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Relating to Students, and Staff

February 27, 2014

I dropped in to the English Companion Ning last night – something I used to do more often and realized I was missing. It’s a thriving online community of English teachers from all over the country, created almost five years ago by über-English-teacher Jim Burke. (I think I was one of the people who signed up in the first couple days of its existence). By random chance I read a post from a pre-service teacher trying to connect with a class of second-semester seniors. I decided to offer a little support, and before I knew it, had composed some thoughts about relating with students that I realized might make a good blog post. I realized I don’t write many blog posts that are strictly about classroom practice – but then I also realized that my advice to this pre-service teacher is similar to advice I’d offer to a school leader trying to work effectively with a teaching staff. Post a comment at the end and let me know if you agree.

Here’s what I wrote on the English Companion (with minor edits).


Hello! Sounds like a challenging situation! You hit on one key point on your own: it takes time for relationships to develop. You seem to understand where seniors are at in life, and why this teaching placement will be a challenge. I would suggest focusing even more on them, and on the curriculum, and less on the idea of students having an interest in getting to know you. Not to suggest they shouldn’t get to know you, but let it happen on its own rather than as an intended focus.

You didn’t mention what type of class it is, or if you have any input regarding the curriculum. I’m guessing there’s only so much you can do coming into a class in late February. However, I’d suggest focusing as much as possible on essential questions and themes that might speak to where your students are in life right now – transitions, independence. You might also look for some opportunity to engage around social issues they’re confronting or will soon.

Dan Pink

Dan Pink, addressing the NBPTS Conference in July, 2011 (photo by the author)

One last thought regarding motivation – try to find a copy of Dan Pink’s book Drive, or read some detailed reviews of it. I’ve never met an educator who didn’t find it useful. In a nutshell, the book demonstrates that people are generally most motivated and successful when they are in situations that offer three key conditions:

  1. autonomy
  2. mastery
  3. purpose

What does that mean? Give students as much autonomy as possible. If you are required to use certain texts, see if you can give them autonomy over assessments, projects, extending texts, etc. If you are required to use certain assessments, see if you can allow more autonomy over content. Or autonomy over groups (if appropriate), or autonomy regarding timelines. People are motivated when they’ve had a say in what they’re doing.

Mastery is motivating because for the most part, people want to be successful at meeting challenges. For seniors, fewer assignments/assessments with elevated expectations for mastery would be appropriate anyways. Raise the bar a bit, and offer everything you can to help them reach it. (And remember, if you can put some autonomy in the mix regarding what to master, how, when… so much the better).

Purpose is tricky, but important – especially at the end of senior year! What’s the point? Why do this work? You have to draw that out of the students. Is college preparation a satisfactory purpose? You might think so, but probably not, for many of them; they’ve been in that mode for a long time, and there’s not much you’re likely to impart that hasn’t been covered already in some form. Is there a purpose that’s personal, relevant, and still fresh or new? Perhaps more community-oriented? A social issue or cause, a chance to bring attention to something important? For students who don’t find the coursework inherently purposeful, attaching it to something that matters might help. But be careful – don’t confuse interesting and important work with effective work. The purpose that engages the students might be different from your purpose, so don’t forget that whatever you come up with must still meet the appropriate educational goals for your students.

Okay – one more last thought on motivation: it’s not something you can give students, or do for them. Our job is, in the words of another über-teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, helping students motivate themselves.

I wouldn’t suggest trying to do this all on your own. Have some discussions with colleagues, supervisors, and peers. And draw as much as you can from the students themselves. Establish the parameters that are least negotiable, and then work with them to fill in everything else. Hopefully you have good support at the site. Once there’s a clear picture of what’s necessary, try as much as possible to say yes to their suggestions in other areas.

Come to think of it, this advice might apply to school leaders as well – so feel free to “manage up” and share this!

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