Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Wed 5/31/2006 2:25 AM
Random Thought: Creating A Motivational Classroom

My altering self-examination for the past fifteen years has been obviously challenging, uncompromising, unrelenting, sometimes cutting, certainly penetrating, truly releasing, ultimately redemptive and freeing. Strange as it sounds, as I searched for and discovered my own vices, I searched for and discovered the virtues in others. It always comes back to the same thing: go deep enough and there is a hard bedrock of truth. It has been a journey from solely focusing on scholarly competence and reputation in my discipline to an expanded vision that includes teaching in a way of being attentive to the contours of student lives being lived and seeing both the marvelous and sacred in each of them. The practice of teaching must be full of generosity and empty of ego. Ability, knowledge, authenticity, even intentions, unless tempered by empathy and caring, aren't enough. Caring about, or loving, each student is what gives value to whatever it is we do in and out of the classroom. In a fast-paced, complicated, and ever more demanding academic culture it is easy to become self-absorbed and consumed with our own problems involved in pursuing our careers, acquiring reputation, and attaining tenure. However, there is one place, professionally, where we should put our self-centered concerns aside, find the time for, and profoundly touch our deep humanity. That place is where students dwell.

As I recently told some academics, the fact that the greatest surprise among the overwhelming majority of students is the surprise that occurs when a professor cares about them as human beings reveals how many of us academics commit the ultimate sin of academia. That sin is the one of inadvertence, of not being attentive, not being truly alert, not being quite awake to those in the classroom with us. It is the sin of missing the breathless moment of life and not living with acute awareness, unremitting empathy, unconditional caring, and boundless love.

To avoid committing that sin, so many of us say, with the best of caring intentions, that we want to motivate students. If truth be told, we can't!! So, we shouldn't waste our time asking, "How can I motivate students?" Now, on the other hand, if we want to create an environment in which students are afforded the chance to motivate themselves, that we can do!! Then, we should ask, "How can I create the conditions in a classroom within which students will motivate themselves?" "How can I help students help themselves to change self-defeating patterns of irresponsible and even unethical and immoral behavior as they stagger through the stresses and pressures of their academic and personal lives?" "How can I help each student feel welcomed in the classroom?" "How can I help each student shed her or his feelings of aloneness in the classroom?" "What conditions do I have to create for each student so that she or he will have the opportunity to focus and persevere and strive without short-circuiting her or his physical, emotional, spiritual, and moral well-being with self-induced anxiety, corner-cutting, and outright cheating?" "How do I help a student instill in her- and himself confidence, ignite passion, encourage more risk-taking and accepting of failure, and expanding the areas--beyond written papers, tests, and preformed discussions--in which she or he may achieve and be successful?"

Mind you, these are questions that are easy to ask. They are questions that are not easy to answer. These are questions whose answers are still harder to live, for it is the nature of those in authority to assert authority. Too many academics, ignoring the conclusions of Carl Rogers and Edward Deci and Teresa Amabile, if we know who they are and are familiar with their work, think we can "do" something to a student. That is, we can motivate or we can teach. And, too many of us believe we can do it by the pressure of enticement or threat, and control. We crack down, impose stringent discipline, lure and entice with bonuses, make students buckle down, threaten, and force students to behave through reward and punish with grades. Extra credit here, a point taken off a grade there. It doesn't work. We know it doesn't work. We lament that it doesn't work. And yet, we don't really wonder why that easy, tough, and reassuring answer of cracking the whip or icing the cake doesn't work. Usually, our response is to play the blame game rather than the responsibility game: "Students today are irresponsible." "Students today aren't committed or dedicated." "Students today just don't......." In fact, if we look closely we'd see that rigid authority exercise displayed in the offering of the carrot or the wielding of the the stick more often than not worsens rather than lessens the problems.

The problems as I see them are three fold. First, disbelief is the wind that blows out your candle. You have to believe there is something of the marvelous and sacred in each student. You'll prepare the flower bed, plant seed, and nurture them only when you believe flowers can bloom. Second, it is not about what you do, but how you do it. There are no magic words. If you want convince a student to motivate her- or himself, motivate yourself. Students will believe what they see, not what they hear. That is, action, living your words, is the only expression students will listen to. If you set out to cheer, encourage, or inspire as many students as you could to help them help themselves strive for their unique potential rather than merely transmit information motivate yourself to be cheerful, supporting, encouraging, and caring. Good gestures mean so much and cost so little that there is no excuse for not giving them away more often. A compliment, a bit of advice, a cheerful hello or a warm smile can start a chain reaction that lights up hitherto darkened lives like a Broadway neon sign. Niceness can change lives, yours and theirs. To love and to live that love is the real magic. Third, it is not so much getting a student to choose between "have to" and "want to" as it is how to get them to choose to merge the two "to" into one.

The solution to these three problems is really, then, a matter of how to transform forced reluctant and fearful compliance into volunteered dedicated and excited commitment. You have to let students learn in a way so that they are in charge of their intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and moral growth. Students will more likely be more motivated and successful when they understand and accept and apply their own unique strengths and overcome their weaknesses. That's a tough solution, though. It's really tough to put into action. I've found that so many, us and the students alike, are afraid of losing something known and comfortable and safe by changing than we are motivated by the risky, unknown, and yet potential advantages of changing. Yet, it's so crucial to begin. Things happen and opportunities appear most often when we're moving, not when we're standing still.

Let me give you a clue how to start putting that answer into action. As I told a few people recently, there is so much of the homelessness in each of us, much less in each student. And our awareness, empathy, seeing, and listening creates a sanctuary for those aimless and drifting parts. Students' definition of success, what they really are seeking is not solely focused on getting the grade though they themselves think it is. It's far more than that, and both they and we kid ourselves if we think it's not. That is why, as far as students are concerned, their most meaningful, memorable and lasting experiences almost exclusively occur outside the classroom. That's why their lasting memories of their college experiences seldom have anything to do with the classroom material or experience. Whether they know it or not, they reveal in their journals almost to the person that achievement and success, what they are seeking, really seeking, is an understanding that is defined by having good friends, positive family relations, being noticed, being heard, receiving kindness, being cared about, being appreciated, being well-regarded, being loved, being respected. They seek self-approval, self-respect, physical and mental well-being, spiritual contentment, self-actualization, and an overall sense of meaning to their lives. In other words, they want a satisfying, meaningful, rewarding, and significant life, not just a grade or an honor or making a living.

         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" -    \____

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