I recall writing about a rather inspired piece about starlight and the moon that never sorted itself out until a motivational moment changed me. Sometimes teachers notice the areas of life that need speaking into and are honored to be that voice.
My teacher in high school was returning papers, and mine landed on my desk like all the others had, with marks indicating that I had done the work. Basically, I had remembered my capital letters and ending punctuated, so I received the coveted 2-word acceptance phrase: “Well done.”
I didn’t think anything more of it, but as she walked past me again, she paused, knelt down by my desk, eye to eye. She tapped my paper with her finger and smiled, quietly making a declaration that breathed purpose into me.
“You, my dear, were born to be a writer.”
She gave my hand a little squeeze and continued returning papers like nothing had happened. She had whispered it so that nobody else could hear, and as I watched her move around the classroom, it felt like a delicious secret.
What did she see that day? I won’t ever know for sure.
It was still the same messy, half-filled, imperfect page I had turned in a few days earlier, but there was a sudden seed of potential that felt worthy of growing.
That’s what great teachers do. They remind you that what you’ve done is nothing in comparison to what you are called to do, and they plant a seed that will grow in spite of it.
What would have been subtle to most people wasn’t lost on her. It was beautiful and praiseworthy, not because I had performed a task, but rather because I let it pour out of the deepest sense of truth I could grasp at that point. It was work inspired by love, not by report cards and the admiration of others.
Motivation. It matters.
I didn’t leave school and write my debut novella that day. I can’t even tell you the name of the teacher for certain. I do know this. That sentence has played over in my mind on days when I’m staring at a blank screen and on days when I am staring at my own students reflecting on how to motivate them.
She made me want to be writer. If, for no other reason than that, I should thank her for the gift she gave me. She told me I was born to write and that was the beginning of a journey for me. A seed was watered that day. She inspired greater vision in me. I went from seeing myself as a child to seeing myself as a future writer. I picked up a pen and opened a journal. I noticed I was holding the pen a little differently than I ever had before.
I love the way the Gospel of Luke describes the scene at Jesus calls out to Simon Peter a short time after their first encounter. Jesus climbs into Simon Peter’s boat and tells him to his nets down for a catch. Before he obeys the Lord, Peter explains that they have been working all night to no avail, but quickly finishes, his thought with the words, “But at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).
Like you, he probably considered himself an expert in his own life and experiences, and he was stating what he believed to be a reality. These were nets he had used many times and water he had studied closely. He knew that dropping them during the day as Jesus was asking is not likely to be successful, because any good fisherman will tell you that nets are supposed to be dropped at night. It’s how it’s done. It’s also not an easy process physically, and these men were already exhausted from being out working all night, so obedience isn’t without cost.
The reward is swift. As the nets filled, the fisherman realized they weren’t going to be able to manage the haul by themselves. They called for others to help them. It was the catch of a lifetime.
This is the moment that the fisherman waits his life for. Chaos dominates at the shore as the men pull the nets in. There are shouts of exertion and awe filling the air. It’s a hustling, bustling mess of celebration and shock, but in the midst of it is the one man who steps away from the masses.
Instead of reveling in the gift, he acknowledges the Giver. Falling to his knees, he utters these words: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). His heart is bowed in reverence, not bent in obligation.
Christ was swift in responding to Simon. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (v10).
In other words, “You aren’t wrong about your sinfulness, but that isn’t the whole story. There is work to be done for my sake and through My power, so stand up. I have plans for you.”
This lowering is interesting. It is the right and natural response to His holiness. But the beauty is, and has always been, in the act of rising again. A true understanding of our own depravity isn’t a punishment – It’s an opportunity to understand the value of the gift of a new life.
There is new life, life that wasn’t expected or deserved. Simon Peter dropped everything and followed Christ. Christ watered a seed. Simon Peter went from seeing himself as a fisherman to seeing himself a fisher of men, a new vision of how to live in the world.
How do we as teachers sow seeds? How do we change the way students see themselves? What can we as language teachers do that will help propel students to see themselves differently? Zoltan Dornyei offers many motivational gems in his book, Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. It is full of methods and techniques that work to generate and maintain the learners’ motivation. I offer only a handful here of what Dornyei describes as in the second section, creating the basic motivational conditions.
