Readers: Five ways to motivate students

5. Get to know your students and build relationships.

“In my more than 25 years in education, one thing that continues to resonate is relationship building. Whether it is with adults or students, people want to know and feel that they are valued. While this is often mentioned in the research, it is something that is unique to each teacher and student, just as each person is unique.

“In particular, I recall two students in which my relationship with them made a difference during their year in my middle school classroom. In one instance, a student entered my class at the beginning of the year with a very bad stutter and faced going to juvenile court in the first month of school as a result of domestic violence in his home. The student struggled throughout the year, but I remained flexible and open to meeting the needs of the student by being available after school and during lunch, and frequently touching base during the day. As he settled into my class, his stuttering started to decrease—and by the spring … he was even able to make an oral presentation to the class. I feel that he ended the year successfully despite the challenges he faced in his personal life, [owing] to the caring adults [who] reached out to him that year to support him.

“In the other instance, a student entered middle school with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and extreme emotional issues. His teachers were very sensitive to those issues while they continued to try to support his adjustment to middle school. We communicated frequently with his parents and made ourselves available to work with him one-on-one. However, nothing seemed to work. Pretty drastic measures were developed, which included that the student would stay after school with his individual teachers on a regular schedule, and one of his parents would ensure that the student showed up in that teacher’s classroom. Working with this student one-on-one after school, his teachers were able to develop a different relationship with him.

“On one occasion, … he and I had a conversation about a performance assessment he was working on that involved art/drawing skills. He explained why he was doing what he was doing and started to talk about his work in a very animated way. After several after-school discussions with him, he started to take more interest in his work and even to ask questions of clarification and for help. One of those discussions involved helping him review for a unit test. Once he took the test, he asked me every time I saw him if I had graded [it] yet and how he had done. When grading the test after school one day, I was quite surprised to find that he had done well and scored an 87% on it. I talked to his mom, who then passed the phone to him and I gave him the good news. He was so excited! His whole attitude towards his school changed, because he realized that we really wanted to help him succeed. I am pleased to say that he passed my class for the year because he completed several performance assessments that included content that he had previously failed.

Students need to know that someone truly cares about them when they are in a classroom. They need to feel comfortable enough to take risks and understand that it is OK to make mistakes. Teachers need to be flexible and open when establishing relationships with their students yet holding high expectations.” —Alice L. Reilly, Ed.S., coordinator, preK-12 social studies, Office of PreK-12 Curriculum & Instruction, Fairfax County Public Schools, Va.

Meris Stansbury

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