Tightroping Motivation

I have been toying with writing about my life as a teacher for some time. Prior to the censored poetry issue, I was already on my way penning drafts of essays and poems. I am ready to release them into the ether. Here’s one about purpose, motivation and leading with the heart.

People need to find and understand the purpose of what they are trying to accomplish. And students today have, arguably, lost their purpose. What’s next after high school? Anything reliable? Anything definite? No? Well, then what is the point?

As a teacher you have to find ways of motivating your students. You can be sincere and thoughtful. Matter of fact. Prodding and pleading with Jeremiads. Heartfelt and empathetic. Or you can be blunt and borderline mean. But your personality and approach far outweighs the message sometimes. So how do we create students who are on fire about education?

Thankfully there is a boatload of purpose embedded in our Expeditionary Learning curriculum. We study Border Issues and interview members of Taos about cultural divides lingering in our town since colonialism, both Spanish and American. We ask ourselves of community needs and argue publicly for those needs with editorials. We learn of the heroic journey, and Plato’s account of Socrates’ reasoning for his life, and write our own apologies. This is stake in our studies. There is purpose. Once that line is blurred or forgotten, the students are remiss in the duty of learning. As if there needed to be something more than the simple act of learning.

For many, the topic of our Expedition is a moot point. Students may never buy in. They may never do an ounce of work outside the building. But with Expeditionary Learning there must be a need to know. More than desire. A burning, on a Maslovian level. My future depends, somehow, on this learning. I need to know how to build soil, how to introspect, how to spend my money as a consumer, what messages or affirmations or cries for help I can embed in my art. The skills of citizenship.

Pubescent teenagers rarely demonstrate this level of internal drive or pride in their work. For most teenagers, this is a time of fumbling around love, social awkwardness and acne. Dealing with off base parents. Scoring the next high. Few truly want to do good or make change. And so purpose is the push they need. Addressing community issues. Or building something bigger than themselves.

And as a young idealist, this was enough for me. If my students could achieve  within the context of my high stakes project experience, this accomplishment, often measured beyond the constructs of English class and the drudgery of school, was enough for me to deem them ready-for-life-after-high-school. I didn’t give work based upon rigorous reading comprehension or traditional assessments. Old school skill sets. My philosophical standpoint and world-view regarded these as antiquated, misinformed data points. I had of my students, and their world, more holistic views. More heart based. More human oriented.

But I was limiting them. I am not sure I bumped one student from not passing to proficient on the state tests with this approach. I would argue that most students who passed these tests could have done so with or without me as their teacher. Those students, in my first years, who couldn’t pass as a 9th grader, likely wouldn’t pass as an 11th grader. What I was teaching, although engaging, practical and important, was not in the traditional metrics of success. And whether Common Core State Standards is here to stay is not important. The tests open or close the doors. If they cannot pass the state tests, they are not passing the ACT. If they are not passing the ACT, I am not helping them entertain success in college, let alone enrollment.

But my practice was not being questioned. I am looked at as a senior member of our faculty. I am an Instructional Guide. I am sought after by my peers. I have been accepted as a Master Class presenter for Expeditionary Learning’s National Conference three times. I have been invited to share my curricular work with a national audience through Fund For Teachers and my two traveling Fellowships. But my kids don’t do homework. In fact, I rarely assign homework. I intend for rigorous in-class experiences and assignments. They very well may be. But my students are not making gains. Of course, I am not alone. Despite my accolades and the esteem my colleagues may hold for me, I am churning our students much like the rest of the state’s educators. Those students are unable to enter a college class beyond the remedial level. And students who enter college in remedial classes rarely have the wherewithal, motivation or support to graduate. Those who I am unleashing into the world with dreams may be rudely awakened without apology.

So I can encourage, plead, bargain, bend backward, massage, and finesse earning high marks, but I cannot ensure participation. Nor desire. And certainly not purpose. And in the past, this would be fine. Students could skirt by in high school towards a diploma and take a couple classes at UNM Taos without much consequence. But in this climate of testing, New Mexico is upping the ante for potential graduates. Trying to keep up nationally, if one cannot pass the tests as a Junior, the student may never earn a full high school diploma. Or they can demonstrate mastery on an End of Course Exam created at the state level. Essentially, can’t pass the test? Well, make sure you pass the highly correlative Final.  The access to a full high school diploma is all but fantasy for some students, if you were to ask them. The likelihood this will only result in more post secondary confusion and dropouts is certain. Oh, I cannot earn a diploma, and you have evidence of this by the time I am a freshman, but I can study for a few months and possibly earn a GED? Perfect. Bye!

