Courage quotation

With Trepid Hearts We Step: Overcoming the Thorn of Change

In troves of tromping feet, students and educators begin yet another school year this month.  With the advent of another academic year, there will be loud cries from citizens, educators, researchers, and politicians about all the changes that need to be made in education.  Students need to change.  Teachers especially need to change.  Administrators? Please change.

We bemoan the “failing” state of our students, of our teachers, of our education system, pointing to every possible psuedo-study as a panacea.  But, through all the different participants of our educational system — the students, the teachers, the parents, the citizens — we are all united by a single thorn that prevents our best step forward: Fear.

What delays us most in creating the best version of ourselves is our own fear.  For students, it collapses from every corner: Fear of social failure, of academic failure, of familial failure. of personal failure.  From cracked voices to friendship faux pas to feeling like crap because after three-days of being held hostage completing a multiple-choice scantron, you find you don’t “rank in the top quartile.”

For teachers, it stalwarts our greatest decisions: Fear of career failure, of personal disappointment, of fulfilling the worst of teacher stereotypes.  From pushing students too far, to not pushing them far enough, to feeling like a failure because someone is forced to quantify your entire worth as an educator after spending 90 divided minutes in your year-long marathon — only to find that you are “minimally effective,” with no constructive ideas to help.

If we want growth — if we want true change on the personal, district, and national level — we need risk.  Growth cannot exist without risk beyond our comfort zone.  As babies, we came into the world being useless burdens to those around us — crying, bumbling, defecating blobs. But, we also came equipped with insatiable curiosity and resilient risk-taking.  We fell on our faces as we took our first steps. We threw things, smashed things, touched things, swallowed things — all in a fearless attempt to learn and grow.  And yet, as our lives progress and we become even mildly “useful,” we rest in our normalcy.  It’s safe.  It’s easy.  It’s the beginning of a slow decay.  We spend the first decade or two of our lives with risk-to-grow as our default, only to flip the switch to static-to-survive.

We need courage.   We need the courage to be ourselves, to speak our own truth without fear of being wrong.  We need the courage to take academic and professional risk and accept the potential of failure without fear of being ridiculed, being fired, being disappointed in ourselves or our peers.  Whether it be a teacher asking for help from a colleague, or a student following her heart into a career that “doesn’t pay very well,” or a parent going against the coddling culture and not giving into what the “cool parents” are letting their kids do, we need to muster up our guts and follow our hearts.   I see the fear of risk daily.  As a teacher, I see it with young adults who rest in their fear afraid of damaging their developing images.  As an instructional coach, I see it with teachers who lock themselves in their rooms in their fear of being “marked down” by their bosses or judged by their peers.  Courage is not aimless, impulsive action.  It is a calculated decision that is necessary to make true, positive change — a decision that is not guaranteed to succeed but guaranteed to yield learning.

We need to build cultures of trust in our classrooms and in our schools that promote positive risk by guaranteeing support, safety, and belonging when we fail –and support, safety, and belonging when we succeed.  Students need respectful, positive atmospheres in which effort is acknowledged and rapport is built with teachers and peers daily. We need to trust ourselves and our colleagues in taking full-hearted risks with new methodologies and approaches.  We need communities that support our schools in attempting change.  Too often we hear threats of removing children or tax dollars if the results don’t fulfill our instant need for gratification — forgetting that massive systems need time to implement true change.  We lock ourselves in a paradox of wanting growth but stifling change.  We demand better results which require risk, yet threaten punishment when the risk doesn’t work out.

A great thinker once told me that FEAR stands for “False Expectations Appearing Real” — a recognition that our survival instinct leads us to “disasterize” to such an extent sometimes that we don’t take calculated risks in order to grow.  So, consider what risks you need — or your students or children or teachers — in order to become the best possible version of yourself.

In our next post, we will be looking at the “how” of reducing this fear in students and teachers.

