The Key To Motivating Students

Smart Classroom Management: The Key To Motivating StudentsIt’s important that your students know you care about them.

It’s important that they know you’re there for them.

It’s important that they know you only want what is best for them.

This is no small thing.

The teacher whose students believe this about them is far more effective than the scores of teachers whose students don’t.

Because it makes everything easier.

Listening, attentiveness, behavior, maturity, independence . . .

Few areas of social and academic development are left untouched by your ability to communicate a one-way, no-strings-attached care and concern for your students.

But there is one area in particular that benefits the most. It’s an area many teachers struggle with.

It’s also an area that is among the most misunderstood, even—or especially—by school districts and colleges entrusted with training teachers.

The area is motivation.

Just knowing that you have their best interest at heart causes students to trust you and believe in what you say.

It causes them to buy into your vision for the class.

Again, this is no small thing, because when students believe that your words are true, they’ll mean something to them.

They’ll hit their mark. They’ll have an effect.

I believe in you.”

You can do this.”

You have everything you need to succeed.”

“That’s good work.”

Coming from someone they trust and admire, the right words spoken at the right time can light a fire under even the most apathetic students.

When they’re preceded by a clear, well-taught lesson, and the expectation that independent work really means independent, they can transform a classroom.

However, there is one more key ingredient.

It’s an ingredient that makes many teachers nervous, an ingredient few feel safe even mentioning among mixed, staff-lounge company.

It is this: You have to be willing to let your students fail.

That’s right. Your students must know that you’re not going to do a scintilla of their work for them.

You’re not going to reteach the same things over and over again. You’re not going to kneel down and coddle them through their assignments. You’re not going to pretend that inadequate work is acceptable just so a student can pass.

They have to know that they’re truly on their own. They have to know that without effort and commitment to the work, they may go down in flames.

In educational circles, there is a reluctance to allow students to learn hard lessons. It’s become a badge of honor—as well as an expectation—for teachers to do more and be more for their students.

Administrators encourage it. Professional development trainers insinuate it. The current culture of teaching embraces it.

But it’s a disaster—for both students and teachers.

It saps the motivation from students. It fills them with boredom and indifference. It shakes their confidence to the core.

It’s also a major reason so many teachers are stressed out, burned up, and seeking a career change.

The only thing students learn from a teacher who won’t let them fail is helplessness. They only thing they learn is that they can’t.

When there is a prospect of failure, however, when there is a real and present danger of defeat, students feel the satisfying weight of responsibility.

It gives them purpose. It gives them challenge. It gives them energy, accountability, determination, and excitement.

When there is something at stake, their motivational engines turn over. Their eyes brighten and narrow. Their spirit lifts.

They develop grit and the mindset that they can get better at anything through hard work.

This is motivation.

It’s borne of vibrant, compelling lessons, clear instruction, and a total and complete shift of responsibility from teacher to students.

It’s borne of a teacher who communicates unconditional love for their students.

It’s borne of welcome burden, true independence, and the very real possibility of failure.

PS – For more on the topic of motivation and shifting responsibility, please check out The Happy Teacher Habits.

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17 Responses to The Key To Motivating Students

  1. Kelly May 14, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    I’ve been searching for the answer to this problem for years and had come to the conclusion that there was no answer. I thought..they either have motivation or they don’t and that it mostly came from the attitude and expectations of their parents. Thank you for such a great amount of insight into the secret of motivating students!

    I’ve been waiting for this answer!

  2. Mark Eichenlaub May 14, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    Absolutely fantastic! As usual. Teachers MUST let go of this notion that kids cannot be allowed to fail. This might even require an uncomfortable conversation with parents and administrators but if you make them aware how it is in the child’s best interest they’ll understand. It is NOT selfish or mean to let kids fail.

  3. Geoff McCracken May 14, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    I disagree with this statement. “You’re not going to reteach the same things over and over again.”
    How then do you propose that students obtain mastery of a concept if there is no reteaching when students have failed?
    Letting stidents fail is one thing, but if the teacher is not going to reteach after students have failed then that teacher has also failed. What you are suggesting sounds more like indifference than unconditional love. I can just hear the indifferent teacher saying, “I taught it, it’s their fault if they didn’t get it.”
    Your statement about not reteaching is about what I would expect to hear from someone who is not responsible or accountable to student learning.

  4. Jan May 14, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    I support special ed. students in the general education classroom, and since their IEPs specify that they receive academic support, it is doubly difficult to let them fail, because when they fail, the parents may ask why they did not receive the necessary support to help them be successful on a test or other assignment. But, when we don’t allow them to fail and give them too much support, their grades may not reflect what they are really capable or not capable of doing. It’s a double-edged sword!

