Stop the “I don’t care” mantra before it even starts

Female math teacher writing on chalkboard in front of students

In the November 2013 newsletter article, Responding to Adversity – Survival Skills for Teachers and Students, Review360® shared the importance of focusing not just on cognitive skills, but also on life skills that will improve students’ habits of behavior to motivate them to better engage in school. It sounds simple to non-educators, yet one of the most frustrating parts of a teacher’s job is dealing with the “I don’t care… so what” attitude of indifference and lack of motivation. Sometimes it affects one student, and other times it seems like the whole class is apathetic and unmotivated. While the teacher remains anxious about covering material before the testing season, students seem to be distracted, bored, and tuning out. Many students have been unsuccessful, have lost hope, and feel no one really cares. Academic apathy can certainly be a complicated issue to resolve and ignoring it results in little success and more typically leads to increased behavioral issues. Experience shows that yelling, lecturing, and punishment seldom motivate or change the behavior for the better. To help keep students actively engaged, Review360 offers a few strategies for increasing students’ motivation to learn and behave appropriately.

Using Words

  • Avoid negative putdowns as they frequently lead to shut-downs in cooperation, participation, and motivation. Keep a positive demeanor.
  • Use students’ names and things you know about them in lessons and worksheets to teach concepts and connect with them. (Example: Identify the nouns in the following sentence: Susan enjoyed seeing the giraffes on her trip to the Dade County Zoo last Saturday.) This lets them know you care and are interested in them and listen to information they share with you.
  • Show enthusiasm and zest when you teach.  Let students know when a concept is especially challenging and requires close attention. Give examples of when you experienced difficulties learning and paying attention.
  • Talk to students about what effort and “trying” really look and feel like. These are abstract concepts that many don’t really understand. Students often say, “I am trying!”  But your perception and their perceptions vastly differ. Tell them what they need to be doing.
  • Refer to prior learning to make connections between today’s task and an activity completed earlier in the year. Explain “why” the information is important to future learning and real life applications.

Using Actions

  • Teach by walking around. The nearer you are to students, the more attentive they will be.
  • Start each day/period with an attention getting activity – riddle, bell ringer, talk and turn questions from yesterday’s lesson, circle discussions, etc.
  • Involve students in teaching the lesson with opportunities to rephrase, retell, illustrate, role play, etc.
  • Take advantage of appropriate current events/topics of students’ interests and relate those to lessons. Initiate friendly controversy in discussions. Include unusual information and trivia to spark interests.
  • Assign “jobs” to students who are not engaged, i.e. time keeper, tally marker for answers, chart flipper, light controller, recorder, etc.
  • Use effective questioning strategies. During class discussions, have students pass an object around as each person responds. The last student responding passes the object to a random person for the next answer or response after a question or comment is posed. Students do not know who is going to get the marker/object passed to them next and need to pay attention to respond correctly and contribute to the discussion.
  • Use choral responses, individual white boards, or similar tools for group responses. Also use motions like thumbs up for agreement, thumbs down for disagreement,  or number of fingers held up to indicate level of agreement – fist being none – five being total agreement.

Using Thoughtful Deeds

  • Recognize first that changes need to occur or the behaviors will remain the same.
  • Combine the skills of an effective educator with those of an effective entertainer. This doesn’t imply being a stand-up comic or “sage on the stage,” but rather it’s trying to bring wit, humor, anticipation, enjoyment, and excitement in lessons.
  • Focus on the rule not the exception – catch more students being good – direct more positive reinforcement toward students who are behaving properly and participating in classwork.
  • Strive to make more verbal and non-verbal connections with students who are disengaged. Find words and actions that fit your style and demeanor.
  • Use effective pacing.
  • Plan activities that promote positive peer relationships like paired learning, jigsaw activities, debates, and Jeopardy-like games.
  • Add some movement to lift energy. Take stretch breaks. Have students move to different parts of the room to indicate their opinion and then discuss their viewpoints.
  • Give praise for effort.  A word of praise can be a “verbal trophy” for some students.
  • Give students more choices so they feel part of the decision-making for their learning and are then likely to take more ownership.
  • Teach with the end in mind, but help students recognize the importance of the paths that get them there.
  • Stay in contact with parents. Send home progress reports about motivation and participation. Ask them to reward good behavior and effort.

Even when faced with the difficult challenge of educating a diverse group of students, educators committed to improving their practice, and ultimately the learning outcomes for students, will make necessary changes in their teaching repertoire to include careful planning and execution of research based strategies to better engage learners and keep them motivated. Change is often about changing people, and the person who you can control change over the most is yourself. Try bringing some positive change to your classroom this spring.