It’s a long tradition in These Parts that Spring Break for teachers and students comes the week after Easter. It’s the first real, scheduled break in a very long time, what with all the snow, ice, and unexpected closures of school. Despite the loss of time (school was closed for eight days, five of which were made up), I noticed that every group is either where they normally would be or slightly ahead of a normal pace for this point in April. But I can also feel a deep weariness, a sense of going through the motions (or in some cases, refusing to go through those motions anymore) as I interact with students and colleagues.
Someone Or Other had decided, at the last minute, that “the good kids” who “actually came to school like they’re supposed to” on Friday, the last makeup day, should get a “special treat” or a “special reward” for that. Meanwhile, Ms. X and Mr. Y had pleaded for an altered schedule that would give them “some extra time” with One Particular Class. Naturally, and inevitably, the Special Celebration happened during that Extra Time, and it seems Ms. X and Mr. Y were astonished and dismayed by the loss of those thirty minutes. Meanwhile, I’m not sure how many “good kids” actually enjoyed the last-minute “special treat,” which involved some music, some basketballs, some soccer balls, and the school gym. “Can we play soccer outside?” one group asked, only to be told no, because there were no provisions for anybody to supervise them. And what about students with religious obligations on Good Friday, I wonder, or those whose families had planned trips well in advance, when Friday was still scheduled to be a holiday? Do they qualify as less “good,” less deserving of a “special treat,” than those who were able to come?
The whole idea of “motivating” anybody with “special treats” of any kind is less and less appealing to me … and it never was very appealing, though I bought into it, reluctantly, when I was a young teacher and a Particular Power mandated a particular system. Even then, it was clear that short-term gains would come at the cost of long-term problems. And the more desperately Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers At All Levels try to use the extrinsic motivation tools, the fewer and shorter the gains appear to be. Could it be that working for rewards, especially those that don’t seem meaningful, actually makes you more “bad and lazy” than you would be otherwise?
It turns out that One Ms. X is leaving for Another School. “It was too good of an opportunity,” she said, “because I can teach My Favorite Subject and I don’t have to teach Those Other Things.” The numbers are growing, but I don’t want to sound like the Local Powers are to blame for that. Structural issues with factory-model education are partly to blame, and so are particular factors in These Parts.
“We have to motivate Those Kids,” somebody said to me recently, “until they develop some intrinsic motivation.” And that sounds really logical on the surface … but when you take a moment and consider the amount of intrinsic motivation to learn displayed by any healthy two- or three-year-old, then compare any well-schooled teenager, it’s clear that something dire happened along the way. “It’s just because they’re teenagers,” Ms. X and Mr. Y would like to believe. But I don’t think so. I see plenty of evidence, both in my own children and in the “bad, lazy students” when they’re pursuing areas of real interest to them, that the intrinsic motivation to learn is still there, just buried and inaccessible to Ms. X and Mr. Y. Sometimes the Latin Family gets access to some of it, some of the time, but it’s a real struggle because the factory-school trappings, from “student desks” to intercom announcements to The Bell that rules everyone’s time, are so closely associated with extrinsic motivators and external forms of control.
The Family has plans for a peaceful day today, but there are a few household tasks that really need to be accomplished, the kinds of things that build up when everybody is busy with “school stuff” and “work stuff.” As we work on those, I’ll be thinking about these issues of motivation and about how to strengthen and improve joyful learning communities that grow up inside factory-paradigm settings. I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the peaceful days to come, and I wonder how they’ll translate into action and change when we all “hit the ground running” a week from today.