This time of year, teachers all over the country are meeting the parents of this year’s students. Without fail, when a teacher meets a parent of a child who has stood out in some way (usually negatively) he or she will say something about the apple not falling far from the tree. It does seem to hold true that many mannerisms, behaviors, or beliefs can be explained when one meets a child’s parents. However, I never hear these teachers say the same thing when a child is having a negative experience in their class. If parents entrust us with the care of their children for several hours per day, it stands to reason that we, as educators, must bear some responsibility for the results of that education. Like it or not, the apple also doesn’t fall far from the teacher.
I have gone on record saying that when a child performs poorly in my classroom, I bear some of the responsibility. True, I can lead the child to the knowledge, but I can’t dunk their head in the trough and force them to drink. That being said, there are numerous reasons as to why a child fails and in my experience as a special education teacher consultant for children with behavior or learning difficulties, I can tell you that they are generally not failing deliberately. Failure does not feel good and it is human nature to avoid it whenever possible. As a teacher, I need to put in the time and effort to determine WHY a child is not performing up to par in my class.
Some of the reasons why students fail a class have nothing to do with school. Unfortunately, there is often very little a teacher can do about harmful home or social issues, but we can try to help lessen their detrimental effects. Regardless of (or despite) outside issues, there are steps a teacher can take to have a shiny, happy classroom full of successful, engaged learners.
Motivation is the key to a child’s learning. Motivation leads to engagement, and engagement leads to success. So let’s begin at the beginning.
Much has been written about what truly leads to intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, Daniel Pink in Drive, and my edu-hero, Rick Wormeli, are great reads on the topic. One thing we know for sure—carrots and sticks don’t work. The will to undertake a task and reach for success must be organic. Sadly, for many chronically failing students, they have never experienced much academic success and have just come to accept that they never will. We want students to actively participate in their literacy development and must help put students on the path to success.
It is not as if students do not have literate lives. They text, direct message, and Facetime with friends. They play video games or read beauty books where they have to read directions. They write song lyrics or stories for fun. The success of teen novels has led to numerous movie franchises. Many adolescents just don’t want to participate in the literacy activities that teachers design. Sadly, most of these activities are not particularly motivating or engaging. Therefore, reading and writing in school become something that students must “get through” in order to pass, but they never really care about the material.
How You Can Help Motivate A Struggling Student:
The assignment may be something students do not see as relevant to their lives. A good teacher can bring all texts (even “boring” classics) to life if they show the universal connections and themes that exist. (I’m working on this for my next series of posts.)
Many students have too many things diverting their attention from the task at hand. If their home life is difficult, perhaps speaking to a trained school professional may help. If it is a social relationship issue, time is a teacher’s best friend as many of these resolve themselves. If they don’t, this could become a teachable moment to recommend reading material, have a general class discussion, or suggest a writing assignment on the topic to allow a child to process his or her thoughts. If the problem is that a child is legitimately overscheduled, then assistance with how best to prioritize his or her time may be in order. I have been in meetings with parents where I’ve addressed this topic and asked for the parents to work with me to develop a plan so the child can pursue passions and still find time for schoolwork.
For some children, reading is arduous, not enjoyable. Asking them to read material that they must slog through causes them to give up. A good teacher can assist the child in understanding by facilitating lively class discussion, allowing for audio texts (which I love), or encouraging them to read with others. Additionally, there should be safe, low-stakes activities designed for all students to practice and make mistakes without severe academic consequences. Practice without meaningful, targeted feedback and support can lead to poor learning. Meeting with the student often, or scaffolding the reading activities to build confidence, is crucial.
If a child has never developed language skills to the point where he or she can comfortably participate in class, this must be addressed. There are numerous avenues available and no stone should be left unturned. This problem will only get worse and intervention is of paramount importance. With individual coaching and explicit instruction, the student will make progress. Once a child experiences some sort of growth, they will want to continue on this path. Nothing breeds success like success and baby steps can be cause for private or public celebration.
As always, choice and opportunities for collaboration motivate students. The more they can be involved in and direct their education, the more invested they will be to produce their best work. The use of technology can also be motivating as long as it is not a substitute for or replication of weak pedagogy. If technology is more than bells and whistles or rote practice, it can assist students with self-expression and understanding.
Positive, supportive relationships between the teacher and the student are the key to classroom management and student learning. The classroom environment can support or undermine a child’s success. I wrote about this previously in How to Create a Shiny, Happy Classroom and The Class Where Everyone Knows Your Name. As Rita Pierson says in her TED talk, “Students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like.” They also will not learn from a teacher who does not like them. Research proves that a positive classroom climate creates the conditions necessary for true student engagement.
A classroom full of successful learners does not happen by accident. The teacher has more influence over this than many acknowledge. Taking even small steps toward motivating students can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of failure. All great teachers want to lead students on the path from motivation to engagement to success. Make sure the apples in your classroom don’t fall far from the talented, caring teacher tree.