In the meantime, our personal challenge in overcoming the fear hurdle is to:

1.  Take a calculated risk and follow it full-heartedly.

2.  Don’t wait for the right moment — it may not exist.

3.  Acknowledge the potential of failure — and learn from it with humility.

4.  Patiently support teachers, students, staff, and communities in stepping beyond their comfort zone.

5.  Learn.

We cannot wait for some perfected, scientific approach to overcoming fear and taking calculated risk.  The beauty and bane of fear is that no man or woman will know what result will follow until he or she dives full force into the experience — accepting the potential of failure before, during, and following the leap.  Perhaps the risk will set us back farther than we started.  Perhaps it will hurt and burn in ways we’ve never felt.  And, perhaps this is what we may have needed — to be humbled.

But, perhaps the leap will create something in us we have never known.

(Photo Courtesy of WikiCommons)

Something Deeper: On Teaching with Heart and the Poetry of Teaching

Teaching is poetry.

It’s the creation of something deeper, something sleeping below a classroom structure.  Its meaning is buried underneath flash cards and Power Points, grade checks and rubrics.  The surface seems simple and direct — we see the quizzes and cold-calls as clearly as pure rhymes.  The bells ring and the lines break and we prepare for the next stanza to take a seat quietly and get to work.

But hanging underneath is something deeper, something unique, something pure to the individual.

Teaching breathes and stretches and transcends like poetry.  No two learners can interpret the verse of teaching the same, just as no two teachers can write the same verse.  No matter what the rhyme scheme or theme, it is the process of learning that makes education poetry.  It is the delicate and personal interaction between two humans sharing a space in mind and body and trying to transfer meaning to one another.

And, no matter how hard we try to break education down into replicating patterns and structure, it always breaks lose.  We know better.  We know that not every class can be a haiku, not every lesson fits in pentameter, and, damn it, we know that some kids are best off as slant rhymes. We know this because we  are artists.

We alliterate universal ideas, building in repetition until our students sing out life lessons. We labor and toil over the most minuscule decisions of lesson structure so that our students can focus on the content and not the form.  We put our hearts into words knowing that the interpretation matters more than the intention.

While the other mediums get the glory — the movies make millions, the dime novels turn pages without controversy, and the video games don’t stress about year-after-year of mandated regulation — we go on making poetry.  Even as critics sing out that “poetry is dead” we listen to their song knowing that they couldn’t have carried a tune without us.  We are poets because poetry is learning and learning is our calling.

The lesson lives so long as the lines resonate at the soul of the learner.  He or she may not remember every word, every sound but the feeling of the poem never ends.

We teach to touch minds.  We teach to touch hearts.  We are poets.


Recently, a colleague in education gave me the book Teaching with Heart, by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner.  Of course I was curious since I love poetry, I love teaching, and I love reading, so my inner-nerd was ready to gorge on a knowledge buffet.  The insight from the book, though, went deeper than knowledge.  It went deeper than “Understanding” or “Analysis” or anything else that can be thrown on good ol’ Bloom’s chart.  Teaching with Heart reminded me why there is something deep about teaching that no data, no class, no observation can show.  Teaching is poetic and deserves a muted sense of awe just as soul-sparking as the poems contained within this collection.

Curious about the book? Here’s the Sparknotes overview:  Ninety teachers from all levels and locations share the poems that have (and continue to) change their lives in education.  Each poem accompanies a discussion of the influence on that educator.

However, Sparknotes without the actual reading is like a recipe without the actual cooking.  So it’s time to bust out the cutting board.

Here’s a taste:

“I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.”

from “The Lesson” by Maya Angelou

We could just let those two lines rest on a branch and allow you to ponder, question, climb, and harvest the ideas for days.  But, there’s something grand in seeing how other teachers work the fruit of great poetry.  Jovan Miles, the Atlanta-based educator who chose this poem, writes,

“Teaching became my life.  It consumed me, and I struggled . . . I chose my battles poorly and lost far more often than I won.  I hated how my struggles made me feel, but I endured knowing I could, and would, become a better teacher . . . In my first year, I died many times in front of my class.  the last lines explain why I keep on teaching: ‘I keep dying,/because I love to live.’ I love to live, and to teach.”

