Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon, 28 Jan 2002 08:32:47 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: On Motivation, III

Good morning. Still reflecting on this critical element of teaching and learning. As I was saying, I find that most of us in higher education don't plan motivation. Why? I am sure there are as many answers as there are profs and teachers. It certainly isn't because there is a dearth of resource material out there to which we can refer. It certainly isn't because the host of hard-working teaching and learning centers are ignorant or ignore the issue. It certainly isn't because we don't know how to research a subject we want to research. Maybe far too many of us profs never thought of it; maybe we would have to think deep about ourselves; maybe we would have to focus on the people in the classroom instead of merely the subject; maybe we think that what is call "extrinsic motivators," those cracked whips and tossed pieces of fish, are all we need; maybe it's all of the above; maybe it's none of the above.

On thing about motivation has become clear to me. We, the teachers must be motivated to motivate if we are to motivate. To motivate, you can't, you won't, just plan and act. You can just go through the motions. You must first dream and believe. You have to be sincere. You have to have that fire in your soul, that burning in your belly, that heart throb to pursue it. That is critical because you can't work against your own beliefs, feelings, and thoughts. Now, I am not talking about being turned on by your subject. I have found the greatest skill needed for successful teaching is not the bank of information; it is the ability and desire to get along with, establish a relationship with, and connect with students. It impacts every aspect of your teaching. Your relationships with students make or break your teaching. And, what you believe, truly believe, deeply believe about students--and yourself--will influence what you think is the problem and what the solution may be. What you are is what you do. Your efforts are mirrored into your genuine thoughts. When you see only the unmotivated in students, for example, you run the danger of becoming what you dislike. Classes will unfold as you expect. Your view of life in the classroom will be the way you live it. When you see the positive or negative possibilities in the classroom, they will occur for you.

With that said and done, I do have to say, from both what I have studied and from my own personal and professional experience, I'm not sure a person can motivate another person. I'm not sure a person can truly motivate anyone other than him/herself. I'm not all that convinced that one person can "tell" another person how to feel and act other than him/herself. I don't think there are attitudinal Brother Dans floating around who, with a laying on of hands can proclaim, "Be Motivated," and you will throw away the crutches proclaiming, "I AM MOTIVATED!" Motivation has nothing to do with what is done to people.

If I am right, then why am I bothering. What am I talking about? What responsibility to we teachers then have? What is all this stuff about planning motivation? Well, the aim is not or, at least, should not be to motivate students. The aim to is create relationships and to connect. People will want to grow when the surroundings are encouraging. People will shrivel when they are not. Motivation is what students generate inside themselves for themselves when they dare to be open to change and experience growth. Words and actions will stick to sticky souls, not ones with teflon coatings. And too many students sticky spirits have been coated with negative and restricting non-stick teflon. I plan motivation throughout the semester in the hope it will stimulate a student to begin an inner conversation with him/herself, in the hope that he or she will start scraping off that non-stick surface. That conversation is far more important than anything I can say, that scraping is more significant than anything I can do.

Remember James Escalante in "Stand and Deliver?" Get a video and closely watch that movie. Who was he and what did he do? He was a believer. He believed that everyone whom others saw as losers were winners. Those devils were to him angels. He treated everyone of those students as an angel even if they had come to believe the opposite. He relished what others saw as indigestible. He valued what others threw away. He refused to cede defeat even if the students themselves felt and acted defeated. He believed the students' ladder was merely leaning on the wrong wall. That's critical because you have to "be" inside before you can "do." outside. He never had five great classes in a row. He had five days of great believing in a row. That faith, like love, however, could not be forced. He saw and appreciated the beautiful in what others criticized as ugly. He heard the music in what others condemned as noise. He refused to accept that their future was mired in the swamp of despair and fear. And so, he consciously did three things. First, as he thought, so he was. He worked hard to help the students work on their inner "be," not merely on their outer math. He helped these supposed hapless students believe for themselves what they had dared not believe, that they weren't dumb and could learn. He helped them see for themselves that they were smart and capable, and he challenged them to challenge themselves. He refused to mute the voices within. He didn't deafen them with loud, thunderous "cannots." Instead, he worked to help them evoke from within themselves a "this can be done." Second, he created a supportive, encouraging, caring, positive, safe, secure, happy, environment. He valued them as something too precious to be tossed away. And finally, he was there with them, not as that distant sideline cheerleader, as an engaged on-the-field coach. He persuaded them that what he had to offer was important to them as human beings. He showed them that it really wasn't about math. It wasn't math that burned in their belly, it was their dignity. It wasn't math that fired their soul, it was their self-respect. He helped them see that they could dream and that their dreams could come true; that they, who were condemned and believed they were losers, could be winners. He didn't do three things. He didn't dictate; he coerce; he didn't manipulate. He did one thing: he persuaded. That one thing he did, slowly influenced the students to do their thing.

So, I think asking, "how can we motivate students" is asking the wrong question. Besides, we've tried and are still trying every trick in the book. We've cajoled, enticed, threatened, promised, praised, chastised, rewarded. We're adding or deducting grades for attendance; we're giving extra credit for extra work; we're placing on Dean's List or on probation; we're recognizing or ignoring on Honors Day. We're dropping lowest grade, doubling highest grade, curving all the grades, supposedly inflating grades. Does any of this whip cracking or fish tossing really work? If it did, why are so many of us loudly and constantly moaning about how unmotivated the students are?

The point is not to make students learn, but to catalyze them to stimulate their inner, natural drive to learn. You see, I don't think students aren't motivated. They are. They just aren't turned on to what a lot of us are teaching them in the way we're teaching them without apparent reason and purpose of teaching what and how we're teaching.

Think I am wrong? Have you ever notice how what we would call unmotivated students, what one professor recently called "gazing zombies" are alive outside of class? Outside the buildings they mull around, laugh, smile, move, and talk. When they enter the buildings or classroom rooms it all gets turned off as if they're heeding telepromters that are flashing "Don't Smile." "Don't Talk." "Don't Move." And, don't think that among these walking dead aren't some of our honors students, scholarship scholarships, award winners. Outside the classrooms, ah. The supposed catatonic students are enthusiastic, industrious, alert, intent, confident, patient, consciencous, faithful, loyal, friendly, cooperative, passionate; they focus, concentrate, work with others, have pride. They display all the ingredients not only of motivation, but of success. In the class they play small; outside of class they play large. In the class they don't honor their core values or utilizing their gifts; outside the classroom they are accessing their abilities and power. They are experimental, adventurous, creative, imaginative. In the classroom they are motionless; outside the class they are in motion. They work sweat and strain and work their tails off in a sport, excitedly play a video game, crawl all over a sorority float, give after hours and even a weekend for a fraternity charity drive, play in the band, act on the stage, practice an instrument hours on end, play at night in gigs, avidly solve problems, work on cars. But, not in class. An exaggeration you say. Maybe. Nevertheless, why are so many of these supposedly unmotivated students in class so animated out there outside of class? Later my experience and take on that....

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier