By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
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 ELTNEWS.com: The Website for English Teachers in Japan