I wanted to book a flight to Atlanta just to high-five Jovan after I read those lines, thinking of my own past and continuing frustrations with the learning process that is teaching.  Maybe teaching is sadistic.  Or, maybe it’s an understanding that we wouldn’t toil through the challenge of teaching if there weren’t a larger purpose.  Maya’s poem, along with Jovan’s reflection, bring a familiar, pleasant, and distant warmth to the frigid feelings we find in struggling.

Then there’s this morsel:

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.

– Emily Dickinson

In reflecting upon the poem, Annette Breaux describes a specific moment when these lines inspired an assignment for students to “Do something nice for someone.”  She writes, “A beautiful poem led to a homework assignment, which led to a child’s good deed, which led to his mother’s hugs (desperately needed), which initiated the start of a healthier relationship between mother and child.  The poem still sits on my desk, but Thomas etched it on my heart.”

There is something deeper in the relationship among poet, poem, teacher, lesson, student and parent.  It’s as if all six are breathing and living together, influencing one another in subtle, exponential ways.  We will never see the true depth or influence of their interaction — just as we will never know Dickinson’s true intention — but we are left knowing that something meaningful is at the heart of their process of teaching and learning together.  Who was truly the teacher or the student?  Who was truly the poet or the reader?

With 88+ more poems, I’ll spare you my thoughts and let you form your own on the rest (Huzzah for summer reading!).   In the end, I am thankful for yet another resource that brought me both to earth and the clouds about the purpose of teaching and learning.  Teaching with Heart strummed a complex chord of teaching in a way that my usual stockpile of research and pedagogical reads can’t do.  It resonated with that hidden but present purpose of why teaching is worth every calorie of energy.

As the academic year draws to a close, we find ourselves in that reflective state of curiosity about what was the meaning behind all of it — the teaching, the lessons, the struggle, the joy.  So, rather than trying to analyze every line we’ve written and process every syllable of data, it may be worth sitting back, smiling at the poetry of teaching, and knowing that the meaning is deeper than we may ever know.  Because, the true meaning lies in the heart of the reader: the student.  Set down the pen.  Go for a walk.  And be happy knowing that this year’s poem has been written and that the meaning will forever be in process.


Accessed from via Google Images

Going beyond grades: Why we HAVE to do better.

What do you think is the lowest G.P.A. I need in order to get into a good retirement home — one of those fancy ones with never-ending soft serve ice cream and Jeopardy tournaments in the common area?  How many gold stars do you think I need in order say, “I’m happy”?  Oooh, most importantly, do you think if I re-take my ACT and get 2 points higher I can finally say I have purpose in the world?

Surely, these are the questions that keep teenagers angsty. There can be no other explanation.

We live in an educational climate that focuses primarily — some would say obsessively — on numbers and letters, rankings and standings.  We say it’s for results. And it’s true. One can see results through numbers. But it’s time to argue for different results. It’s time to argue for a system that puts the value and benefit of the learner first. And, along the way, it’s time to argue that we can do more as teachers, parents, and citizens to create contexts, instituations, and relationships that hone in on the innate factors that motivate learners to excel.

First, we have to understand that motivation is not a dichotomy. It is not just : (a.) I’m motivated or (b.) I’m not motivated. I’ve expressed this view in previous posts, but now let’s look further.

Motivation is a continuum. If we want our students to reach their maximum potential, we have to understand each level of motivation — not just what each is but how we, as teachers, policy makers, citizens, and parents, are often stifling student potential by only focusing on the lowest levels of motivation.

Let’s consider motivation along this continuum**:

Level 0: Amotivation (Not doing it!)


Level 1: Reward/Punishment (I’ll only do it if ______, or to avoid ______)

Level 2: Guilt/Impress (I like you . . . so I’ll do it)

Level 3: Value/Benefit (I’ll do it because it will help me in some way)

Level 4: Identify (I’ll do this because it represents who I am)


Level 5: Pure Enjoyment (I’m in the flow when I do this)

I’ve discussed some of the major factors that lead to amotivation in past posts. Let’s look at the next level, the lowest end of extrinsic motivation: Level 1 — what it is, why it matters, and what to do with it.