First, demonstrate your own enthusiasm for the course material. (Dornyei, p137) Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, an American psychologist addressed this in an article (1997). Enthusiastic teachers are the ones who make a difference in people’s lives. The ones who love their subject matter and who show their dedication and passion are the ones who influence others. There are, of course, the ‘nutcases’ whose involvement in their area of expertise borders on being crazy. Even those ‘nutcases’ are admired by their students for their passion. Commitment toward the subject matters becomes ‘infectious’, instilling or motivating students toward a similar willingness to purpose knowledge.
Projecting enthusiasm is related to the more general process of modeling. This, of course, is a very effective teaching method where the teacher is setting an example. Be willing to share your own joys and frustrations with language learning. Show students that language learning is a meaningful experience that can enrich your life. Carefully craft your words.
Second, take their learning seriously. It is important that everybody in the classroom should be aware that you care; that you are not there just for the salary; that it is important for you that your students succeed and that you are ready to work just as hard as the students towards this success. These phrases do sound contrite but my own experience is that teacher behavior cannot be overemphasized. Students are extremely sensitive to the cues coming from the teacher. Some ways of expressing this include: (1) offering concrete assistance, (2) offering to meet students individually to explain things, (3) responding immediately when help is requested, (3) correcting tests and papers promptly, (4) sending learners copies of relevant/interesting articles, (5) encouraging extra assignments and offering to assist, (6) showing concern when things aren’t going well, (7) allowing students to call you when they have a problem (Hmmm…), (8) being available for overtime (Hmmmm…).
Jere Brophy (1998) argues “To the extent that you treat students as if they are already eager learners, they are eager learners, they are more likely to become eager learners. Let them know they are expected to be curious…” (p. 170). Our communication with students should take for granted that the students share our enthusiasm for learning.
The need to expect learners to show interest in order for this to happened leads directly into teacher expectations, a third piece to the motivation puzzle. Teachers need to have sufficiently high expectations of what the students can achieve. For example, in one of the most famous experiments in educational psychology, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) administered an intelligence test to primary school children at the start of the academic year. Teachers were told that the purpose of the test was to predict which students would ‘bloom’ intellectually during the year. The researchers, however, deceived the teachers because instead of providing them with true test scores, they identified 20 % of the sample as potentially ‘intellectual bloomers’ randomly. By the end of the year there were significant differences between the ‘bloomers’ and the control students whereas at the beginning of the year they were similar in every respect except in the way they were labeled by the researchers.
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) explained the emerging difference by arguing that the (false) information about the students created differential teacher expectations concerning them and these expectations acted as self-fulfilling prophecies in that students lived up to them. In other words, if you believe that your students can reach high levels of achievement, there is a good chance that they will.
Another piece to the motivation puzzle lies in developing personal relationships with your students. Show students that you accept and care about them. Pay attention and listen to them. Ask questions about things they are interested in. Be available. Teachers who share warm, personal interactions with their students, who respond to their concerns in an emphatic manner and who succeed in establishing relationships of mutual trust and respect with the learners, are more likely to inspire them in academic matters than those who have no personal ties with the learner.
Motivation is something both teachers and students recognize. Teachers recognize it in students and students recognize it in teachers. Initial motivation can get a student started on his/her language learning journey. Water the seeds of greater vision in your classroom. Create the basic motivational conditions. First, be enthusiastic about the courses you are teaching. Second, let the students know you are willing to work hard for them. Third, expect students to do well. Fourth, develop good relationships. Accept, listen, pay attention and be available.
If you have been teaching for a while, this motivation thing is not easy. You can be doing everything else right and still not feel that you are not reaching the student. But, sometimes it’s not so hard. It’s just you listening to the Holy Spirit, and saying something encouraging to the student. “You were born to be a writer.” “Come follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.”
Be prepared, but be willing to listen to God. Have a great semester.
Brophy, J.E. (1998). Motivating Students to Learn. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Intrinsic Motivation and effective teaching: A flow analysis. In J.L. Bess (Ed.) Teaching Well and Liking It: Motivating Faculty to Teach Effectively. Baltimore: John Hopkins University press, 72-89.
Dornyei, Zoltan (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rosenthal, R. and L. Jacobson (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.