By Lynn Samartino
As a middle school teacher, I’ve encountered many types of students. Some start the school year eager to learn, while others would rather be outside the classroom hanging with their friends. Some are distracted by added responsibilities, like taking care of siblings, chores, or working to bring income to the family. It’s difficult to reach those students who aren’t very motivated to learn and need direction, but I’ve developed some strategies to help them learn the value of their education.
During the first month of school (and even before then), I review data to drive my instruction and observe my new students to understand their work habits, individual needs, and learning styles. Usually, students do well with the initial activities and events until the curriculum is implemented: participating in class, completing lesson activities or projects, and homework assignments.
The rigorous work is difficult for them, which is a positive thing. I want to challenge my students to increase their cognitive abilities. Through these challenges, I can identify students who don’t want to work because the work is “too hard,” are just doing the minimum or sometimes no work at all, by the lack of work turned in, lack of participation, excuses given for not completing work, or playing around in class. Once I identify those students, I try to awaken their desire to learn with a combination of these strategies.
Communication is key to understanding and learning more about my students and vice versa. There are many times that we forget about the simple strategy of talking when there is a concern or problem. Sadly, we make our own assumptions about why a student is not being successful in school and don’t take the time find out the root of the problem from the student.
At least once a week, speak with your students who are not meeting the grade level expectations to find out the cause. Simply talking with them builds rapport, demonstrates that they are an important part of the classroom, and shows that you are invested their academic success.
Many of my students come from large families where they do not receive individual recognition, which results in lack of motivation. They think why should I do anything if no one recognizes it?
During our conversations, I use positive reinforcement to help them feel good about themselves and I empower them to understand that they are more than capable of doing the work. We use their strengths to help them learn.
Lastly, we brainstorm ideas about organizing their daily schedule in and out of school in order to accomplish academic work. These communication techniques provide insights that help me motivate my students.
Reach out to Parents, Siblings, and Teachers
When trying to engage students, it’s best to work as a team. Reach out to their support networks to develop a collaborative effort to inspire your students.
First, reach out to parents. At least once a month, I meet with parents of students who are not meeting the expectations. These meetings are an opportunity to learn more about my students while letting their parents know how important education is during middle school through college.
These parent meetings also motivate the students, as they learn that they have a responsibility to uphold during classroom instruction. If parents are unable to meet in-person, I contact them through email so we can work together to help their child do well in school.
Siblings are also important team members, as they can motivate their brothers or sisters at home. Since they attend the same school, siblings often know the expectations for that grade level.
For example, one of my students in 8th grade had a brother in 7th grade. The 7th grader would check in with me to make sure his brother was doing his homework. This responsible brother would also serve as a liaison between their parents and me.
Working in a K-8 school, I can ask teachers from previous years about a student I’d like to learn more about. We can easily discuss how they motivated the student so I can do the same. Continuity increases our chances of inspiring students to perform well. Starting over with new teacher expectations is less likely to motivate the student, unless the previous strategies were not working.
Just like having email communication with parents, previous teachers and I can collaboratively brainstorm how to inspire students based upon their individual needs.
Pair the Student with A Peer
If a troubled student has a friend in the class who is performing strongly, pair them together. Unmotivated students need to see a model of what is expected. Seeing that model not only from the teacher but also from a classmate and friend can really help the student.
Students want to belong and be part of the crowd. Even though I present material through differentiated instruction, an unmotivated student becomes more engaged when working with a peer who understands them at their level. Sometimes even having that peer explain the material helps them understand it better.
Put your students in situations where they can feel successful no matter how big or small the success. The peer acts as a mentor, motivating the student to learn by contributing ideas that are welcomed and by having that peer available to help them focus on their work. With your guidance, this peer can support the student’s academic needs, as they might have a stronger impact on the student.
It is important for teachers to have an educational impact on their students. It can be overwhelming, especially when we care so much about their education. I want all of my students to make significant growth in their time with me.
These strategies are just some of the ways that help me learn about my students and what they need in the classroom to engage them and move them from thinking I have to do this because they told me to, to I want to do this because I want to learn.
Education is not only for the student but also for their parents. Parents should be learning with their children each and every day. Students learn directly from their parents how important education is, so it is imperative that parents understand how their values impact their children. We teach this concept of modeling positive behavior throughout our parent and training workshops, as well as in our YOU: Your Child’s First Teacher books.
When parents are engaged in their child’s education, the child better understands his or her importance and adopts that same mindset, which motivates the student to learn. By working as a team with parents, siblings, teachers, and students, we can teach students to care about their education.
I encourage you to find ways to reach and motivate them. When you expect them to do their best by showing them the path to excellence, you teach them the value of education.
Lynn Samartino, M.A. is an upper inclusion special education teacher for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at Chicago Public Schools. In her 10+ years of experience, she has spearheaded after-school programs, developed the Inclusive Model, and managed the integration of new technology into academics.
She holds certifications in general and special education with endorsements in middle school, language arts, social science, and English as a second language (ESL).