As a teacher, I am constantly being told (by non-educators!) that I must “motivate” the students. What they usually mean is: make lessons entertaining. They think it should all be fun and game-like. It is similar to the now-passé concept of “learning styles” (link opens a new tab and directs to a study released in 2015) where teachers are encouraged to provide many different types of tasks (it has since been determined that people will learn regardless of the type of task they are given – -although some people are more engaged by specific tasks, the learning occurs regardless).

In an ideal world, if I had VERY small class sizes, only one or two “preps” (lessons to prepare each day), and access to abundant materials that I did not have to prepare or collate in advance, more of the lessons might be engaging to more of the students. However, I can guarantee that even then at least a couple of students would not feel fully engaged for any one lesson. Why?

Because we don’t all think the same way, engage with life the same way, have the same expectations for physical interactions or social time, pursue the same interests… because we are individuals. Students do not all begin a school year at the same level in the various content areas (subjects, for those of us old enough to remember “3-Rs” years). Students may be ill, distracted by out-of-school events, or just dislike the topic or task.

When I homeschooled our TWO children, who were clearly not the same in most respects, I did manage to adapt and adjust for their needs and interests most of the time. Even then, knowing them better than anyone else in the world knew them, I sometimes didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, they learned and grew and are turning into fine young adults. That was just two, with abundant time and energy to think about and generate everything that was needed and wanted. And sometimes, even with the best intentions, I didn’t make it engaging. And sometimes, that was part of the lesson.

Think about it: not everything in life is a competition (and it shouldn’t be); not all tasks are accomplished cooperatively (and needn’t be); many of the necessary tasks appear to be without reward (until they are completed and the final product is useful or beautiful, or…); and sometimes tasks are distasteful, uncomfortable, and tedious. In real life, not everything is fun. Most tasks require the ability to focus for longer than a few minutes (without a sound/movement/visual to pull you back to the task). Most tasks in life are NOT inherently rewarding.

In the real world, of course, I have a much larger class size — 20 or more (sometimes more than 30) students. Children I have generally never met, whose families and communities I may not fully “get” until part-way through the year. Children with vastly varying life experiences and challenges. In elementary school, I have about 6 preps: Language Arts/split between “Reading” and all of the other related skills; both “on-level” and differentiated (we don’t have a current curriculum, so much of this is teacher-created or found); Mathematics/split into the lesson of the day and “differentiation” when I can (this will be easier this year with a curriculum in place!); and Science and Social Studies (when I can fit them in). I have students who come in and out of the classroom, depending on which specialist teachers they see – some I see pretty much only at the very beginning and end of the day, others all the time except ten minutes here or there… I have to account for kids who are absent, who are ill, who have attention or language processing issues, whose vocabularies are limited, who are well-above grade level in all areas, who have traveled to other countries or never gone outside the county they were born in… I have “nuclear” families, extended families, single-parent families, kids with two households, kids in foster care or living with relatives or friends for a while, I have kids living in the home their grandparents were born in, and kids who are homeless. I have hungry kids, tired kids, wiggly kids. I have concrete thinkers and kids who are surprisingly able to connect abstract ideas.

I have kids who master the concept I need to teach in three minutes, and some who will still be struggling with the same concept three months later.

I have some who think the task at hand is inherently fun; and others for whom a reward of candy and games when they finish one question with help is still not enough.

I have students who are just disengaged… it’s not through an “X-box” or a “PS” so they don’t care.

What are we teaching our students when we start to think about education in terms of “fun-only” tasks? I have students who enter third grade not knowing how to hold a writing tool for maximum flexibility and strength, who struggle to write — not just the ideas and conventions, but the PHYSICAL act of writing or drawing, or cutting out paper, or … because those are “hard” and teachers in previous grades, and their own parents, think they are not necessary skills. But, think about it — there are third graders every year who cannot open their own milk cartons because their hand strength is too poor. I have had students who cannot put a straw into a juice pouch for the same reason. The only thing I can tell that keeps these children from having the hand-eye coordination, core control, stamina for learning is that they have never had to really use their bodies.

