Unmotivated Really?

It is that time of year again, when teachers have flyers in their mailboxes for in-service training. PD specialists are promoting their latest and greatest ideas. “Classroom Management that works!” “Writing across the curriculum!” and “Motivating the Unmotivated!” The flyers seem to arrive the same time every year, just as teacher burn-out sets in just before the holiday breaks. The flyers are tempting to teachers that are stressed about classroom performance or meeting their evaluation goals. The titles seem so tempting and the time could not be better.

BUT are there unmotivated students in anyones classroom? All of the students in my classroom are motivated. The least of my concern is motivation. Some students are motivated by the curriculum. They are in class to learn.  Seeing value in gaining knowledge. They try their best to learn despite their ability to learn. These student get frustrated when they don’t understand ideas. Hands get raised, questions asked.   Learners show up early or stay after class. Learners have recognized motivations.

In my class I also have “pleasers”. The students who want to please their parents. Motivated by the praise and love of their parents. (or sometimes bribes). “Pleasers” work but not for love of learning. Mainly concerned with grades they often are focused on a specific grade achievement. Not often concerned about trying to do their best but just to achieve the required grade.

Then there is the group often labeled unmotivated, the “socials”. Students who treat school like the mall. Teachers are the shop owners who herd them around like cattle. Motivated by their friends. Wanting to make impressions and establish a reputation. School work is not a priority, often not a thought. “Socials” often are the most motivated students in the room. Passing notes, sneaking around to talk. Acting the role of student when teacher is watching while sneaking in the quick text to the friend in the next room.

Of course there are more types and combinations of motivation. Motivation is natural in all of us. What teachers need to figure out is how to focus motivation in all students towards the learning targets. This is the PD teachers need.

The first step is understanding the students motivations. Then we can focus it towards learning.

8 things I am thankful for as a Michigan Educator!

Due to the holiday and my desire to focus on the positive, here is a quick list of 8 things I am thankful for as a Michigan Educator.

1. School starts after Labor Day – love the late start and that our students get to fully enjoy all that summer has to offer them.

2. The Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators project (or FAME)- Best thing coming out of MDE. Best teacher lead PD I have ever been involved in.

3. Edcamps- Michigan is a leading state in the Edcamp movement. We have at least 4 great Camps up and running. Detroit got it started: now we have OU, Bluewater and GR. I am sure I am missing some that are popping up in other areas. (Edcamp TC or UP are sure to come soon.)

4. A supportive administration- All of education is being “reformed”, I am glad I work with administrators that listen to teachers’ concerns and attempt to be proactive.

5. Superintendents who are starting to get IT – Finally I am seeing educational leaders in our state stand up to the bullying tactics of Lansing and the Oxford Foundation Report.

6. PLC Process- our district is in the second year of becoming a Professional Learn Community. Awesome way to learn and grow.

7. Being a member of a UNION– Yes, I value my union membership. Gives me the freedom to teach and know that I am protected, and know the processes that have to be followed.

8. My PLN- I am SO thankful the connections I have made through Twitter. Many of them are here in the state. Part of the #michEd community. They help me learn, grown, reflect, and evaluate what I am doing. Special thanks to Engaging Educators for pushing me and showing me the way.

What is the best learning environment?

Our traditional classrooms with desks in rows, with hard seats, is that a good learning environment? Probably not! Most classrooms are small, with hard floors, white walls, and 30-plus student desks. The desk traditionally are in rows facing forward, recent trends have teachers moving them around more but with limits due to class size. My current classroom is pretty big. I have large science lab tables that seat 2 student per table. I have them arranged in groups of 3, with two tables facing each other and one table at the end facing the front of the room. This seating arrangement creates seating for 36 students in my room. Luckily my largest class is 34. Recently, a few students complained because they were having problems focusing on learning. We talked about where they wanted to sit. In the end they concluded that there was not an ideal space in the room for them.

I got to thinking, where would I want to sit? Where would I learn best?  For me, I learn best alone in a quiet warm room while sitting or laying on a soft chair/sofa. Putting a sofa in a science room doesn’t work on so many levels and my room is usually far from quiet. So how do schools create idea learning environments that meet the needs of the students? What does this environment look like?

I remember at the end of a college course years ago, I was asked to create a plan for my ideal classroom. It should be large, with flexible seating. Carpeted area for students to sit on the floor. Book cases full of leveled reading materials. Muted colors on walls. A space that makes whole group instruction work, as well as areas to divide up the class for group and individual instruction. Nooks available for students who need a quiet out of the way space. Comfortable seating.

Many of these items are missing in my room, and many other teachers rooms. Schools just can’t afford the space or materials to create the “ideal” space. Our student are learning to deal with the less than ideal learning conditions. I am okay with it. Making do with what you have is valuable learning for students too. Teachers, administrators, society  need to keep in mind that the learning conditions might have impact on students performance. As a society we need to attempt to create the best learning environments in our schools.

