We always say that there is no "silver bullet" to getting kids to learn and be successful in school. There's no secret or magic that helps all students. Teaching is an art and some people have a way of reaching students better than other people.
But the truth is that there really is a secret. Every student can learn and good teachers can get to every student: the quiet student, the reluctant student, the distracted student, the poor student, the sad student, and even the emotionally-challenged student. There is a way to help all students to learn how to learn. This secret isn't always taught in teacher preparation classes. Some teachers know about the secret but refuse to employ it; or struggle to use it every day. Other teachers seem to use this secret with relative ease; masking the hours of effort and preparation they have put into it prior to class time. The secret is motivation and student engagement.
For most students who struggle in school, it isn't that they lack the ability to learn. More often it is that they lack the desire to learn. They haven't been given a good reason to learn. They receive very uninspirational messages such as: "You have to go to school." "It's your job to go to school." "I know it's hard, but you have to do it." "Math is dull and boring, but that's just the way it is." "It's the law that you have to go to school." "Just do it and get it over with." (And so on.) These messages might be OK for very little children who are more accustomed to doing what they are told to do from their parents and other adults, but by the time kids get to middle school and certainly by the time they get to high school, children need a much better reason to do things other than "Because I say so.".
Have you noticed that when students like their teachers, they tend to do better in those classes? Have you ever been surprised that your child is doing great in Social Studies or Foreign Language when they never liked these subjects in the past? Most of the time it isn't the subject, it's the teacher that made the difference. And when you ask the child why they are doing so much better, they say that the teachers makes the subject interesting and fun. An important part of teaching is motivating students to do their best. Some teachers understand this very well and work hard to find ways to motivate their students.
This "secret" really isn't a secret to our best educators; but it seems to continue to be a secret to some of our teachers. Fortunately there are a lot of books and groups and people that can help teachers to learn about student engagement and motivation. A great place to start is the book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. This book is filled with simple ideas that motivate students. Another excelled source of information is Robert Marzano's book The Highly Engaged Classroom. This book explains why it is important to employ student engagement strategies into every classroom and how it helps students to do better in school. Another popular book on this subject is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. There is also a very popular Twitter chat under the hashtag #TLAP in which teachers talk about their experiences and ideas about student motivation. Finally, I have to include the book Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck--which is becoming (practically) required reading among teachers that seek to help their students to reach their true potential.
Of course, teachers who are best at motivating their students have put in many, many hours of reading and classes and training to be good at this. Every student is different and every school year presents different challenges. Some teachers are so overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, it can be difficult for them to take the time to learn about student motivation. However, some teachers believe that the old messages of "you just have to do this" should be good enough motivation for students and they are unwilling to learn about new methods for helping their students to do their best everyday.
Every student can learn and every teacher can reach every student. The "secret" is learning about student motivation and student engagement. It works every time! If we want to encourage our students to be the best that they can be and help them to reach their potential, we can do this. Indeed, we must do this.
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