Students with learning problems need constant motivation in order to learn. For the teacher, this task can seem nearly impossible and exhausting, especially when students enter your classroom with no materials but lots of baggage—past failures, academic frustrations, and less-than-ideal attitudes.
At some point in my coaching career I remember coming across an article by Robert Harris (1991), a writer and educator, who wrote about how what we do in our classrooms can be compared to the game of baseball:
Think about a group of young people playing a baseball game. The very things that motivate them to work hard and do well playing baseball can be adapted to the classroom:
- Teamwork: Young people like working as a team. Yet often the learning activities we assign call for individual effort. By designing more team assignments, we can reap the benefits of teamwork. The weaker students will learn by having others help them. And, since teaching someone something is the best way to learn, the students who teach each other will learn better than if they were learning alone.
- Fun: Sports are fun, exciting, and highly emotional. Learning experiences should be, too. Strong and lasting memory is connected with the emotional state and experience of the learner. People remember more when the learning is accompanied by strong emotions.
- Enjoyment of Success: Playing a game provides a constant flow of accomplishments. Even the players on the losing team enjoy a strikeout, a good hit, a great catch. Breaking learning into smaller parts that can more easily be conquered, producing feelings of accomplishment and success, will help motivate students to go forward, even through very difficult material.
- Activity: A baseball game is definitely not passive—it requires both mental and physical activity. Teachers should strive to make learning always mentally active and often physically active as well.
- Flexibility and Creativity: Baseball has rules, but within those rules the players have a range of choices and strategies for accomplishing a given goal. Students learn better when the directions have some flexibility and they can put some of “themselves” into the assignment.
On a more personal level, I have tried countless strategies to motivate low-performing students with varying degrees of success and high levels of frustration (mostly mine). The one strategy that consistently works for me, though, is caring. I do know that we are all caring individuals, or else we wouldn’t be in this noble profession called teaching. What I’m talking about, though, is taking caring to the next level:
- Allowing ourselves to be human in front of our students. Share stories, lessons learned, mistakes made. Young people are quite insecure at this age—they need to see the person, not just the teacher or authority figure.
- Developing a relationship with our students. Try to learn about your students’ lives outside of school. It can make a world of difference, especially when their home situation is less than ideal.
- Setting goals with individual students. For one student, it might be an attendance goal. For another, it might concern disruptive behavior. And remember to check on their progress—your concern and approval might be the only reward needed.
- Enlisting the help of your colleagues.
It truly “takes a village” for special needs children, because they require that constant push. There are so many examples right here at AAK. I have seen Todd Kaiser mentor some mighty challenging boys, with great success. I see Mary Clary smoothly lead a three-ring circus each day as she helps students. I know that most students can’t wait to take Mr. Fili’s technology class because they get to make things. I know that Trudy Knowlden can pull some quality work out of the toughest seventh grade boys, and that she loves every minute of it. I know that our coaches support academics and make sure the players know their expectations. I know that Theresa FitzGerald works with struggling kids and is piloting a co-teaching venture with Michelle McMahon, who elicits volumes of written work from all her students. I count myself blessed to be among each of you and learn from you daily.
Just don’t give up, for long after the content has been forgotten, the teacher will be remembered.
Enjoy your weekend.