 Reward/punishment motivation involves using something external — either a tangible pleasure booster or a psychological (or physical) pain booster — to increase action.  We humans are obsessively occupied by motivating to this level.  Get ready because this, my beautiful people, is where most of our effort in education ends (Yep, we just got to Level 1 and we’re already done).

Real talk: Much of education puts external reward as the end of the process, the main event, rather than the means to a fulfilling end.  When a student acts just to get a grade, it is because this is often our society’s expectation; We — teachers, administrators, parents, citizens — often do not think to look beyond the grades.  Jill got an “A”? Sweet. Good job, Jill, you little smarty.  We have 60% of our students taking A.P. classes?  We are gettin’ it done.  School A ranked higher on the state tests than School B? That’s where my kid is going next fall.

Pause: Curmudgeon the Critic is probably charged and ready to rally some counters at this moment, so let’s go there now. There will be arguments such as, “What the heck do you want? Mushy-gushy high-fives for good work? Sorry pansy-man, the real world doesn’t work that way. People work for money and businesses function off tangible rewards!”

We know.

No one is saying rewards are inherently bad. Or good. Rewards motivate. But here’s the issue: Rewards only motivate so long as the rewards remain there.  The real problem is that our first and last resort is to dangle rewards in the context.  Get the kid to pass with a B- and call it a good day’s work.  But imagine if we remove the reward.  If you made every assignment and task in your classroom optional, would your students still do it? Doubt it.  They may have if we hadn’t killed off their intrinsic drive for learning years ago by making it all about the points, and scores, and grades.

That reward/punishment motivation is of detriment to our society became even clearer to me just today.  When asking students for feedback about teaching style preferences, one student remarked, “I’d rather have teachers who tell us what’s on the tests, rather than teaching us life skills stuff.”  No exaggeration.  Direct quotation.  I don’t blame the student.  I blame the educational context in which he lives.

The other thing we have to realize is that our rewards only motivate so long as the person gives a flip about the reward. We wonder why some learners don’t push themselves in school.  And yet, we only point out value in terms of getting good grades to “go to college.” Many of them could care less about the reward — or the other factors of amotivation have already been set. It’s hard to hear, “Getting at least a B in this class will help you get to college” when getting my next meal is of more immediate relevance. In truth, “What Students Really Need to Hear,” was meant for the students who stopped caring about the grades years ago.  It was for the students who need to know that school can provide benefits beyond the grades.

Reward/Punishment motivation is not enough.  And, our obsession with it is killing true life-long learning.

Now, it’s absurd to think that simply stripping incentives, grades, and measurements is the solution.  Effectively doing so would require an entire overhaul of every school from K through College.  Experience tells me it’s hard enough to get schools to agree upon the color of grass (Has anyone considered the color-blind guy’s view!?), let alone cultural changes.

This doesn’t mean that all is lost though.  We can start by asking better of ourselves, no matter where we fit in educating others.  Why are we really teaching or valuing item X?  What matters most? And, are we willing to take the risk to teach what matters in the face of a system that promotes otherwise?

We can even start by considering how our own language sends a message to young learners about what matters in education.

When a parent asks, “How can my student get a better grade?” the wrong question has been asked.

When a teacher says, “You are smart enough to get at least a B,” the wrong message has been sent.

When a news outlet ranks schools on rigor based on A.P. enrollments, without ever stepping foot in the building, the wrong message has been sent.

How about, “What can my student do in your class to be more prepared for a good career?”  How about, “You are smart enough to master this concept and truly own this knowledge — knowledge that no one can ever take from you for the rest of your life”?  What about promoting schools that help students cultivate their passions and provide them unique opportunities to pursue them?

How can go beyond the lowest level in education?

– How do we help students find their own value in building resilience? Learning new content? Tackling difficult problems?

– How do we help them identify their passions and talents early (and not just in STEM), mentor them to find opportunities, and then get out of their way?

– How do we create curricula that looks beyond what will get us better test scores?

– How can we better be honest with ourselves about what matters and whether our actions match our values?