Sometimes a teacher needs to be real. Too often we are not. The harsh realities of these tests, and the students’ disbelief in both their aptitude and the tests’ efficacy result in a complete malaise that becomes infectious. The culture of education is demeaned and learning loses value. School becomes a social event solely. Students’ negative view of world and self are reinforced. The teachers are left on lonely islands without purpose or meaningful appreciation. A life alone with only your shaky nerves and graying hair. Isn’t that the movies? Isn’t that the state of our education unions? Tenured and safe, but downtrodden? Too few exceptions.

So I tell my students about stereotypes. I tell them that the average reading level of an incoming VGHS student is the fifth grade. Those ill-equipped readers are likely to drop out. 80% of our student body qualifies for free and reduced lunches. They’re poor. Those students usually do not graduate. Hispanic males, Native American women, children from broken homes are not meant to go on and succeed in college. 4.0 for a student like you? Out of the question. Academic scholarships? Forget it. Likelihood of a job with benefits, paid vacation, retirement plan? Not on the horizon without your high school diploma. The numbers never lie. You aren’t going to do this and you most certainly aren’t going to do that. You aren’t smart enough for this school, you aren’t educated enough for this job.

All the stereotypes about my students are being fulfilled. The correlation between teen alcohol abuse and literacy. Check. The relation between skin color and graduation rates. Check. My students are smoking pot more often, I’d say three to four times as much, than they touch a book. My students are so hungover Monday morning my classroom’s florescent bulbs are still a bother Tuesday afternoon.

And so I say: You tell me how unfair it is to misjudge you. How many people limit your with their preconceived notions. Might you know why there are college in the Southwest with free tuition for college bound Native Americans? Or why UNM offers a lottery scholarship for graduating high school with a 3.0 pulse? No one thinks you’ll go! No one expects you to follow through and educate yourself! No one expects you to be anything more than a 20 year old mother. A deadbeat dad. Another drunk Indian. Another domestic abuser. Another statistic fulfilled. Another stereotype met to justify correlating literacy levels and available beds in prison. You are cementing the same stereotypes for your younger brothers and cousins. Your children. You are not besting or outsmarting the cruel world you perceive with your strategy of avoidance. You are succumbing! The only person establishing your future is yourself. But a statistic, or a stereotype, cannot make decisions.

And then there is either applause or awkward shifts in desks. Followed by sheepish questions trying to convince themselves, and more importantly me, that they are ready to get after it and give their best effort. For at least today’s lesson. I’ll do it for the Gipper this once.

But I would have to deliver this sermon weekly to keep the students lit. I cannot say mush. I must only show up. Ready to drop knowledge at any moment. But these speeches, or diatribes, or moments of sheer panic, depending on the audience, day, or mood, cannot be overused. I never get angry at a student publicly. I never raise my voice save once a year. These moments need to be unpredictable, unscripted and highly emotional. I find my voice quivering by the end. And I never know how a teenager will react when I tell them to prepare for a life of alcoholism. I believe this scenario could be an alternate future of the phrase don’t kill the messenger.

Bottom line. Motivating students in this day and age, in this town, is a tall order. I am happy to facilitate cool and innovative project models and bring opportunity into the classroom. I am also happy to not assign homework both for the rigor of my class time and the advocates it creates of my students. I don’t think anyone has told them before how hard it is going to be to defy stereotypes. I am not sure they know that anything intellectually grueling is worth a moment of their time. Few witness this at school. Fewer see this demonstrated at home.

Maybe it is all about setting a new purpose. A fresh target. Something they can all aim for. Something written in student-friendly language. An I can statement. Something to build self-efficacy:

I can defy my stereotype.

OK, class. Who can tell me what it means to defy.

3 thoughts on “Tightroping Motivation

  1. Defy: A teacher who does not give up despite insurmountable obstacles, pure fatigue, and utter frustration. You my friend defy all odds and all norms and remind us all why we don’t give up.

  2. Ned,

    This note to yourself that you bravely share with us is tremendously powerful….so powerful, that I need to print and re-read again, slowly.

    I feel your frustration as to what action, if any, to take. More importantly, i feel your genuine concern, moving toward terror, that these young people are headed for failure.

