The Motivation Equation: Make Sure We’re OK

I recently had a disturbing conversation with a young teacher who is one of the brightest people I know. My friend has been teaching for six years in high-stress environments. Like many teachers, her life is very full. Because her teaching assignments seem to change yearly, she is constantly preparing for new classes. She takes on extra tutoring assignments to help with the student-debt load, and she is in the process of finishing her master’s degree (while occasionally trying to have a life). Her pace is tiring just to watch! And still, usually, she is able to manage the multiple demands with equanimity. But not yesterday.

Yesterday she was ready to quit her master’s program—and possibly her job. There were a lot of reasons, most of which those of you who have been teachers can envision. But the thing that put her over the edge was a seemingly simple thing: She could not find a way to get the instructor in her graduate class to answer her question. The circumstances don’t really matter. What matters is how it made my friend feel. “It doesn’t feel as if she cares enough about this class to invest any energy in it,” she said, “She doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care if I learn.”

Years ago I remember an older teacher saying to me, “They won’t care now much you know until they know how much you care.” I admit I thought it was a nice but overly sappy thought. But guess what? It’s true. If students do not feel safe and supported, they will not feel confident in their ability to learn. And if they don’t feel confident–if they don’t expect to succeed–half of the motivation equation is gone. Remember:

As I said in the last post, I wanted to highlight some of the key chapters from the online book The Motivation Equation, since motivation, learning, and creativity live hand-in-hand in our classrooms. The first chapter, “Make Sure We’re OK,” gets to the crux of the problem my friend was facing. All of us need social and emotional support for hard things, including hard thinking. The (short) chapter is full of inspiring stories of teachers whose support allowed their students to take risks and persist in academic challenges. Those students knew they were important; their learning was important. And where is that confidence and ability to take risks most important? In exactly the types of learning many of us care about most: Thinking critically about tough things and taking creative risks.

It brings me back, again, to emotional basics. Toughness and rigor do not solve educational problems. The barking of a Marine drill sergeant, while likely useful in boot camp, does not facilitate either critical or creative thinking. In our classrooms we must find the balance between pushing and scaffolding, challenging with confidence and support.

At the end of the chapter there are a number of suggestions for creating a space of safety and well-being. It begins with basics like sufficient food and sleep and includes classroom dynamics like group norms of trust and respect, and a culture of learning from mistakes. Anyone who interacts with young people can find something to think about there. I know I have, both in my work and in life more generally. For now, I’ve tried to find ways to help my young friend re-engage with her academic content with more confidence. Here’s hoping I succeeded.

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