These are the questions to which we need answers.  These are the answers that need every parent, teacher, and citizen’s effort.  It’s time to do better. Let’s start by asking better of ourselves before asking better of others.


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Dear Kill-Joy, Take a Breather.

Glance around your classroom, or house, or job. If you work with groups of kids, chances are you’ll notice some things.

- You will notice one kid picking his nose. Hard. If he’s older, he may be trying to hide it. Under 10 years old and he is proudly showcasing his gold. Regardless, no nose picking is truly discreet, so now notice the other two kids looking with horror at him.

- Notice the one kid who looks as if she just downed a gallon of Fun Dip — tapping her pencil, shaking her head to music no one hears, getting up – sitting down – getting up – sitting down, narrating it all with odd sound effects.

- There’s also the kid who is in the middle of the grandest of illusions right now. Spot him by the depth of focus he has on the birds outside the window. You can try to interrupt him, but he’ll just turn your reality into some futuristic battle (and you’ll be on the losing end . . . unless he has a crush on you).

- In a few minutes one of your kids is going to have an emotional crisis. The cause is not really important right yet; you’ll find out more when he or she calms down in 30.7 seconds. Just know it’s the worst crisis any human has ever experienced ever in the history of all history.

- Then, of course, there is the kid waiting to cook up some condescension. He was born with an innate mastery of ways to get class off focus or pit you in a power struggle. You can call him, “Nemesis” if you like, or “Kurt” will do.

- If your clientele is young, you’ll have your Mucus Sponges, your Sleeve Eaters, and your “Everyone-needs-to-know-what-I’m-thinking-this-very-second” Blurters.

- If you work with the pubescing ones, you’ll see your “We need a writing utensil today too?!”s, your Hall Pass Addicts, and your “Everyone-needs-to-know-what-I’m-thinking-this-very-second” Blurters.

Your class is filled with these creatures. They are unpredictable. They are needy. They are extreme. They are like cats on “the nip” in a small space. Their constant eccentricities have been dripping away your patience bucket since the moment the honeymoon phase was over.  It’s April.

You chose the situation you are in when you decided to work with kids. Now you have two other choices:

1. Get annoyed by how stupid, antsy, smelly, and forgetful these kids are. They’ve been on this freakin’ planet for at least four years; they should have figured it out by now!


2. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to laugh at how silly, energetic, fragrant, and developing these kids are. Their brains are still developing; you get to help them figure parts of life out.

We all get to make this choice every day. Every one of the 180 + “Here’s some data!” + extra required PD days. Yet, each additional month we spend in the trenches of child development leads us to forget that we can choose our outlook on our students.

Kids are either spawns of Satan’s annoying cousin, or they are hilarious. Your perspective decides.  And, in order to see beyond the demons, one must have a sense of humor for the chaos that is education.

We have to come to terms with one thing: If you have no sense of humor — or you lost your sense of humor — you have no business in the classroom. [Insert exasperated, curmudgeonly comments here].  If you cannot muster up a basic joy for the job of teaching these developing brains, do yourself and society a favor and find something else to do that does bring you joy.

Why? Because, people who cannot love the process of learning cannot keep the love of learning alive in children. If you treat teaching as a chore (and heads up: your nonverbals are screaming it to your students), your students see it as an even worse chore . . . with no pay or benefits.

Now this, of course, does not mean that one must take every situation lightly. “Devin, you’ve failed your third test in a row. Isn’t that hilarious?” Not cool. Nor does it mean we must abandon all rules and expectations or ignore holding high standards.  Believe it or not, it IS possible to hold students accountable without being a caffeine-deprived, fire-breathing dragon. And yes, there are real concerns and issues in education and society. But, Carter acting like a squirrel shouldn’t top the list.

We often let the little things — the insignificant things — consume way too much space in our minds. We let Laura’s eye rolling, and Logan’s question-we’ve-already-answered-twice, and that stupid fuzz on the side of notebook paper become the biggest issue of our day.  And, the double-whammy here: the king of our worries is the lord of our perception. In choosing to let little things stress us out, we start creating our own annoying little world.


