I was just finishing lunch on Thursday when Ms. X came in with a Huge Packet Of Work to copy. Naturally it’s a “practice test,” a released version of the Big State Test in Her Content Area, and naturally she wants her students to “do it” over Winter Break so they can “go over it” at the Big Review Session in early January. “I just hope they’re motivated enough to do it,” she said. “I think my honors kids probably are, but my regular kids are so unmotivated.” I promised her I’d keep an eye on the huge copy job as she returned to whatever else she was doing.
But the more I thought about our short conversation, the more troubling I found it. This Ms. X is described by her students a kind, caring teacher, and I could feel her concern – especially for her struggling students – as we talked on Thursday. She wants them to see what the Actual Test is like, and she wants them to feel encouraged about what they do know and ready to focus on anything they don’t know at That Review Session. So, from Ms. X’s perspective, assigning the Huge Packet over Winter Break makes a lot of sense. You could do a few questions each day, still have time to enjoy your vacation, and come back with a clearer picture of your strengths and weaknesses. And N and J and a few other “honors kids” probably will approach the task that way. They’ll hate it – both have told me, several times, how relieved they’ll be when this semester is over and they’re done with Ms. X’s endless packets – but they’ll do it because it’s what they do, and because they see a worthwhile result (no more Ms. X! no more of That Class ever again!) at the end.
But Ms. X! If you have papers to grade and lesson plans to write before January 6, are you going to work on a few each day? Maybe you will – I always used to promise myself that I would, back when I dragged home those piles of paper – but it’s highly likely, if you’re like most teachers, that you’ll be waiting till the last possible minute … and it’s quite likely, if you’re like many teachers, that the piles will return to school in the very same ungraded state that they came home. And yet, despite years of experience with herself and with students, Ms. X is still assigning and hoping, and she’s still talking about getting and staying motivated in a way I find truly troubling.
It’s not like we haven’t talked about motivation as a faculty; in fact, we all read that amazing book and were there for that excellent meeting in late October. And it’s not like we haven’t lived our lives and seen how complex and situational motivation can be. But despite all that, Ms. X evidently still sees motivation as a single, fixed quality that you either have or don’t have, a thing that honors kids have but regular kids, sadly, don’t.
I don’t even want to think about the implications of those labels, or about the ways schools sort and classify students when they apply labels like that. But I see the pernicious results every day: “honors kids” who just know that they should get good grades because of their label, “regular kids” who just know they won’t do things as well, or as fast, or as acceptably as those “honors kids” because of their label. Despite everyone’s best intentions, it’s frighteningly easy to see the label instead of the person, to see the person as an example of the label rather than the label as a partial, imperfect description of a few aspects of that complex, remarkable person.
“I guess we’ll just be glorified babysitters on Friday,” Mr. Y laughed nervously, clearly not looking forward to the special celebration planned for today. He definitely wasn’t getting motivated to participate, and yet, if his students are apathetic, he’ll be among the first to complain. I know that K, who doesn’t like crowds or loud noises, was planning not to be at school – because it will be nothing but crowds and loud noises, and that’s painful, not enjoyable for K and for many others. “Just don’t come,” advised O, who’s just finished her first semester of college and had come back to visit this week. “Don’t even come for that lame celebration that nobody really wants.”
And yet, evidently, somebody really wanted it, and lots of people went to lots of effort to plan it, get the special stuff, and make it happen. Who was that somebody? I don’t know – I don’t even know if the original suggestion came from a student, a student group, a teacher, or a Power. I’m hoping there won’t be constellations of hurt feelings and recriminations – angry mutterings about “bad lazy kids don’t appreciate all that We do for Them” and “We’ll show Them, We won’t ever do Anything Fun ever again” – if the special celebration isn’t as special, or as well-attended, as some folks seem to expect.
Getting motivated … and staying motivated. Ms. X and Mr. Y want it to be simple and linear for their students, but motivation is complex and nuanced and situational and multi-dimensional. In a joyful learning community, you can take time to have conversations about motivation if you need to, but you can also take time to make sure that your shared work is engaging and interesting, and if it isn’t, you can work together to change it. As Daniel Pink says, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to intrinsic motivation – but how much autonomy, mastery, or purpose is there for Ms. X, Mr. Y, and their “regular kids” and “honors kids” today?
I wonder what new discoveries await us all, both in the special celebration and in the rest of the day.