A Teacher Who’s Already Motivated

motivation

“I’m a failure! This is why I never do art,” moaned a distraught fifth grader. I was subbing at a school with a reputation for endless rules, behavior challenges not even Mary Poppins could tackle, and barely enough self-esteem to fill a thimble.

It’s one of those schools where just walking onto campus causes your shoulders to slump, your head to bow, and your mouth to droop.

In the past, my teaching philosophy would have mandated that I drop everything to help this student. In fact, just the class period before, I had spent most of my time focusing on the few students who refused to engage.

By the time that period was over, I was exhausted, and I had neglected the majority of the class: the students who were already motivated.

Thankfully, this school has an amazing team of YASD Teaching Artists, and the dance teacher (who just happens to be my former mentor) took a second to give me a hug as we switched classes. I took a deep breath, and tried again. Ding! Round 2.

This time, I resolved to stick with my current teaching philosophy: focus on the students who are already motivated, toss challenges to the students who are excelling, and leave the light on for students who are not engaged. Here’s how the second class played out:

  1. I kept all the students on the rug with me to start with. We were doing a tessellation project, and they were having trouble making shapes that tessellated. I repeated my demonstration and helped groups of students who were almost there, sending them back to their seats when they had the hang of it.
  2. Now I had about half the class in their seats, and half on the rug. I offered to demonstrate again, and a majority of my struggling students moved in closer to watch. Eventually, I sent them back to their desks, as well.
  3. At this point, I had about five students left on the rug. One was being very disruptive, so I sent him to an empty spot in the room. The rest were goofing off amongst themselves, so I just let them be.
  4. I circulated around the room, giving suggestions, next steps, and challenges to students who were ready. A few students who had begun to distract others were asked to return to the rug until they could get back on track.
  5. At this point it was about 40 minutes into an hour class. I came back to the rug and asked again if anyone wanted help. This brings us up to speed with the despondent student from the beginning of my post. I looked at his shape and noticed he had done most of the steps (implying motivation), but simply taped his shape together wrong. I gently told him that he was very close; we just needed to change one thing. I fixed his shape for him, and traced it on his paper a few times, showing him how the pattern fit together. I asked him if he thought he could continue tracing the shape while I helped other students. He shook his head emphatically, so I let him be.
  6. As we were cleaning up, I looked over at this student, and he was busy tracing his shape and starting to add color to his piece. Before he left, he asked me if he could take home some extra paper, telling me about his detailed ideas for a new art piece. I picked my jaw up off the ground and replied, “Of course.”

Fortunately, this is not a typical school, and I don’t normally have to make such drastic choices about which students to give my attention to.

It was a good reminder, however, of something that is a subtle reality in most of my classes (especially in the upper grades).

If I spend my time teaching to the unmotivated students, the rest of the class checks out, and I lose everyone.

The key (even when it feels heartless) is to teach to the students who are already motivated, while leaving a door open for disruptive or withdrawn students.

It’s important not to forget these students, not to write them off, but spending all my attention and effort on them doesn’t result in their success, or anyone else’s.

Reaching out to them intermittently, keeping that point of entry available to them, allows them to decide when they’re ready to engage, the rest of the students to receive the bulk of my attention and encouragement, and me to enter the next class with something left to give. 

Reaching out to them intermittently, keeping that point of entry available to them, allows them to decide when they’re ready to engage, the rest of the students to receive the bulk of my attention and encouragement, and me to enter the next class with something left to give. 

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