Is the energy worth it?

Four-Horsemen of the Motivational Apocalypse

NOPE!  N.O.P.E.  I refuse.  I won’t.  I don’t want to.  I can’t.  These are the words we teachers loathe to hear, yet seem to hear on the daily.   Lack of motivation (amotivation) is one of our greatest plagues on the individual, educational, and societal level.  What contexts cause it? And, is there anything we can do about it?  Before we tackle the “How?” we have to understand the “Why?”

What follows are the Four-Horsemen of the Motivational Apocolypse — factors that are tragic in combination, yet influenced within the contexts we control. These are by no means the only factors. However, they are possibly the most devastating to the personal growth we want of our students, employees, and selves.

No Benefit

Caveman.  Cavewoman.  Your relatives.  Picture their lives on a daily basis.  Their one priority: Survive.  Their world was wrought with life-ending risk, where resources could be scarce and predators, disease, and opponents may be right around the corner.  Efficiency was a must.  Therefore, only those tasks and pursuits worthwhile were considered.  Our “modern” brain — no matter how sophisticated we like to think we are — is not much different.

Even more interestingly, with the ancient core we’ve inherited from our grunting great-grandparents, we’ve also adopted a bias towards immediate benefit.  Simply put, when your life-expectancy is under 30 years, 401k plans are low priority.

 Short-term (instant) benefit trumps long-term (delayed) benefit.

Unless we believe there is value in pursuing a task, we will allocate resources to contexts that are more worthwhile.   For a student, plugging away at a worksheet on long-division may not seem as beneficial as texting a friend.  Completing a sales call does not seem as beneficial as that delicious donut in the break room.  I’ve earned it, right!?

Now, I can imagine you are thinking things like, “How in the world can playing a video game be seen as more beneficial than not getting grounded by parents!?”  The short answer is that we are biased towards things that provide good feelings (a wonderful neurotransmitter called “dopamine”).  This is why fatty & sugary foods, sex, videogames, etc. are money-makers in our modern economy; they provide amazingly quick boosts of dopamine (short-term gratification).  More on dopamine in future posts.

In short, this just means what we already know: The less we see benefit in doing something, the less we are to do it.  So, essential question #1 is: How do we create contexts in which people believe there is benefit?
Our students must see both immediate and long-term benefit. It is not enough to say, “This will be useful when you go to college.” We must explain how it is beneficial NOW — how it makes you better, stronger, faster, smarter, grittier in the moment and in the future. Young brains are not fully developed enough to plan and prepare at their best. We must help connect those dots.

Overwhelming Contexts

“Jeff, can you tell us the answer to number three?” the teacher barks.  Jeff, normally an attentive, knowledgeable kid is frozen.  All the eyes of his peers stare towards him, waiting for the response.  He wants to answer.  Deep down he knows he knows the answer.  But the pressure is on.  He gives up.  “I don’t know.” The teacher, who really just wanted some affirmation that someone knew the gal-dang answer, sighs.

Why did Jeff — a normally motivated kid — give up?  Because, the context was stressful and just happened to trigger a fight-or-flight response in his brain.  His higher-order thinking shut down and he simply could not pull the mental resources together to act.  Fear, anxiety, stress — all of these can be caused by the context.  But, we can go further than emotional stress.  We can see the same effect in cognitive stress.

Imagine you are taking a test and then you come across the following prompt:

    “Consider the ramifications of cultural zeitgeists of the late twentieth-century.  Prior to constructing a reasoned synthesis, using ample supporting details, construct a hierarchy denoting which trends most influenced our contemporary circumstances.”

    Do you feel some brain-lock?  Maybe not, if these words and sentence styles are easy to read for you.  Many, though, would max-out their “cognitive load” and bail on the prompt.  Let’s change the context a bit.  Imagine the prompt was re-written as:

    “Think about the major cultural trends of the past few decades.  You will write an essay, using multiple examples, which answers: ‘Which trends have had the most influence on day-to-day life today?’  First, though, make a list ranking the trends based on their influence.”
    With the cognitive load reduced, we now have the mental resources we need to act.   We see this same effect when we make a massive “to-do list,” only to find ourselves overwhelmed, curled in a ball, back in bed, and hoping the list takes care of itself as we nap.  

