Motivating Adolescents to Succeed

As I write this, I find myself taking a mental reprieve from the typical, weekend tasks required of a middle level English teacher…editing and grading papers. As I set aside an abysmally small collection of student writings, I ask myself the question I ask myself almost daily, “How the heck do I get these kids to care about their education?” And, moreover, “How the heck do I get them to care about ENGLISH 8?” Possibilities fall anywhere on the continuum from frightening them with the fears of being prepared for high school and beyond to dazzling them with the latest high-tech gadgets and gizmos of the digital world. As differentiated as my students are in ability and socioeconomic status, I need the answers to my questions to be simple and one-size-fits-all. And, I need the answers by tomorrow.

Then, it dawned on me: what motivates us as adults is really no different from what motivates our middle level learners. So, I dug deep into my fitness journals from years past to find pieces of motivation that once moved me when I attempted to lose over 100 pounds on my own. Maybe I could apply the same principles to my ENGLISH 8 students. Here’s the skinny. Maybe it can work for you:

1. I was happy (fat and happy) and really didn’t see the need to lose weight until I faced the fear of potential health hazards. TRANSLATION: Students really don’t/won’t care until they actually see what failure could do to their immediate futures. I need to show them…now.

2. I needed small changes; it would have been too overwhelming to incorporate drastic alterations into my “pleasingly plump and content” lifestyle. TRANSLATION: Outline student success. Celebrate small victories. Make a big deal about turning in an everyday, ordinary assignments. Success breeds success, and they may want more. If nothing else, bombard them with consistent (however, sincere) flattery.

3. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. Reading about and listening to others who struggled with their weight helped me apply their techniques to my own life. TRANSLATION: Engage mentors, former students who, somewhere along the line of their educational growth, realized that positive study choices and responsible behaviors led them closer to their post high school goals.

4. I needed to know that when I slipped up on my nutrition choices or exercise routine, I could always get back on the train without derailing it. TRANSLATION: Offer do-overs. Understand their situations (i.e. no computers at home, split homes, poverty) and offer them alternative solutions to complete their work, meet deadlines, and correct their mistakes. Don’t let them believe it’s a “one and done” situation. Students often close the door all too quickly on these scenarios.

5. Walk the talk. I tended to follow, and align myself with, those who lived a healthy lifestyle and made positive contributions to their own health and fitness. TRANSLATION: Be open and human. When giving deadlines, respect my students by giving feedback in a timely manner. They need to know I care and that I hold myself to the same expectations to which I hold them.

Simple enough. At least it’s a start. That’s said, I have papers to grade and get back for Monday morning writing conferences.

Keep the Magic!



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