If it’s hard to write, their parents put them on a computer. If it’s hard to sit, they are propped up. If it’s hard to walk as a toddler, someone carries them or puts them in a stroller, or … Many of my students don’t seem to do things like build forts, play with building toys such as blocks, or even color with crayons in coloring books. They have tablets and video games, they even have cellphones. But they do NOT have an awareness of their own bodies. Other students have been accomplished horseback riders, skilled hunters/fishers, avid creators with found objects, dancers, musicians, sports players…

So, what motivates them? Depends on the child.

Many students enjoy seeing how they do compared to the class — others are beaten down again and again when they are ALWAYS at the bottom of the results. I don’t keep track of progress on public boards any more… I give the competitive kids ambitious personal goals instead. And I give the kids who are less-skilled personal goals that will be attainable but still show strong growth.

Many students like to work toward rewards — stickers, small prizes, time to play games. Others aren’t motivated by external forces — they have a more mature approach and realize that they are working toward their own goals. They prefer to be told what they are doing right and supported in the areas where they can improve — those students love to track their own learning.

Many students like to play games with material they are learning, but just like anything else, some children struggle to be successful whether as an individual or as part of a team… letting down one’s team is a big deal in third grade.

Many students like to work with others, except those who don’t — maybe they are just not that social, maybe they get confused when there are lots of ideas; and sometimes they are TOO social and have articulated to me that when they work in groups they cannot help but visit and so they prefer to work alone so they can focus on the tasks at hand.

Some kids LOVE videos that demonstrate tasks and concepts. A few really don’t. Some love music. Many don’t. Some love to MOOOOOOVE! Many don’t.

Some read well and happily at or above grade level and enjoy “popcorn” reading (where their names are picked randomly); many don’t.

And so it goes.

I started thinking about this because I have goals for my summertime. The most important goal for me was to heal from the stress of being sick and teaching all last year (and half of the year before). The reward? I have more energy and strength!

Another goal was to lose a few inches that I gained during the testing interval… since I don’t have a scale at home I don’t know what weight I reached, but let’s just say that the larger sizes I always keep on hand for allergic reactions weren’t quite comfortable even on non-reactive days! The reward? I am more comfortable not only in my clothes but in my movements.

Another goal was to re-organize my office space (requires cooperative support)… not getting there very fast… the reward will be that I can put craft supplies away, and have a desk for doing lesson planning — freeing up the living room for RELAXING in the evenings with small projects and books to read.

A final goal was to get the front entrance garden back in form. The reward, once I am done, will be a more attractive home to return to after a long day at school, more visiting space when guests are over, and a few flowers for bringing inside. And I am getting there… but slowly.

My students’ goals are even more diverse — every year we start out with what they hope to learn: multiplication often tops the list, followed by “curly” handwriting (we do cursive in our school); some want to write better/longer stories. A few know we’ll do bird reports in our room. Many want to study science of some kind (which I fit in when and where I can). Almost none say they want to learn to spell more words — but it is necessary. None have ever articulated that they want to understand parts of speech, or new punctuation marks! They don’t generally perk up when I mention we will be doing more difficult addition and subtraction, or be writing more than two handwritten pages at a time! But again, those are necessary. And most of them seem to think that the learning will just happen, that a single lesson is all it takes… a common misconception even in middle school. The idea that they need to review, revisit, rework, and rethink many times before they have mastered a task or internalized the learning is very distant and difficult for them.

Which is the final point about motivation: not everything can or should be accomplished in one go, or the first time, or instantly, or easily. When we turn all the necessary tasks that kids do into games, into fun, they miss out on the opportunity to learn about patience and persistence. As an adult, I often have to wait: Wait to have a meal; wait to find out the results of a project; wait one’s turn at licensing; wait for a response from a job application; wait, wait, wait.

What motivates a person to tolerate waiting? Practice. Practice in school, and in the family. Practice learning that a question needn’t be answered immediately; a boo-boo doesn’t need a kiss this minute; a flower takes weeks to grow from seed…

What motivates me? Seeing progress, whether it is insignificant or ground-breaking. Knowing that sometimes I won’t see progress and that is okay, too.

What motivates me to get out of bed in the morning? My family. My students. My Wally. My friends. My garden. My music. My books. Learning new things, and sharing with those around me. Making the world better in the small ways that are possible for me.

What motivates you?