In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by teacher educator and PLS Classes instructor, John Schmitt, to explore what the teacher’s role is in student motivation.
Get in touch with John: Jschmitt@pls3rdlearning.com
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Steve [Intro]: 00:17 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:44 The teacher’s role in student motivation. Today on our podcast, I’d like to explore student motivation with a special focus on what role the teacher has in a understanding and tapping student motivation. And I’m joined on the, on the podcast today by John Schmitt, a longtime teacher, teacher educator and actually a colleague of mine for over three decades. Welcome, John.
John: 01:17 Hey Steve, pleasure to be here.
Steve: 01:17 Would you just give a little bit of introduction to the, uh, to the listeners as to where you’re teaching and your teaching background and then a little bit of the work you’re doing in teacher ed?
John: 01:30 Absolutely. Steve, I just finished up this past Friday with my 40th year of teaching at McDowell High School which is located in Erie, Pennsylvania. Suburban high school – like I said, I’ve been here 40 years. 39 of those years I’ve been teaching psychology. Also taught a couple other social studies courses along the way. So I’ve been at McDowell for quite awhile. A lot more diversity moving into our school district over the last 10 to 15 years. So currently, I teach all three levels of psychology. I teach advanced placement. We also have an honors level and then we have academic, which is geared for high school kids. In addition to that, I serve as a student council advisor. I’ve been doing that for 25 years and I also coached high school basketball for 10 years. That was in the early part of my career. I’ve been with PLS 3rd Learning as an instructor since 1982 and I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to train over 6,000 teachers over that time.
Steve: 02:26 Wow, that’s really impressive, John.
John: 02:29 It’s been a blessing. Believe me.
Steve: 02:33 Focusing in on student motivation, do you have a definition you’d use as to what we’re talking about when we talk about student motivation?
John: 02:43 I guess for me, at the high school level, that’s one of the biggest challenges we face is getting kids to come to school, to be enthused about it, to be excited, to be engaged and to want to learn. To get involved. It’s just getting kids not just to show up, but to want to be there and then once they’re there, to put in that effort to make something good happen.
Steve: 03:02 What’s the connection or the line you draw between student motivation and student learning?
John: 03:11 I think learning occurs best when students are motivated. I think if you look at how the brain works, when students are engaged, the brain opens up to be more receptive to learning. Kids see a compelling why, a reason to learn it. And a big part of that – especially for today’s high school students is you need to show them the connection, you need to show them how what you’re learning in class today does connect to their real world, to their lives. Not just in the future, but now. And if they see a reason, they’re much more likely to be involved. And the other piece I’ve learned with high school kids is that the learning needs to be fun but there has to be a component of fun while they’re learning. And I think that’s a piece of it as well.
Steve: 03:56 Talk a little bit about why the fun is an element.
John: 03:57 Well, you can look at the theory of psychiatrist William Glasser, that there are five fundamental human needs and one of those is fun, which he defines as a sense of enjoyment. So I think if kids are enjoying what they’re doing, if they’re laughing, if they’re working with each other. A big part of fun for me is stories. Over my 40 years of teaching, I’ve collected a lot of stories that connect into different concepts in psychology that I used to illustrate concepts and I just think that makes things a lot more lively. My goal is I don’t want kids falling asleep in my classroom. I want them to be excited, not just for the class, but also to come back tomorrow and be engaged again as well.
Steve: 04:36 So there’s a question I was going to ask you a little further in here but it seems to jump out at this point. It sounds then that the classroom environment is a component of student motivation?
John: 04:50 Absolutely. The classroom environment I believe is crucial. One of the things I like to do with teachers is when I ask them, “hey, what do you teach?” Most typical response is “I teach psychology or I teach third grade.” And what I’d like people to think is not what do you teach? But who do you teach? And certainly, the content is very, very important. That’s what you got hired to teach. But unless you connect to those kids and build relationships and build rapport, it’s going to be really hard to get those kids with you. So classroom environment is huge. Not just relationships, but I think the physical environment is important. A lot of times when people walk into my classroom, which I affectionately call the psych ward, they’re amazed at how much stuff I’ve got in there. I’ve got posters and when my kids were little, they had all the sesame street stuffed animals, I’ve brought them into the room. So we’ve got a lot of color, a lot of posters that just kind of makes it a lively, exciting place.
Steve: 05:45 So give me a little bit more about what you mean by relationships.
John: 05:50 Well, I think it’s important that you — certainly we’re not supposed to be friends with our students, but we definitely need to be friendly. I think I need to come across as an authentic person. You know, I share information about my wife, who many of them had because she was a middle school art teacher for 36 years. She just retired last year and so I share a lot of stories about my family, about my wife and I think, you know, that’s the way I kind of reveal myself as a real person to them. And then I like to get to know them. I encourage them to share. We do a lot of small group learning, cooperative learning activities or parts of various teams so they get to know each other. But I really think that those connections that kids build are so important in school. And that’s what’s missing for a lot of kids in today’s high school. Our high school is big. My building is grades 11 and 12. We’ve got about 1100 students. So it’s really easy for a kid to get lost. And my goal is to make my psychology classroom a place where they do feel connected to each other.
