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Motivating Factors, Part Two

July 23, 2011

I know it has taken me a little while to get to this–and it’s not because I lack motivation to finish this topic. 🙂

I mentioned that at the end of the first post that what motivated me the most at work was relationships.   Relationships, I think, are key to much of what we pursue in life.  Why do we take time to try to be attractive to others?  We are looking for their attention–we want love, we want sex, we want something that won’t happen without them noticing who we are, followed by some level of communication.  Why do we follow sports teams, or musical acts, or other celebrities?  We feel connected to them in some way–even when we have never met them, and really don’t know them at all.  It’s the same reason we get caught up in the lives of fictional characters:   we imagine a connection with them, and want that relationship to come to some sort of fruition (triumph for the hero, defeat the villain).  It’s part of what motivates me to write this blog, and to write screenplays–at some point, a human being will connect with my writing, and have an experience.  Although I may never have direct interaction with my readers (or viewers), that desire for connection is still part of my motivation.

Teaching, of course, is different from writing a blog or deciding I know Casey Anthony better than a jury that spent weeks in the same room with her.  Teaching doesn’t happen without relationships.  You can’t really be an island if you are a teacher.  Even if you don’t interact with your colleagues much, you still must interact with your students.  Ineffective teachers, I think have decided that they don’t really want any relationship with their students.  It’s okay if you don’t want a relationship with a colleague–even in a small school like mine, you can mostly avoid any unnecessary interactions.  It’s also fine if you don’t want to have a relationship with your neighbors–stay out of their business, they are mostly going to stay out of yours (especially here in stolid New England).  Don’t want to be in a relationship with your significant other?  Take steps to end it.  That’s more complicated, of course, but still within your power.  You’re a teacher, and you don’t want a relationship with your students?  If you don’t quit your job, you have a serious problem.  Your students are coming back tomorrow–and if they realize you have no interest, or you don’t like them, or worse, you don’t care–well, get ready for a thoroughly miserable experience for all concerned.

My wife Valerie brought up in her comment to my first post the issue of toxicity.   It’s a valid point.  What if you like your kids, and they like you, but you are struggling with motivation because of all of the other pressures you have–test score politics, ever-changing state/federal/accreditation requirements (many of which are contradictory), helicopter parenting, and less than stellar school leadership?  What if all of these factors suck your energy and your desire to have any sort of relationships in your school?  What, then?

To answer that, I want to first consider an example of what schools should look like: American Canyon High School in Napa, California (and don’t think just because it’s in Napa, it’s really flush with cash.  That’s not how California funds its schools.)  The principal, Mark Brewer, sums up his school’s credo: “Motivating kids to learn means building relationships with them.” The school is divided up into four learning centers that allow students and teachers to develop relationships over time–what Brewer calls “communities within communities–where it’s easier for administrators, teachers, and students to forge relationships.”  It’s also not a one size fits all model–in addition to college prep and AP courses, there are vocational programs from culinary arts, auto shop, and nursing, to name a few.  He also has this crazy idea that the teachers work together in the “communities” to plan lessons, set goals, and develop curriculum.   Brewer has argued that his school model reflects what should be the priorities of education.

I know many of my colleagues are probably reading the above paragraph, and thinking “my school does something similar, and I (or one of my colleagues) still struggle with motivation.” I don’t doubt that’s true.  I think the difference is leadership.  Too many schools have leaders that lack the proper perspective.  They have decided that, in essence, relationships are not important. They make no effort to cultivate a relationship with the individuals who staff their buildings. They treat them with disrespect, make knee jerk decisions, and lash out at anyone who offers an alternative.  This is because there is tremendous pressure on schools and school districts to perform.   The consequence is that relationships are being sacrificed at the altar of “results.”  A media culture that celebrates such “toxic avengers” like Michelle Rhee as smart, tough, pragmatists (Ms. Rhee actually has all but three of those qualities) does not help.  It creates a dysfunctional model–one that people like Mark Brewer are trying to resist.

I have often said that as long as I could keep the other distractions out of my classroom, I can continue to stay motivated to do my job. So far, I have been successful, but that may not last forever. The only way to avoid is for the Mark Brewers of the world to get the upper hand over the Michelle Rhees and the Arne Duncans.  I wish I could say I was optimistic that will happen.  Nonetheless, I’m going to keep rolling that stone up the hill for as long as I can.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Keith permalink
    July 27, 2011 3:04 pm

    Thank you for this post. I attended an orientation program for the freshman class when my oldest daughter was entering high school. He gave a twenty minute speech on how the freshman year will either set them on the right path for their future or destroy it. He expounded on the fact that those who achieve a B average throughout their high school days will be subservient to those who hold an A average. He continued to talk with, I believe, what he hoped to be authority, but to me it only came off as disdain for the simple children which sat before him. He barely contained his anger as he described all the wrongdoings that he knew these kids would commit in the upcoming year, and he informed them of his no tolerance policy and how HE is not one to be messed with. While he verbally vomited on the kids, describing his “no texting” policy, I sent my daughter a text to not listen to this guy. Sometimes I think that teachers and parents forget the fact that these are kids, and they need to be allowed to live as a child. More responsibility needs to be placed on them as they grow, but it should be done with a guiding hand by those who have cultivated relationships with the kids. And yes, at times discipline is needed, but if a picture on the wall is a bit crooked, we don’t fix it with a baseball bat. Sometimes a gentle nudge is all that is needed. So to make a short story longer, reading your words and hearing about some of these other teachers, gives me hope that there are teachers who still see what they do as an opportunity to “teach” these kids and not as simply a job. As a parent, though, I can also say that it is not the teacher’s responsibility to raise our kids. We must be involved.

    • July 28, 2011 2:31 pm


      That principal sounds like a jackass. Unfortunately, this is what it has come to. In the pursuit of “toughness” principals feel that they need to talk this way. The irony is that few if any would actually have the intestinal fortitute to act on any of this. Unless, of course, they want to be hostile to their staff. The silly thing is, not only is it counterproductive, but its totally unnecessary. Freshmen are already scared–you don’t have to try and scare them. I’ve found over the last sixteen years I have taught that stressed out and resentful students do not perform better. And I really despise that canard that if you get a B in algebra instead of A you are going to end up a strung out heroin addict on the streets of Willimantic. No one’s life is determined in high school. These are all reasonably simple concepts to grasp–the fact that our so-called education leaders cannot grasp this is what perhaps worries me the most.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Chloe Duhaime permalink
    July 29, 2011 11:08 pm

    Your point about the schools being concerned about results rather than relationships made me think of an excellent lecture by Sir Ken Robinson. You can find an animated recording of it on YouTube. It is an RSA Animate called “Changing Education Paradigms.”

    • August 3, 2011 2:14 pm


      Thanks for the suggestion. I will check out Sir Ken’s video ASAP.

      Thanks also for supporting the blog!

  3. Lucy Simard permalink
    August 3, 2011 3:25 pm

    Kevin-as the new school year quickly approaches, I reflect back on my career with great nostalgia and I am happy to know that teachers like YOU are still in the building where I spent my career trying to motivate, teach and survive. So, I wish you a stellar year and want to tell you how lucky your students are to have you in their daily lives!! Keep pushing that big rock uphill, and with any luck, change is in the air! Hugs from your old friend and colleague (who did have a relationship with you!! :o)

  4. August 13, 2011 12:07 am


    Thanks for the kind words. Think about me on the 31st–it will be my 15th at the high school!

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