     Essential Question #2: How do we create emotionally and cognitively safe contexts?

To do so, we must first avoid empathy gaps, which are those moments when we overestimate what someone knows or can do. Just because the steps of a process are easy for us or the terminology is a breeze does not mean it is for others. We must also work in smaller steps, breaking down things and checking that they are working sooner rather than later. It is better for someone to think, “Okay, I get it. It’s easy. Can we move on now?” rather than, “WTF? I don’t get it. I give up.”

Protecting the Ego

Public speaking.  Those two words send chills down most peoples’ spines.  Public speaking continues to be a major fear for most Americans — despite the fact that it is not a physical threat to anyone . . . well, other than because of your occasional lunatic assassin.  Why, then, do we fear it?  We avoid things that could damage our social status, our ego.

A student may know an answer to a question.  She may find benefit in contributing her thoughts and affirming her knowledge.  Yet, if she thinks there is a chance that her ego may be damaged by getting the answer wrong, she will be unmotivated to raise her hand.  We see this same effect in students who intentionally do not study for tests.  The reasoning is often simple, yet destructive.  If I fail, I can protect my ego and blame it on the lack-of-studying.  If I do well, I can attribute it to how awesome I am at life.

Employees may have brilliant ideas for helping their companies, but be unmotivated to share for fear of sounding “stupid.”  A guy may yearn to ask a girl out, but never say a word for fear of rejection.  Whether it is giving a speech or trying a new hobby, contexts unmotivate us when we think our ego is at stake.

Essential Question #3: How do we create contexts that protect a person’s ego?

This, in large part, happens with the atmosphere we create. Is everything we say, do, ask, create inviting and safe and respectful? Do we show with our actions that it’s okay to take risks? Is failure nurtured as a learning experience? Only in atmospheres where this is standard do people feel comfortable putting their ego on the line.

Energy outweighs success

Ever tried a diet?  It’s been stated that the average person gives up on a diet after just over a month.  And yet, millions of people want to change their health and physical appearance.  Clearly, these people are want to be successful. We could say they are motivated.   So, why do they fail? There are many reasons, including lack of volition, immense temptation, etc.  But, to simplify the matter, they fail because the energy they put in does not yield the success they want.  Exercise is hard work.  Resisting cake is even harder, I’d say.  Even after a month of holding strong, changes could be minimal (or non-existent).  Without measurable success, the energy is not worth expending.

There are so many students who want to be successful in school.  They know there is long-term benefit.  They know there is even short-term benefit.  But, oftentimes, the energy they put in does not yield the results they want.  Again, we could argue that they aren’t studying properly or they aren’t using the right strategies.  But that is beside the point.  The point is that if they don’t feel like their energy is getting results, their motivation will die.  We need to feel successful. And, we need to feel successful during the process just as much as after.

Essential Question #4: How do we create contexts in which the process is rewarding and shows visible growth?

Small moments of success. Celebrating the smallest victories can be energizing. Now, this doesn’t mean mow down a Snickers because you walked to turn on the t.v. instead of using the remote. We must not patronize minimal effort. We should, though, take a moment to reflect on progress and celebrate genuine effort. High-five the failing student who finally made it to passing just as joyfully as the B student who got an A on a test.

The four-horsemen are: NOPE

No benefit
Overwhelming contexts
Protecting Ego
Energy outweighs success

If we want motivation, we must create contexts that reduce N.O.P.E. mentalities. This is in our control. And trust me, there is benefit.

Photo courtesy of

Searching for Sasquatch: Why unmotivated people don’t exist

Picture an average teenage boy.  Probably smells like stale sweat doused in a layer of Axe Body Spray.  Atrocious haircut.  Eyes glazed by the flashing images of Call of Duty blaring from the screen.  Poster child of “whatever.”  His parents, not wanting to raise a child into an adult pile of mud, want to see some motivation.  So, they ask him to do the chores.  Doofus-personified would rather slam his head repeatedly on a table than take out the trash and do the dishes (and he probably does just that in order to showcase the plight he suffers under such tyrannical parents).  We would say he is unmotivated in this context, yes?  Yes.

Now, imagine if his parents say, “If you want permission to use our car and want money to take out your girlfriend tonight, you have to take out the trash and do the dishes.”  Enter: He-boy, world’s most efficient chore-technician.  Dishes fly, sponges feverishly scrub, and the garbage soars to the curb dumpster.  Alas, motivation.  So, what changed?  The boy or the context?  Ding!  Let’s revisit two truths found in our previous post:

1.  There is no such thing as an unmotivated person.

2.  There are only unmotivating contexts.

Here’s what we mean by context: Who, What, When, Why

– Who is requesting it to be done (and around whom is the task being done)

– What is the task

– When is the task being done

– Why the task is being done (the value it holds)

To illustrate, let’s take the simple scenario of a student writing an essay.

Context one: Mr. Superior, Gavin’s ELA teacher, isn’t the nicest nor most personable educator in the world.  He could care less how students feel about his class or him as a person.  His motto is, “Keep ‘em busy” and lives by the mantra that failing students are a sign of a good ol’ bell curve.  The prompt he gives is: “Write an essay arguing whether post-modern America was superior in its industry and culture compared to the decades that preceded it.”  Students must write their essays outside of class on their own time.  Gavin knows that Mr. Superior will be the only reader of his essay and has already parceled out grades in his mind.  How motivated will Gavin be to write this essay?  TBD.

Context two: Mrs. Intentional knows her students well.  She makes a point to be authentic and respectful with students, holding them to a high standard, and supporting them through their mistakes.  She is realistic enough to know that not everyone student will be an all-star but knows every student can at least be competent in her class.  She also wants to give students a persuasive essay.  The prompt she gives is: “Write a persuasive letter to a company you like or hate, encouraging them to continue or change their practices.”  The letters will be written in class with coaching and support and then mailed to the actual companies.  Is this context going to guarantee that Gavin is motivated to write? Not necessarily, but it’s a heck of a good start.

Think carefully about the differences in contexts:

What:  Both tasks are persuasive essays, however, we can clearly see that Mrs. Intentional’s topic provides more choice and personalization (major players in the motivation game).

Who:  Have you ever wanted to impress someone who was a jerk?  Nope.  Ever seen someone completely change their actions to impress someone they like or respect? Probably.  Employees work differently when they like their boss.  Students behave differently when they like their teacher — and this can include motivation.

When:  Depending on how Gavin is outside of class, he may be able to do good work at home for Mr. Superior.  But, if you know most students as well as I do, homework has challenges (distractions, opportunities to cheat, less effort). Don’t get all crazy-talk on me and assume I am arguing “Homework has no purpose!” It does.  But it is a different context that a teacher must consider.  Time of day affects motivation for two reasons: Willpower is a muscle that can get exhausted and usually different times of day adjust the rest of the context.

Why:  Context 1 has one audience and purpose: Impress the teacher.  Context 2 serves an authentic purpose in persuading a real audience.  When the person finds value and benefit in the task, motivation increases.

When considering the “Why,” we have to face a reality though: It is possible that Gavin could give a crud about writing…period. Neither Mr. Superior nor Mrs. Intentional may ever get an essay from him.  It is not, however, a flaw in his character.  It is a feature of facing enough demotivating contexts to bias his perception of value. Never fear, though.  The concept of personal value is strongly influenced by what educators do and our next blog will explore just that: What causes “amotivation.”

As teachers, parents, bosses, mentors, we must look not at the flaw in someone’s character.  We must look for the flaws in the context.  We cannot change people, nor can we motivate them.  We can change how people see the who, what, when, and why and thus create contexts that enhance motivation.  That is our challenge.

In the meantime, consider how much context defines your motivation.  Pick any task you do and adjust one aspect of the context and see what happens (or what you think would happen).  Post a comment and let’s dialogue people! (y’know, so long as the context suits you)

Copyright Chase Mielke, 2014