengaged. The AP spoke frankly to him about his behavior and the resources on campus to help him. She peppered her talk with profanity, which he responded to. She seemed to be the only one who had a modicum of his respect. As he and I walked out of the meeting, I developed a plan of how he could be successful in my class. He constantly “lost” his work, so I gave him a notebook to keep in class. If his hat was near him, he would put it on; we agreed to keep in the cupboard during class. We had a research project on American authors coming up, but I knew that he would be bored by them. I agreed that he could research Tupac Shakur.
The result was astounding. He started doing his work and following directions. He proved that he had the skills to write and research. He decided that he didn’t want to research Tupac, but Lil’ Wayne instead. I told him that he had to build his case for Lil’ Wayne by showing me that he had info about him and a true desire to research him. The next day he brought me a file folder of printed articles and song lyrics highlighted and organized. Everyday as he walked into class he told me of new information and connections he discovered. Even my over-achievers were impressed.
I wish I could finish this story with accolades of his finished product, but there was no finished product. He was expelled. You can imagine my level of disappointment. I was disappointed in him for not transferring his good behavior to his other classes. I was disappointed in his father who showed that his son was not a priority. I was disappointed in his other teachers for not cultivating an area of success for him (this is pure assumption on my part, but I was disappointed all the same). I was disappointed by the fact that for all of the motivation I could help bring about in him, it still competed with the negative influences outside of school.
So when I see my pencil sharpener, without exerting any effort on its part, motivate a student to succeed at doing something, I get a little bit jealous.