  5. Gary K. May 14, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

    Wow. I resigned from a teaching job effective the end of this school year because I refuse to allow students to get away with the bare minimum. The principal said I am not getting through to the students. Despite 15% absenteeism, lack of parental involvement, and learned apathy resulting from seven years of being coddled and re-taught, the principal tells me, “You have to make them do what you want them to do.” A student’s failure is pretty much viewed as the teacher’s problem.

    • Amy May 17, 2016 at 10:26 am #

      Yep. Let’s blame the teacher who has high standards. Unfortunately this is a real thing, as I have been told that I “expect too much” (when asking high school students to always capitalize names of continents and countries) and need to “back off” and let the student decide what they want to do. I think we should let them fail if they don’t try, but of course we should do our best to make engagine, purposeful lessons and assignments, with as much support as is necessary. If students do not succeed despite the teacher’s best efforts, then that will be a bigger lesson for them than just pushing them a diploma they did not earn.

  6. Cindy May 14, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

    I think the statement, “You’re not going to reteach the same things over and over again” needs to be considered in relation to a student’s responsibility for his or her learning. If a student has put forth, “effort and commitment to the work,” and continues to struggle; then, a teacher should reteach. However, when a student does not put forth, “effort and commitment to the work,” it is a disservice to the student to rescue him or her by reteaching the same lesson they failed to attend to the first time. They need to, “go down in flames,” and learn from that uncomfortable feeling of failure.

  7. Karen May 14, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    And what about the kids who don’t care (or pretend not to care) whether they fail or not?

  8. Esperanza May 15, 2016 at 3:19 am #

    This article is a beautiful and compelling one for teachers to read. Very well articulated, the teacher must teach with her heart but with an iron hand. She must be strict only to be kind .

  9. Marineh F. K. May 15, 2016 at 7:13 am #

    Thank you so much for this site. I am a teacher with many years of experience, and every post either validates what I already do or reminds me to do something better.

  10. John M. May 16, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    I’m a university professor in a College of Education at a major university and I enjoy reading everyone of these wise and informative articles. I promote your website and encourage teacher candidates to read these short but pedagogically sound words of advice!
    This article related to “let your students fail” caused the majority of my students to disagree. You are probably quite familiar with their rationale – primarily “feel good”, “everyone passes”, “don’t want to hurt the elementary child’s feelings”, etc.
    This is not a critique of your article, but rather – i hope, a wake-up call to being honest.
    Yes, talking about failing needs to be discerning, but I hope my students will read your articles with an open mind. Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin May 16, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

      You’re welcome, John!

      Thanks for encouraging your students to check out my website. There is a lot to this topic, and as you can see from some of the comments above, a lot of misunderstanding.

      It’s important that your students know that these are students who ARE failing. It’s just a matter whether the teacher is going to cover it up, prop them up, inflate the grade, pretend they’re succeeding . . . or tell them the truth—which I believe is not only best for students in the long run, but something we desperately owe them.


  11. Conor May 18, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    Thank you so much for these empowering words. I have a question – how do we navigate the balancing act of evaluations being tied to student “satisfaction.” I am not in the public school system, but in higher ed as well as a private ed company and we are also evaluated based on student evaluations! It places a lot of psychological pressure to keep them happy – or is that my own insecurity? It gets more complicated when families are expecting life-changing results from your magic, with buy-in from the student to work sometimes being overlooked.

    There seems to be a cultural, systemic shift here with student perception leading the way of what is considered good teaching and it’s scary! I’m somewhat a product of it in my own education (only in my 20’s) and I can tell you it made me feel that life comes easy and I’ve had a wake-up call to be sure.

    • Michael Linsin May 19, 2016 at 7:55 am #

      Hi Conor,

      Our approach here at SCM results in extremely high student satisfaction. We think it’s important that students enjoy school and have a trusting relationship with their teacher. The many thousands of teachers who follow our advice find among other benefits that students appreciate them deeply. The SCM teacher will have the highest student ratings on campus.


      • Conor Byrne May 25, 2016 at 11:12 pm #

        Thank you so much – and I appreciate the deep approach you take! I sense short-term and life-long satisfaction/wisdom indeed. 🙂

        • Michael Linsin May 26, 2016 at 7:30 am #

          You’re welcome, Conor.


  12. Natasha December 11, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

    This is a huge problem for me right now. I work in a district where classroom assessment scores are tied to our evaluations. Our students are allowed to retake all tests and turn in any missing assignments until a week before grades are due. Some of them will ask for a 13 weeks worth of make-up work 2 weeks before report cards come out. Parents stand by this policy. We also can’t give them a score of less than 50% on any assignment including the ones they don’t do.

    As a result, our kids are not motivated to learn or complete assignments. The district’s grading program is set up to where a student can pass with a “D” if they complete 3 out of 13 assignments because of the 50%.

    I love my kids and they know this,but they also know that they can pass doing the bare minimum. This is my 2nd year in the district and my 12th as a teacher and I am so frustrated. This school year has been a real struggle.