HS teacher and StudentsThose of us who are committed teachers wish that somehow we could reach every student in our classrooms. And we read, attend workshops, and continually communicate with other educators about engaging those students who are persistently dis-engaged. We also end each school year with memories – memories of those students who have been “success stories” and of those students we feel we have failed. As a retired educator, I have thousands of such memories. As I reflect on those memories, however, there are certain success stories that will forever be with me – stories about how I “got through” to an unmotivated student. For what it’s worth, I want to share the strategies that, looking back, were the most successful with those unmotivated kids.

  1. “Like” vs. “Respect:” There is a lot of talk about “respect” these days. It is, in fact, plastered all over posters in every school in the nation. “Respect yourself, and others will respect you.” Unmotivated and at-risk kids don’t understand this concept, and maybe I don’t either. My focus has always been on “Like.” When students like me, they are far more willing to engage with me. So, my purpose is to ensure that students actually like me, rather than respect me. I cannot define respect, but I can certainly see the effects of “like.”
  2. Personal Relationships: We have personal relationships with our family members and good friends. How many of us actually have personal relationships with our students? How much do we know about their lives outside of school, and how much do they know about ours? We are well past the old thinking that students should not be privy to our personal lives. In fact, at the beginning of each school year, I dedicated one part of a large bulletin board to personal information about myself – what music I liked, where I went on vacations, what I did in my spare time. I then invited students to contribute to that bulletin board, so I could get to know them personally too. Students who held back from this activity were those that I knew I would have to “reach out” to – these were the at-rick, unmotivated kids that most needed me!
  3. Take the Time: I know first-hand how busy and stressed teachers are. But I also know that, a bit of extra effort to spend time with an unmotivated kid is worth the long-term benefits that may be achieved. Often, the unmotivated kid is also the behavior problem in the classroom. I ran a tight ship, and I expected every student to behave, but when that one kid did not conform, I set up a differentiated method of “punishment” that did not necessarily conform to the school guidelines. If I determined to assign a lunch or after-school detention, I did not pass off that responsibility to some detention-room supervisor. That kid had to spend that time with me! No, I didn’t get a duty-free lunch period, and I didn’t get to spend the 30-minutes after school grading papers, but what I did get to do was this: I got to open up a conversation with the kid; I got to learn more about him/her as a person; and I got to be honest about my frustration when s/he disrupted learning time in my classroom.

So much of teaching is focused on curricular goals and testing! And I understand the need for teachers to be held accountable for student performance. But, somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the fact that we are caring for lives here. We are not producing cars or computers – we are impacting the future lives of human beings! If we can keep this concept at the forefront, our actions will be guided by what is right, not expedient!

Author’s bio: Armed with a Master’s in Journalism and strong wanderlust, Julie Ellis set out to explore exotic places, financed by her freelance writing. She is now a regular blogger for Premier Essay and sells feature articles to English-speaking publications around the world.