Why teachers are frustrated….

Education has been in the public spot light for the last year. Teachers have seen various pundits speak as if they were expert teachers. Many have stated education just needs more “dedicated” teachers who “care more”  and “work harder”. Some experts have been teachers, for Teach for America. Now they are policy experts, after teaching two years. Other experts are come from industry or policy think tanks, with no experience in teaching except having been a student. These attacks hurt and make teachers feel unvalued in their profession. This is not where the frustration sets in.

Frustration comes when the leaders of education, superintendents, accept these criticisms. These leaders except the changes based on political and funding pressures. They fear for their jobs and district funding. Money seems to have power over even the most intelligent educational experts. The best research out today, says the one size fits all models don’t work in education. When big money from state and federal government and private donors like the Gates and Broad Foundations are at stake, best research goes out the window.

Teachers are frustrated because they don’t have an advocate that is being heard. Sure Diane Ravitch, the AFT and NEA are vocal opposition to the  “reform” movement. They are viewed as radicals or groups with vested interest not to change. Teachers don’t fear change. They fear a world that leaves students that are poor or that have special needs behind. Teachers fear a educational system that believes all students learn the same way at the same rate.

Teachers believe that all students learn, in their own way, at their own rate. Do all children walk or talk at the same age? Teachers believe that standards are guidelines not rules that are written in stone. Teachers feel the pressure of the world, since any time society sees a problem, society wants schools to solve it. (Think childhood obesity and bullying)

The teacher frustration will end when OUR leaders stand up and say ENOUGH!! Schools need to focus on students needs and students learning. Not meeting an expected score one day on one standardized test. When the leaders stand up, the teachers and communities will stand behind them. Then and only then can education focus on REAL Change: Making schools a place where everyone can learn.

Conference Reflections

After spending a day last week talking to parents about how their children are doing in my class at school. My conversations seem to focus on grades and behavior and not on learning. Sure, the grades are a reflection of learning and the behavior affects the learning. I did not seem to have questions about learning directly. When conferences were finished I left with questions of my own.

  1. Why are parents fixated on student grades instead of student understand?
  2. Why do some parents want more homework, others less?
  3. In general What is the purpose of school?

To start our educational system has created a culture of grades. We have a system where “A” is what parents want, “B” is okay if the student tried hard, “C” is bad and we have to take some action, “D and F” mean parents will yell at the child right in front of the teacher. Does this grading system work anymore? No, first it does not talk about what a student knows or doesn’t know. Second, it creates a ranking and expectation system. Parents will look at how many A’s are on the report card and rank their child above students who have fewer. Parents will begin to expect the same grades from year to year, without thinking about their child’s ability, passion and work ethic. The learning expectations change each year and with each teacher. Science jumps from biology to physics to geology. Social Studies jumps from state to state, continent to continent, geography to history. Math and language arts are more progressive but they have jumps also. Schools need to move away from grades and focus on what a student knows and doesn’t know. Colleges would have a better idea if a student was a candidate if they knew the knowledge levels not the letter grades of applicants.

This moves us to question #2: My parents at conferences always ask about homework, “I have not seen any (or very little) work at home.” Well for staters, I don’t believe in homework, so only work that is not completed in class goes home. Some of my parents get upset and ask for MORE homework. I always ask why, and it is so their child can do better in my class. I don’t understand the correlation, if you want your child to do better, spend time with them. Go over the work we did in class. Have them read. Look up the topics on the internet and discuss. Parents are to be partners in the teaching process. I always offer resources for the parents, few have taken me up on this offer. I have also heard of the parents who want less homework. I would say, that school is the job your child is doing now. If you feel the homework isn’t meaningful then have a discussion with that teacher. If the work is meaningful then do it. Hopefully teachers are only giving meaningful homework but I have seen some work that sure seems busy.

Finally the big question: What is the purpose of school? I often feel I am a babysitter for 12-13 year olds. During their time with me I feel I need to instill in them the values of society and show them how to gain knowledge. Are teachers too overloaded with content nowadays? I was asked that by one parent. Yes, we have more content standards now. Schools have SO much content to teach. Students come in with a wide range of ability and background knowledge. Should schools be focused on content? No, schools need to make an impact. If they try to teach too much content knowledge it is not covered in a way that students can critically think about the content. Covering a broad range of content also creates problems with the disadvantaged students. The speed at which each topic is covered puts them at a disadvantage.

So what should schools focus on? Schools need to focus on knowledge obtainment skills. They need to teach student how they are to learn. Different tools, strategies and processing skills that give students the ability to learn on their own. The old proverb comes to mind:” If you give a man a fish he eats for a day, if you teach him to fish he eats for a life time.” So if you give a man knowledge he only has the knowledge you gave him, if you teach a man how to obtain knowledge he can have all the knowledge he wants.

The purpose of schools is to create independant learners, lets not complicate them by adding to much content that the essential skills of knowledge obtainment are missed.