I could write a very inspiring essay about how powerful praise is in teaching. The stereotypical truth is, in the primary grades, in private and parochial schools, in ”good” public schools, praise is one of the most important tools we have to motivate, and inspire, and promote success. However, I don’t want to ignore the fact that teaching and teachers exist in the inner-city, in impoverished areas where they lack the resources, the support, the parental involvement, and most importantly the willingness on the part of the children, to learn. Those teachers started out like many of the rest of us. Young, enthusiastic, motivated, educated, prepared. While we can all agree that was our college education could not have prepared us for is the management issues we would face in the classroom, the management issues that are faced by teachers in the “inner-city” are beyond compare in that they have the ability to cause “burn-out” quicker than others. The number one obstacle that these teachers face is motivation. The children lack it, the teacher’s struggle with it, and the administration in many cases are failing to come through with it. When I spoke with a close friend about some of the obstacles young teachers have discussed with me: the pressure of parents, the pressures of that “support team,” the pressures of measuring up to other colleagues, I could tell that he thought we were going to have a very hard time furthering this discussion and relating to each other. We all feel the same about common stresses, especially in our twenties: a lack of direction or resources or curriculum, finding a balance between school and life, finding time to get it all in, finding out when to choose your battles, finding that “making a difference” was much different than you thought. But whether we want to face it or not, we can find strategies to work on those problems, they exist and are reachable after thoughtful reflection, education, experience and cooperation. Motivation though is something that must come from deep inside you. Once you lose it, it’s hard to teach it. When you think of all of things that motivate you, like a compliment from a parent or an administrator, the support you receive from colleagues, or the look in their eyes when they finally get it and want to learn more…and realize that this friend of mine feels these things about one percent of the time when I feel it half of the time… I am then able to put in perspective how different and difficult our jobs are. Motivation is the single most important factor that inspires you to persevere. I am motivated by the children everyday. Many of my children run down the hallway to get to school in the morning, they are motivated to learn to read and write because they are just enthusiastic by nature at six years old, because they love me, because they want to please their parents, and because they understand it s a necessity. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go to work everyday at a place where no one wants to learn. I would think you wouldn’t have a fighting chance.
So I asked him…what’s the POA? He talked a lot about all the things he knew would work to improve the situation. Number one being parents involvement and parent communication. He talked about how he felt like these children needed to get out of the 5 mile radius they feel trapped in and see there is more that the world has to offer them. Maybe then they would understand that education is the ticket to a new life. He talked about how the middle school mentality doesn’t help. He explained his feelings on tracking the children and how it does not work. He called it the all too familiar self-full filling prophecy that is constantly fueled by these children environments. He talked about a lot of things that he wished he could do that are beyond his control. But that’s the thing about teachers. I call it the perfect world syndrome. We are constantly hoping and working in an effort to make the world, if not a perfect, than a better place. Believing and dreaming of the way things should be is the only avenue we have to making it happen. There are some things, he admits, that are in his control. He has found that external rewards sometimes work (another college myth- focus only on “intrinsic” motivation), he knows that it is important to be consistent with discipline and always appear in control, although he also knows that some kids will be motivated if they just like you, so you have to in some way try to relate. What I think the most important part of his POA is graduate school. He has seen what is working and what is not, he has a plan for what he would do differently, and what he would value as most important in the role of an administrator…because they have a bit more control in attaining that perfect world. He feels frustrated that he can’t make the difference with these children that he hoped he might, but he spent most of our “interview” talking about the times when he did feel like he made that difference. He showed me cards from parents and kids. He holds that sacred in order to persevere. You can’t change the world overnight, but by continuing to hope that you can, and in choosing to do what you can, you will sure make a difference.
For myself, graduate school has also been a huge motivator. We learn in college the importance of being lifelong learners and continuing our professional development. But as with everything its not until you experience it that you know it to be true. We feel energized after a day off to attend a conference or a seminar, especially the ones that are given by real teachers and provide you with those handy resource books that you can copy right out of. If we are in the right frame of mind then you can also feel inspired by other teacher’s ideas. Because I understand that praise is such a powerful motivator, I wrote this short piece for my graduate school professor to give to him at the end of the my last class:
After my fifth child told me that he forgot his homework I clap to get the kids attention and announce that “When Miss Nolen goes to school at night I have homework that is due in to my teacher. If I were to say, “my mom forgot to pack it” that is not a good enough excuse. As you get older you will have due dates and deadlines and keeping these dates is an important part of becoming responsible.”
