Monday, January 3, 2011

Can a Teacher Motivate Every Student?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Like many teachers, I have seen a lot of movies about teachers. Many of the movies, especially those “based on a true story,” have a similar theme: A smart young teacher goes to a poor, inner-city school, faces a class of recalcitrant students, each one displaying a different attitude problem, and through her (or his) unwavering dedication to the students as people and ideals of education as a whole, leads the class to success. I like these kinds of stories. They inspire me as a teacher, and when I show them to my classes, they inspire the students.

A good example is the classic 1988 “Stand and Deliver,” based on the story of Jaime Escalante, a high school teacher from inner-city Los Angeles. In one of the more moving scenes, Escalante talks to his class of poor, racial minority students about the challenges they face:

“When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire. And maybe a haircut. If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you because I’m an expert.”

And he does give them the desire. He goads them, urges them, threatens them, praises them, rewards them, yells at them,… and he takes them from their failing status in his remedial math class to passing the notoriously difficult AP Calculus exam.

(Any student who has ever taken the TOEFL will cringe in sympathy watching these students take that test.)

It’s every teacher’s dream, isn’t it? To be able to supply motivation. And to some extent, I think we can. Every class is a sort of sales opportunity, and you sell your subject area and even the minute details, such as the importance of distinguishing count and non-count nouns.

How responsible are we, though, for every student’s motivational level? We might see them for 90 minutes a week, or three hours a week, or in some rare intensive class, even 10 hours a week. That’s still a small slice out of a student’s life that encompasses work, family, friends, hobbies, romance, and much else that we cannot affect. Sometimes―just sometimes―what we teach in English class is NOT the most important thing going on in their lives, and we need to accept that. Motivation can also be affected by a student’s character, personality, and state of mental and physical health. That’s a lot for one English teacher to cope with.

To the extent that it’s possible, we should of course motivate students as individuals and the class as a group. I don’t think it’s possible to list techniques that “work” for motivating others because it depends too much on the personality of the individual teacher as well as on the specific class and students in question. However, I do think that the teacher’s overall level of enthusiasm for her subject and class is infectious―and that is something that every teacher can work on.

When you fly, there’s no more chilling moment for a parent than when you hear that announcement that in the event of an unexpected loss of cabin pressure, you are to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting your children. Anyone can understand the wisdom of that, but you know in your heart how tremendously difficult it would be to not help your child (or, really, anybody’s child) first. It’s a similar situation with our classes.  Our energy level affects the students.

You can’t motivate your students if you yourself are exhausted, burned out, in poor physical health, overworked, in a bad mood, or unsure of the value of what you’re teaching.

I would argue then that one very good way to motivate your students is to ensure that you do not assign homework faster than you can grade it; that you get around eight hours of sleep a night; that you use your weekends as work-free periods; that you eat protein with your breakfast every day; that you exercise regularly. These are areas of someone’s life that you do have control over, because it’s your life. When your life is running smoothly, you’ll be more likely to have the energy and enthusiasm to lead, cajole, or prod your students into finding their desire.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a different sort of movie about teaching, “The Emperor’s Club,” based on the short story “The Palace Thief” (Ethan Canin). Truthfully, I don’t know if this was a popular movie or not―I never heard of it in theaters in the US and have never seen any reviews, but I watched it on three different airplane trips, sometimes more than once, so I came to know it well. Mr. Hundert, the teacher, works in an expensive private preparatory school, teaching a class of motivated, hard-working students. Enter a new student, a poor-little-rich-boy type of much promise and intellect, but no motivation and of course the requisite poor attitude.

Hundert tries everything he can to motivate this student, at the expense, in fact, of a more deserving but less flashy student who does not present himself as “troubled.” I’ll throw in a bit of a spoiler, because what’s important about the movie is not the plot line, but the more subtle dynamics of personality. The troubled rich kid succeeds in life―but not in the right kind of motivation, nor in appreciation for education. Hundert is left for years to question his decision of spending a disproportionate amount of energy on this one student. Could he have been reached in another way? Is it possible to reach every student? What students are pushed aside when you reach out to the most glamorous troublemaker? Those are good questions for both a teacher and a class to discuss.

This article was previously published in the Think Tank section of The Website for English Teachers in Japan


Comment from Rachel Drummond Sardell
January 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm

What a great motivating message for teachers and students alike at the beginning of a new school term. Thank you. 🙂

Comment from Tamara
January 4, 2011 at 4:37 am

Great blog! I especially like the reminder to take care of ourselves. However, even the days that I am not 100%, I can still bring enthusiasm to the class – I fake it. Or at least, I fake it in the beginning. Usually, if I spend a few minutes in the morning forcing a smile I actually feel more upbeat by mid-way through the day.

Comment from Dorothy
January 5, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Ha ha… you know, I think there really is something to “fake it till you make it”–that is, just the act of smiling will help you feel more cheerful. In addition, students are most likely going to respond a lot more positively to a smiling face, and then you’ll feel better because they’re enthusiastic, and so on up it goes.

Comment from cuumar
January 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

thank you

Comment from Sarah Yin
January 7, 2011 at 12:19 am

Thank you Dorothy for another good and thought provoking blog. I was lucky to find the movie you mentioned, The Emperor’s Club, on Youtube and the ending of the movie moved me so much that my eyes were full of tears. Being a teacher for so long, I couldn’t help but wonder if I did reach out to every single student I’ve encountered and what you said here and the movie helped me find my own answer to it. I think there is something called Karma between a teacher and students as well. We’re meant to meet certain students because we’ve got LESSONS to teach and learn from them. As for others we also meet on the way to our destionation of our life journey, we can only do so much. However, they will surely find those who are supposed to and able to influence them and make a difference in their learning. We do our best to help those who need us. That’s enough I guess.

Comment from Dorothy
January 11, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Sarah, it’s a great movie, isn’t it? Sometimes those students we help the most are the quiet ones, and we might never know it.

If you think about the movie “Dead Poets Society,” another “classic” of teaching, the student who is actually reached is not the glamorous troubled one (who comes to a tragic end), but the quiet one, who finds confidence in his own beliefs at the very end.

Comment from Norman Palomino
January 24, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Sarah thanks, for this important article I am from Colombia and in my country all days we try with our students for improve this motivation, our energy and respect for this job is the glory for help them in their lives. Norman

Comment from Sarah Yin
February 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Dear Dorothy
I’d like to share one thing with you. I left a message learier telling you how much I enjoyed the movie The Emperor’s Club. After I read your post, I was lucky enough to find it on Youbute with seperate video clips. However, some of the content was still hard for me to get it 100%. I tried to see if I could find it at local DVD rental shops but since it was not a current movie, it was sort of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Guess the Universal God must have heard my INNER VOICE, when I visited my friend in Maui Hawaii not long ago, I FOUND IT AT WALLMART. I could not tell you how psyched I was when I was it standing at the DVD rack. Just thought you would appreciate it and be happy to know WHAT YOU SAID/SHARED here did have impact upon some teachers who read it. Thank you again for recommending good movies about TEACHERS/EDUCATION. I guess for all teachers, we all need to be stimulated, inspired and encourgaged in one way or the other.

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