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Helping Students Find Purpose and Appreciation for School

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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In a popular 2014 article titled, Why You Hate Work, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath identify four areas that matter most to job satisfaction and productivity:

  1. Feeling good and recharged physically.
  2. Feeling like an appreciated and valued contributor.
  3. Having a clear focus and a say in prioritizing.
  4. Seeing a higher purpose in the work.

Think about this applies to your job situation. The prediction of Schwartz and Porath would be that to the extent you feel these four areas are strongly true for you in your work in school, you will like your job and look forward to getting there in the morning. On the other hand, if these areas are not true for you, then you will be more reluctant to head to school and you are also more likely to feel job-related stress.

Sadly, for too many educators, the glass is closer to 25 percent full than 90 percent full. The Common Core has elevated already high levels of workplace stress. During the course of the school year, a whirling crescendo of test-driven anxiety increases relentlessly until the conclusion of the last makeup test. When the test scores finally arrive, it is, in many ways, anticlimactic because there are usually no surprises; one often can't work directly with the students tested based on the results, and staff and administrative changes are not uncommon.

Considering Our Students

Now step back for a moment and look at the four areas and apply them to your students. If we did a parallel, "Why You Hate School," then shortcomings in the four areas would also explain a lot.

Where to begin? One thing I have learned from work with many schools over many years is that steps toward improvement have to be taken one at a time. If you and your students have shortcomings in all four areas, you cannot correct them all at once in a lasting and deep way. You will have to be selective. It hardly matters where to start, as long as you realize that you need to start at the same place for both educators and students.

Changes need not be dramatic. Small things done over 180 school days add up to make a big difference. Here are some ideas for starting points in the four areas for you and your students:

Recharge: Insert short breaks for physical activity -- stretching, dancing, jumping, or walking around. Provide regular times for reflection, which also has recharging value.

Appreciation: Compliment your colleagues on the small things they do. Don't overly praise -- just noticing and commenting appreciatively is quite powerful. Similarly, for students, lower your threshold for showing your gratitude. Catch them being good when they are sitting still, following instructions, walking appropriately in the hallways, helping other students, speaking in a respectful tone of voice, being creative.

Ownership: Think about what you value most in the lessons you are covering and be sure to emphasize that and communicate that to your students. Where possible, give your students choice about what to do first, perhaps different ways to complete an assignment, whom to work with, how to end the school day. Even if you do more of this once per week, it will be a great contrast and make a difference to your students. And if you can do it more often, so much the better.

Purpose: Remind yourself about why you went into education. Have conversations about this with your colleagues. Look at your school's mission statement, annual goals, motto, and focal values and try to bring them more to life. Use some common planning time to discuss the big picture and how what you are doing benefits your students regardless of whether it shows up on the test score results. Talk about how you can improve your impact on students, collaboratively.

Next Steps

With your students, discuss their aspirations and your aspirations for them. Help them see a positive future. Refuse to believe that they cannot succeed in college, careers, community, and family. Allow them to air their hesitations and balance that with your view of their destiny to make a contribution. Sir John Templeton once said that "Every useful life is a ministry," and that every life can be a useful life.

By ministry, he was not invoking religion. Rather, he was invoking the idea of living for a purpose, ideally a Noble Purpose. This is a message your students need to hear often, and if they start to believe it, they will be more willing to do the work to learn the skills needed for that ministry. And then, both you and your students will find more joy in work and in school.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

GaryGruber's picture
GaryGruber
Educator, lifelong learner, professional change agent

"The reason we teach is to transcend that which holds us back, that and the sacred otherness of life."

Donita's picture
Donita
High school teacher seeking work in LA from Australia

Thanks for these great ideas and tips! They have re-energized me so I can be sure of my propose as a teacher.

Rundle's picture

I appreciated your thoughts on how to motivate the students in the article. It is a good experience to mix up student choice with assignments. I'm a fan of lists and I enjoyed how you formatted your ideas. Thank you.

Angela's picture

Recently I have been experiencing some burnout and found it difficult to motivate myself, much less my students. I am taking some grad classes and one of our assignments was to create a mission statement. This experience was tremendous for me. Another assignment was on reflection and research into an area of challenge. I researched motivating students and found an article, Motivating and engaging students in reading, by Cambria & Guthrie, to be most useful. Why I needed an article to tell me I was the one in control and did have the ability to motivate, I have no idea. I was under the conclusion that it was just unmotivated students and until they changed I would not be able to reach them. I highly recommend the article.

charm's picture

Gary I like your article very much. It is very interesting and educational. I believe that every child can learn and every child must learn. Teachers just need to help students to find the purpose and appreciation of school. Sometimes teachers get rust out and burnout and are not able to find creative ways to engage their students effectively. However you have given us some great ideas that will work for both teachers and students. These ideas will motivate students to learn.

Megan Durkee's picture

I really enjoyed your suggestions for how to give students positive encouragement. I found it interesting that some of the same strategies you can use with students are also the same things you can use with your colleagues. I also liked the idea of giving students choice, so they feel ownership in their learning. This is something I will try in my classroom. Thanks for the great article!

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