As I peer into the six-year-old eyes fixed on me I think about how attentive they become when I mention that I go to school at night. Explaining what graduate school is led to a whole lesson on the timeline your education takes after first grade and different institutions of higher learning…ah, the teachable moment. Some are intrigued by this newfound information of due dates and a little nervous by what I just said. Some are observant of my tone and recognize that it is gentle enough to know that I’m simply informing them and not reprimanding them… yet. However, I do assume that by December they should know our routine and I shouldn’t have to ask them seventeen times to put their homework in the basket on Fridays. Just as I know by December which of them is going to view due dates as important in their lives and which just will just see it as another obstacle on that conventional path they are destined to rebel against. I secretly hope they do.
I am also secretly happy as I take “lunch count” that I have to eat the chicken patty from the cafeteria today because I am nursing a hang over from the Thursday night before…that some how got away from me. I go to grad school on Thursday nights and afterward I am usually reenergized enough to treat the evening like a Friday night. By this point I did a good job of convincing myself that I am making the most of my life by working hard all week, going to the gym three times (for the first time in three months), and following the Tuesday-Wednesday diet (this diet consists of healthy eating on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because Mondays I am too depressed because the weekend has just ended, and Thursdays begins the weekend. This is my ticket to generally being out of control) and I now deserve to go out as I please.
So, this is typically how Fridays go. I am both inspired and hung over by the night before. It balances me out because I am tempted to show a movie and be cranky to the kids all day, but what I felt from grad school the night before reminds of the how important it is to do the best I can. This class I am taking now has had a special affect on me. Although I am never “excited” per say to get there, as I have just been “in actress mode” for 7 hours and am truly cringing at the thought of doing group work with other peppy women, by the time I leave a few hours later, I am always full of thoughts, and most importantly…I am overwhelmed with a desire to write. One night it was because I met with the professor and he liked what I wrote. It was honestly as simple as that. He thought it was good. He offered to help me do something more with it. As I drove home that night I just marveled at the power of praise. In those moments I felt as if I could do anything in the world, that I was capable of being successful at anything I worked hard at. I am twenty-six years old. I felt like this was the first time I ever got a gold star on my paper. It didn’t matter in that moment that I cried myself to sleep the night before because I finally missed having someone to sleep next to. It didn’t matter that the reasons I came up with for being alone were all my fault and that was the worst part about it. It didn’t matter that I was tired, or overworked, or underpaid. It didn’t matter that I was going to go home to my roommates who would not understand. I felt invincible. I felt like I wanted to get a cup of coffee and stay up all night writing. I felt like getting to work the next morning and hugging all my children and telling them how special they were. That they could write, and read and were capable of making all their dreams come true. In that moment, I wanted them to be intrinsically motivated and inspired in the way that I was just then. I wanted them to learn just for the sake of it, and write just to deal with it, and read just to escape from it, and live in spite of it. I wanted to teach.
A few Thursdays past after this one and I slowly realized the purpose of grad school in my life (which is a relief as it has been three years). It has served as a motivator for refection and a plan for action. It has been the push to reenergize my teaching and spirit when it is down. It has been a reminder to revise and continue to learn and grow and reflect upon my teaching and spirit even when it is up. Those peppy women understood my life in a way that no one else could. They understood that teaching is an emotional battle that we are constantly searching for strategies to help us win. In the class we just recently had I tried hard to be present in the moments there. I tried to listen to the professor read aloud a children book and not get sidetracked by my guilt of throwing away papers to grade, or being short with that child that continually tests me. I tried to really attend to another classmate when she was telling a story about her son instead of thinking of the laundry I had to do and how many calories I consumed at lunch. I tried to write down all the ideas I had while people were presenting in a place where I would actually access them tomorrow. I began to have that feeling of motivation and perspective and purpose and gratitude and excitement that has only come from this. I felt good about myself. At the end of class, one woman read a portion of a book aloud. The writing was powerful and moving and paralyzing. It was about out how one girl felt to be eleven years old. I cried. I wanted to go home and find a book like that. I wanted to strive to write a book like that. I wanted to go to school the next day and read a book like that. I wanted …to teach.
About the Author
Bridget Nolen is a twenty-seven year old school teacher living in Philadelphia, PA. She currently writes articles that reflect upon teaching, living, and learning in your twenties.
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