The Motivation Challenge

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Motivating teachers is more difficult than motivating students.

Nina MK, Ph.D.
Motivation is one of the everlasting topics, never old, never new, always in the background of our daily work. For many years, I have been conducting teacher refresher courses, workshops and seminars for my colleagues. By the questions asked, by the subjects eagerly discussed, I can see that task # 1 is indeed Motivating Oneself, the teacher. “I know English already” is one of my favourite phrases, usually heard from a young teacher. Truth be told, older specialists do not even say it, it is a given. So the first question I ask them is this: is it really possible “to know the language already”? And then what, stop growing? I tried a few simple examples based on the traditional four skills, to show my adult audiences that there is still a lot to be learned about the language they teach.
• Listening. Just play any modern recording, a dialogue, a song, a news item. Ask your listeners to jot down as many words and phrases as they can at a single hearing. Then ask them what the word or phrase actually means, like “Rolling in the deep” in the popular singer Adele’s song. A good exercise is also listening for such a detail as the changing of a familiar word pronunciation. For instance, today we can hear two distinct variants for the noun ROUTE, /ru:t/ and /raut/, often from the same native speaker. It shows us that a shift in pronunciation is right here in the present, in front of us, though it is not fixed yet.
• Reading. We can choose a difficult passage from literature, or a scientific text, or a news item, and suggest that our group quickly read and retell it, without a dictionary. It may be an extract which contains a number of terms, or one with some idioms in it, or a few unknown realia.
• Speaking. Show a few pictures or a video clip, and suggest that they discuss them in pairs or small groups. Tell them that they should produce full sentences, specify the number of sentences, and make it clear that “I don’t know” is NOT an acceptable answer.
• Writing. At the end of a session, ask your group to write down a set number of words, again in full sentences. You may arrange it as general feedback, or as an essay on the topic(s) discussed.

I have been writing on a regular basis for several national publications for many years, and yes, I do receive royalty payments. I also write quite a lot for free. Each time I see my new article or lesson plan in print, I feel an uplifting of spirits. When I get emails from my colleagues around the globe, it gives me a new stimulus, a good boost. Not too often but occasionally, a colleague comes up to me and asks for help. A young teacher of Russian asked this week if she could show me her own article written for “The Teachers’ Gazette”, so that I could read it and give her some pointers. If the material is good, I may recommend it to the editors. The regional education authorities are now in discussions about a new contest for teachers. Stage one should be writing a lesson plan, in English, and submitting it electronically. For many EL teachers this seems to be quite a challenge. This is also a good stimulus to learn more. Today, if you are not tech-savvy in your field of activities, if you do not use ICT in your daily work, you are simply behind the times. Worse, you may seriously lag behind your own students. As I know from my own experience, when you take part in a professional contest, you not only exert yourself. For those few weeks, you find yourself among not just colleagues but specialists like you, to wit, those who want more from their professional life than just regular lessons. This kind of communication while competing gives one some very good experiences and insights. You may also develop a friendship with some colleagues whom you would not have met otherwise.

What is it about teenagers? They are human; what is more, in a few years’ time they will grow up into us. Naturally teaching, hence motivating children is different from teaching adults. I would say with the adults, we have to overcome the inertia, the set ways of thinking and performing. A pay raise for any new achievement would not hurt either, though it does not happen too often. Adults want to know why they need to learn more if they feel fine as they are, and especially if nobody pays them extra for doing something new, for innovations. Teenagers usually want to know why exactly they have to learn this or that subject, how they can use it in their future life, and why in general they have to study, to attend school when school is soooo boring, and life around them is infinitely more interesting. Here are a few techniques and activities that always help me with adolescents.
• Learn what each student is interested in. I have heard some really amazing (from an adult point of view) answers to the question, “Why is it useful to study English?”
a) I want to be able to read everything about (cars, football, celebrities, anacondas, orchids…)
b) I want to take part in “Work & Travel US” program.
c) I want to impress this girl/boy.
d) My parents insist.
e) I want to play online games.

Number one reason listed today is, “I want to communicate with my peers around the globe”. To motivate teens, we should perhaps listen to them and agree with them at least outwardly. You want to know all about cars? Well, this is how the modals (the conditionals, the articles etc.) may help you. And so on.

• To facilitate safe communication, I encourage students and teachers to take part in international projects via the internet. Until we tell them about this opportunity, students may have no idea such cooperation exists in the world of education. They are usually eager to embark on any project close to their interests. It is much more difficult to involve teachers, because it means extra work, because they are not paid extra, because it is hard to include any such activity into their lesson plans et cetera. To me, all this means inertia. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but once we are into a project or even a simple email exchange, we are not alone. Our colleague or colleagues from another country will be doing the same kind of work we are, and we can help each other.

I have tried to compose a small acrostic which I called “A Teacher’s Life”. Here comes:
Motivation & Mobility,
Observation & Objectivity,
Trepidation & Tranquility,
Inspiration & Inactivity,
Variation & Variety,
Aspiration & Ability,
Toleration & Tenacity,
Information & Immensity,
Occupation & Opportunity,
Navigation & Necessity.


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