    I am proud of your maturity that enables you to passionately and creatively prepare and deliver the subject name on the schedule. That is, as you say, important to learn because someone will ask if they know it. I am impressed as you begin to shake hands with the more basic and practical lessons of life that you are being called to impart to these young people. You may be poking at the critical path a teacher at your school, in this time, in your place must take to save some of these kids from their emerging reality.

    I need to think and pray about what I have read and what questions are being asked and what, if any, thoughts I may have to share with you.

    Bravo, my man, you have moved me….

    My best, always


  3. Joe says:

    Kind of strange Ned, I don’t see much from you here on the social media and so out of sight, out of mind, but I had a dream last night that I was back in Taos and that you and I had some sort of deep discussion, and I see this today and I love what you have written (is it bad that I couldn’t stop myself from editing? Sorry hehe).
    I define defiance in a military sense for better or worse given the life I’ve led. To me it is advancing in the face of probable if not certain defeat. I spent the first ten years of my life in New Mexico and most of the rest of it in the Pacific Northwest or in points overseas. I have often thought that if I had stayed in NM the chances of me graduating high school or of (dare I say it?) going on to college would have been slim. I was a half Hispanic, half White kid living on an Indian reservation. Not exactly the text book recipe for breaking out of the stereotypes and expectations of the American Third World that is New Mexico. In high school i found myself in a place where going to college was the expected norm, in fact my joining the Army after graduation was a bit of an anomaly, but go to college I did and I actually managed to graduate. As an adult I’ve found that a college education is no guarantee of success, I often think that graduating from college only means that you can put up with something unpleasant for at least four years of your life.
    When I found myself back in New Mexico at this late stage of my life I learned a lot about myself, such as where I came from and where I might be going. I was back in the Hispanic culture where I never really felt like I fully belonged, and because it was Taos, I was among this Hippie Counterculture that I knew I didn’t belong in, but I could at least fake that for a while since I spoke the “Kings English” and sounded like an erudite person. Because of the color of my skin people spoke to me in Spanish when I went to grocery store (Smith’s or Albertoson’s, not Cid’s, go figure), but then there was this intellectual, East Coast/Midwest college drop out crowed that I would go hang out with on the Eske’s back porch after hours. Even there though I didn’t feel like I could let my guard down, what with my conservative politics that Facebook and a Presidential election finally outed. Society, no matter which one you find yourself in has it’s expectations and norms, and if you stray from those expectations you will find yourself ostracized. That’s not good and it’s not bad, it just is. If you don’t think you can be left out and excluded in Taos, try being a Republican. It’ll make you want to move to Angel Fire, but I digress.
    In many of your students you are facing, often, hundreds of years of The Way Things Are, and there aren’t many places in North America you can say that. Struggling against that tide is like telling someone that the sky is orange when they’ve only known the sky to be blue. You can prod, poke and cajole these kids into seeing that there is a whole wide world out there waiting for them, but you might as well be telling them you can walk to Mars. When I worked for the Nez Perce Tribe I saw some of the most talented High School basketball players in the world, and they all got scholarships and a one way ticket off the Rez, but none of them grabbed the brass ring because it meant leaving the only place they felt like they belonged and that is powerful incentive to become a stereotype and stay home. No likes to say it, but the reason stereotypes exist is that so many people fit them. Even when a Nez Perce kid got a scholarship to Haskel Indian Nations University they didn’t go because ‘those’ Indians aren’t like the ‘my’ Indians. Even when they do go, they don’t often last more than a year before dropping out and coming home.
    In Taos you are facing an uphill climb my friend, you have all the problems of the inner city in a rural environment. It’s a small insulated environment where it’s hard to escape the expectations placed upon you by your society, particularly when you’re a teenager and being different often means being alone. No matter what you do, most of your students are going to take the path of least resistance, and I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s human nature. Keep at it though Ned, because one of these days if it hasn’t happened already you’re going to have that one student that comes back and tells you that you made a difference in their life. Don’t let the statistics get to you, do what you know in your heart to be right. I don’t think teachers should only teach to those students that are paying attention, to only those that are picking up what you are putting down and your reward will be that one student in a hundred that has a better life, that can breath free because they had you as a teacher.
    I miss you Nedly, and sorry about the long winded comment, but I’ve been drinking and you know how I get 🙂

    Joe Fitch

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