Steve: 06:49 It’s interesting, I was going to ask how you see the teacher’s role in motivating students.
John: 06:58 I think that role is crucial. I think the teacher really needs to become a motivational leader. When I first started teaching, I thought simply by showing up and teaching my content, I’d have kids would be excited to be there, but it doesn’t work that way. Some kids will definitely be engaged but you need to do more than just present them information. One of the quotes I like is “kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.” So you need to convey that you care about them and you know them as a person.
Steve: 07:32 That reminds me, I read a piece by Dan Meyers, who does a lot of blogging on a secondary mathematics. A couple of years ago, he stated in a post that they had just done some research interviewing secondary mathematics teachers and it was a very large number, like 70% of the teachers said that the most difficult part of being a mathematics teacher was motivating the students to have an interest in math. And Dan Myers wrote that that would be like interviewing firemen and having them tell you that the hardest part about being a fireman is fires.
Steve: 08:13 This wouldn’t be a bad job if there weren’t fires. This wouldn’t be a bad job if all the kids walked in this door just overly anxious and desirous to learn the content that I’m about ready to present to them.
John: 08:29 That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
John: 08:33 You know, you mention the math example. My wife Karen, who was an art teacher for 36 years and she’s also an artist. And she’s told me multiple times that if somebody would have told her in high school the amount of math that she was going to use in art, she would have paid attention. She would have learned it but she saw no reason for it because she knew she was going into art. So she just didn’t care and didn’t learn it what she needed to. So then she had to teach herself what she needed to know when she did her art.
Steve: 09:01 Yeah, that’s powerful.
John: 09:03 So sometimes it’s part of the teacher’s responsibility to show kids where you’re going to use this in life. And sometimes it may not be the content, but it’s the thinking skills. You know, math is full of problem solving and logical thinking and developing perseverance and those are skills you use in lots of different areas other than math.
Steve: 09:25 Yeah so, I kind of pulled two piece out of what you’re saying there. One that you described earlier is being able to show the kids the relevance of what it is they’re being asked to do. But secondly, in order to do the relevance part, you need to know the students.
John: 09:40 Oh yeah, absolutely. Our district a few years ago was really big on rigor. You know, building rigor into what we’re doing in the classroom and “raising the bar” was our was our slogan and certainly rigor is important, but rigor without relationships and showing kids the relevance isn’t going to work. You really need to get all three of those R words in there. Rigor, relevance and relationships.
Steve: 10:08 So when I know you, then I can manipulate my content to be relevant to you. But without knowing you it will be difficult to do the relevance part.
John: 10:15 Absolutely.
Steve: 10:16 John, I’m wondering in the teacher training that you provide, do you want to kind of identify what you think are some of the most powerful strategies that you work with, with other teachers to build their success in motivating their students?
John: 10:44 Absolutely. PLS 3rd Learning has an amazing course about motivation. It’s called “Designing Motivation for all Learners.” And I bet in its various forms of the course, I’ve probably thought that about 30 different times over the years and I enjoy doing it. In fact, I’ve got it on the schedule for the summer. But the beauty of that course is that it explores both the theory of motivation. Then you know, there’s certainly some things that teachers need to know about what motivation is and the various components of it. And then the other piece of that course is strategies. I think every teacher has a toolbox and I like to tell teachers “you came into this toolbox here, you’re an outstanding teacher you’ve got a lot of things in your toolbox and the goal of our time together as to add some more strategies to make it even more effective.”
Steve: 11:31 So give us a specific detail of a couple of those strategies that you offer folks.
John: 11:39 Absolutely. And in fact this is a piece of the course that I also share with my high school psychology students. It’s the research behind why do people succeed or fail. And then what the researchers have discovered – that there are four components that go into whether you succeed or fail in a task. And those are effort, ability, task difficulty and luck. And certainly all four of those can play a role but the one that you really need to get students focused on is effort. That effort is time, patience, practice, persistence and repetition. And when you get kids putting in effort, you’re going to see improvement. You’re going to see growth. Ability at the moment of the performance is set. So you certainly want to use your ability but don’t focus on ability. Task difficulty is really totally out of your control. You don’t determine how hard the teacher made that test. You don’t determine how good that team is that you’re playing tomorrow night. And then luck is totally out of your control. I think Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’m a great believer in luck and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
Steve: 12:45 Terrific.
