Hi, Dr. Kem,
It’s heavy being an educator right now.
While I have a good handle on what I need to do for myself to stay in a good headspace, there are more demands on the profession and a challenging worldview toward teachers right now.
As a department chair with over 20 teachers in my department, I need to be the mental health support for the rest of my teachers. I am transparent with them and listen with a nonjudgmental ear. If extra resources need to be brought in, I can do that for them.
I also still teach, and am transparent with students about what they need — I strive to be a safe person they can come to.
That being said, we’ve all felt some lack of motivation recently. I teach students both in person and online, and many times it feels like my students just don’t care anymore.
I give my online students a questionnaire after every unit that asks them, “Are you on track?” and “What do you need?” Many of the students answer, “I’m not on track because I don’t want to do this” and that’s it. They don’t give a reason.
It’s frustrating because most of the time I don’t have the contact information for their parents, caretakers, or guardians, and the students don’t want me to have it since they aren’t doing well in my course.
I don’t even know how to identify the problem. Because it’s a virtual setting and there are over 100 of them, I don’t have time to call every single student. I usually send a note back to them after reviewing their questionnaires to say, “Hey, I know you don’t like this class, and I know that it’s summer, but you need this to graduate.” But it doesn’t seem to change anything for them.
This apathy is happening in-person, too. I don’t know if this stems from assignments and expectations being excused at the height of COVID. In our district, we were told to “give students grace.” While I agree there’s certainly a time and place for grace, I worry this language puts our students in a mindset that there are no consequences. And, when teachers at my school reach out to administrators about students refusing to do the work, they tend to side with the student.
While I try to make lessons engaging and relevant, the lack of consequences is an added challenge for motivating students who are struggling. My students lack perseverance and grit — if things get hard, they just stop.
Dr. Kem, how can I motivate my students after three years of school disrupted by the pandemic? How can I get them to buy into their education again? — Missing Motivation
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Dear Missing Motivation,
You are the reason America loves teachers. If no one has said thank you, I will. Thank you.
Every day you go above and beyond the call. Missing Motivation, look at all of this work, yet you continue to push. Based on your letter, this is a summary of your typical day:
- You teach students both in person and online; your virtual classes have over 100 students.
- You work to ensure lessons are engaging and relevant.
- You advocate for your students’ long-term success by checking on them.
- You survey and read questionnaire responses from students, and provide written feedback for each one.
- You take care of your own mental health.
- You are the department chair for over 20 teachers. TWENTY teachers! And, you provide mental health support, resources, and supplies for them.
You are already doing so much and I am sure there is more you can add to the list.
Part of enjoying life’s journey is to remember what you can and can not control. A student’s honest response about a lack of desire to complete coursework can be startling. This generation of students possesses more autonomy to express their emotions even if the adults around them dislike what is being said.
Every day, Generation Z grapples with competition for their attention which makes them believe that school is optional. I know it is nearly impossible to capture the attention of my students for a meager five minutes of direct instruction.
Remote learning over the past two years seems to have intensified their need to escape into their electronic devices. The sad reality is that we, as teachers, cannot compete with such enticing distractions. Daily, they see students as young as 15 who have become YouTube stars, social media influencers, Amazon resellers, or well-paid gamers. Those challenges are outside our control.
I empathize with students who lack motivation for school. They gave up so much – prom, school football, basketball, and soccer games. They missed seeing their friends, and many more pivotal experiences. They deserve time to grieve even if we need them to hit the ground running.
Here’s my list of what I believe we can control as teachers. I hope one or more of these recommendations will resonate with you and can be adapted into your daily practices.
Tap your community
My district superintendent says there are two types of school employees: teachers and those who help teachers. Building administrators are in place to support you.
- Reach out to administrators with a list of students whose families you have been unable to contact. Partner with leadership and those who were responsible for enrolling the student in school. The administration’s role includes monitoring attendance and reporting that information to agencies. They can also create outreach plans to reach struggling students. I once worked with an administrator in Missouri who tracked a student to Kentucky, and enrolled him in a program that allowed him to complete high school.
- Document student files with correspondence. Student apathy is a community affair and failure should not be an option for virtual or in-person students. When administration does not respond to multiple intervention requests, begin to document your attempts to engage with apathetic students. This information will be helpful for future planning and progress monitoring. For example, I have former students who were not successful in their home schools but thrived in alternative environments. When placing students, notes from teachers provide valuable insights.
- Find mentors. Edutopia.org provides step-by-step guidance for any teacher who has never implemented a mentoring program. Avoid developing a program like this individually. Use the team of teachers to power through together.
Examine equity issues
Create a safe space for students by coordinating with school counselors and social workers to help them feel included in the school’s culture both inside and outside the classroom.
- Are there any groups of students who, based on their identities, feel isolated and disconnected from other students? You have an amazing tool at your disposal with your questionnaire. Find out if there are areas where students do not feel welcome and work with them to build connections.
Tap into what students already love
Edglossary.org defines student engagement as, “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” In order to engage students, we have to pique their interest.
- Locate programs that support student desires. When you create your questionnaire, include a question that will prompt students to tell you about their interests. Then, scour the internet to find community resources. For example, a student who has an interest in the arts may consider free classes available through the local art museum. A student who likes discovering how things work can enroll in an engineering summer camp through a local college. Most of these campuses offer full-tuition summer camp scholarships to cover fees.
- Bring in outside speakers. As the department chair you may be able to recruit your teachers or librarian to help bring in speakers. Consider local authors, politicians, fire and police department personnel, and business leaders. If cost is a challenge, consider arranging for alumni to speak. This article provides tips on how to plan an engaging alumni talk.
Help students envision their futures
Teenagers are notorious for not being able to see the steps to success. While they can envision themselves as rich and famous, they struggle with how to get there.
- Plan virtual college visits. Higher education institutions have created virtual tours for prospective students. These 360-degree tours make students feel as if they are on campus. Princeton Review has a list of colleges with virtual tours.
- Petition the school district leaders to require students to complete volunteer hours. Civic engagement can alleviate apathy and develop character. In my district, there is an annual Special Olympics where the entire student population can volunteer to serve. Students can also serve as camp counselors, tutor younger students, volunteer at food pantries, help with beautification days, organize blood or donation drives, and more.
Use tech to your advantage
Help students break down their dreams into digestible goals and see how their lives could look in the future.
- Review the virtual student orientation process. Research indicates that when students have little to no experience with the virtual learning environment, the onboarding process significantly impacts their experience. Speak with the counselors and technology department about ways to improve how students learn and interact with teachers and technology.
- Understand that teachers who teach virtually have to take on a new role as supporter and instructor. Know that when you teach virtually it is more like taking on a second job than adding another class. Get as much support as possible from software tools. Automate as much as possible.
Missing Motivation, I know student apathy can be discouraging. When their choices don’t match our instructional aims, we can feel like we are failing. I hope my response helps you recognize that the work you do for every student under your charge matters. It is obvious that you care. Consistency fights apathy! Never give up.
Eventually, your students will graduate. You’ll be invited to their class reunions and they will tell you how you helped them through the most challenging time of their lives.
Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.
If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Missing Motivation, please email email@example.com