John: 12:47 And he’s really not talking about luck, he’s talking about putting in effort. So I even avoid using the word luck. I would rather call it chance. But if we can get kids to focus on putting in effort, I think that’s a real key. And we used to do that in America back in the days of the puritan work ethic, but I’m afraid more Americans are focusing on ability and task difficulty and luck. So it’s kind of a mindset switch to focus on effort. So in my classroom, I’ve got a little piece that I call it the “effort board” where every day they get to nominate somebody in the class who’s put in a high degree of effort into something and as a result, they had success. Could be something connected to psychology or another class, or it could be an activity or a sports team at Mcdonnell or it could be something outside of school. But it’s designed to give some recognition to the students that have put in effort into something. And then the other piece of that is the success equation, which I think is so important. If my recall is correct, I think you’re the guy that invented that success equation.
Steve: 13:50 I’ve worked with it a lot.
John: 13:51 Which is, you know, it’s bring your ability to the table, whatever you got, bring it, put in your maximum effort with a strategy. And that strategy can be one that’s supplied by the teacher. It could be one selected by the student and the result will be success. So the formula is ability + effort + strategy = success. And that’s a powerful piece. I actually have that sign up in the front of my classroom. As a reminder to kids.
Steve: 14:19 So the motivation piece then, really fits on motivating the effort.
John: 14:25 Yep. Getting kids to being willing to put in effort and I’ve had great success using that with my students. And then I also teach that as a component of our PLS 3rd Learning motivation class.
Steve: 14:36 Well, I really like your strategy of having the kids nominate a person because what it does is allow you to establish and to model for the kids what we mean by effort.
John: 14:57 And it forces them to talk to each other and know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
Steve: 15:01 So it’s again, part of building your relationship and classroom environment piece.
John: 15:05 Yes it is.
Steve: 15:07 So John, with all your years experience, if you had a chance to give some advice to beginning teachers about student motivation, what do you think you’d share?
John: 15:21 First of all, you’ve got to be a really good teacher, you gotta like kids. And I think most teachers begin their career that way and I’m afraid some don’t finish it that way, but I think number one is you’ve gotta like kids, you have to enjoy young people. And I think with that as the basis, then you move on to teaching them the content. And so I think those two pieces go hand in hand. I think you gotta take kids where they are as they come into your classroom, you know, figure out where they are in terms of performance, in terms of study habits, things of that sort. But then you’ve got to move them to where they need to be. And it doesn’t do any good to say, “well, they should’ve learned this whenever in 10th grade or when they were in middle school or when they’re in elementary. The reality is here’s where they are, and if you want a behavior, you have to teach the behavior. And so I just kind of take kids where they are, enjoy the time we spend together, try to make things relevant to their lives. I think that helps, especially with today’s generation of students.
Steve: 16:23 As I listen, it drives deeper to that knowing part because some kids, when I first meet them, I’m not feeling like. But if I recognize that that’s critical, then it means I need to know you well enough to find that piece to like because that’s what I’m going to be able to build off of.
John: 16:45 Yeah, absolutely. Another way to think of it is — I’ve heard it said this way, that the students who are the hardest to love, are the ones who need our love the most. And we just need to find something in there. You know they say a diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it. We got to find that little nugget in there and then develop it.
Steve: 17:06 Yep. Yep. John, a lot of the people who listen to this podcast have roles connected to coaching teachers. Instructional coaches or administrators who take a coaching role with their staffs. What, thoughts might you have for people in those coaching roles as to how they can best assist teachers in examining student motivation in their classrooms and looking for ways that they might build it?
John: 17:41 That’s a great question. And you know, I’m sure all teachers have had positive experiences with teacher training and those that were less than desirable. But I always — whenever I go to an inservice training, my goal is to always find something that I can take back and use. And I think a lot of times if districts would check in with teachers, “hey our topic for this upcoming inservice program is student motivation. What questions do you have that you’d like to see answered?” Would be a thing you could do. Find out what’s on their mind. You certainly want to make the material meaningful. And teachers just like students, are looking for applications. You know, certainly the theory is important but it comes down to how am I going to impact students? What have you given me today that I can take advantage of?
John: 18:27 There’s also a piece in the designing motivation class that talks about this state of affect, the emotional climate in a classroom. That at any moment, students can be in fear, attention, comfort or boredom. And so in my classroom, my goal is to get as many students into that state of attention, which needs to be followed by comfort. That’s called the flow zone, to do a rotation between challenging students, keeping them in attention and then after a time, allow them to slide into comfort before you bring them back to a new challenge which puts him back in attention. Avoiding fear and avoiding boredom. So the same would be true for anybody that’s training teachers. Try to get them into that flow zone where they’re actively engaged in learning.
Steve: 19:12 So a whole lot of the application of student motivation is built into the concept of instructional coaches motivating the teachers that they’re working with.
John: 19:24 Oh, absolutely. You know, teachers are just big students.
Steve: 19:30 Well, John, I really, really appreciate your insights here. Let’s not wait this long before we talk again.
John: 19:39 I agree, sir. It’s always a pleasure.
Steve: 19:43 Take care, John. Bye. Bye.
John: 19:44 Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 19:46 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.