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Back to School 2017: How Will You Motivate and Engage Your Students?

As you prepare to head back to school this fall, a panel of your colleagues offer advice on how to handle the day-to-day challenges you’ll face this coming year.

back to schooAs you prepare to head back to school this fall, we’ve put together a panel of your colleagues to offer advice for how to handle the day-to-day challenges you’ll face this coming year. In Part 1, they tackle motivation and discipline. Later this week, they'll dive into stress management.

How do you motivate students?

Deborah Lazarus: My students motivate me as much as I motivate them! I make it a point to always let them know that they are the best of the best. I also choose a “reader leader” to read aloud on the bus two days a week. The program involves a designated reader from fourth or fifth grade who reads a book to my younger passengers starting when we pull out of the parking lot. To be a reader is considered an honor. There’s a waiting list. Readers earn the right by exhibiting exemplary behavior at school and maintaining good grades. I think being a reader helps students build confidence and self-esteem along with public speaking skills. Imagine projecting your voice in front of 50- plus students on a moving bus! The program also inspires a love for books and reading among the little ones.

Heather Rains

Heather Rains: I believe that student motivation should be intrinsic, so the best way to motivate students is through my own behaviors and delivery of learning experiences. When I am transparent with our purpose and set clear expectations, students get excited about having the opportunity to learn. Having students pop up out of their seat to share a fact or explain something they just learned is definitely a highlight and opportunity to listen, compliment, share their enthusiasm, and guide them to continue seeking knowledge with challenging questions.

Saul Ramos: I like to show excitement when they are learning new things. I usually say things like, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” or “You’re lucky, I was never taught that when I went to school.” It is always good to show students that we all learn new things every day. Even adults.

Fakhra Shah: Using anecdotes, personal stories, and asking students to tell their own stories, works as a great motivator. Teaching relevant curriculum, and piquing students’ interests based on what I know about them, inspires them to learn but also motivates them.

How do you encourage good behavior?

Heather Rains: I believe that students should take responsibility for their own discipline. Taking ownership of their behavior and learning outcomes is a huge part of our learning process. Learning is not about taking a test or filling out a worksheet, but about growing our knowledge and understanding so we can apply it to our thinking. I explain each time we embark on something new that what they gain from our experiences is up to them. When students shift from being dependent to self-disciplined learners, they also take responsibility for their behavior. I also know that compliments feel amazing, so I look for and compliment positive choices, behaviors, and actions as often as possible.

Fakhra Shah Fakhra Shah

Fakhra Shah: Having established a good rapport with students, I have one-on-one conversations with them, and lean towards restorative approaches rather than punitive/punishment oriented approaches. So a discussion about how a certain attitude or behavior impacts the class, or impacts me and our community of learners, gets me further with a student versus strict punishment.

I think there is a problem with the idea of good behavior from the perspective of my class, and what I teach: social change and critical thinking. Behaviors that are [considered] negative are the result of something greater—like not being engaged. Creating a setting that invites students’ perspectives reduces the chances of negativity and acting out. I encourage this by setting a positive tone at the start of class—even after someone might act out. To encourage students who are modeling what needs to happen, I provide praise and specifically name what they are doing well and what I appreciate. I also model it.

Deborah Lazarus: I am a strict driver who tries to make any disciplinary action fit the unacceptable behavior. If students talk when they’ve been asked to be quiet, then we have a silent bus ride. If a student makes a mess, then they are responsible for sweeping it up. I discourage misbehavior by diverting their attention before it takes hold. Distracting them with a verbal game, the radio, or by getting them to tell a short story, which we call “rotating story time.” Sometimes I simply remind them of the consequences resulting from negative actions.

Saul Ramos: When a student is doing something distracting, I usually praise those who are doing what they are supposed to, without calling out the distracting student. I may also ask the student acting up for assistance with another student who needs help, explaining that extra credit is given for helping.

How do you get to know your students during the first week in school?

Deborah Lazarus: Every morning I make it a point to tell all of my babies “good morning”…by name! I have had my route for about eight years, so many of my students are return riders. When new students board my bus at a stop or school for the first time, I ask their name and grade and spend a few seconds talking with them and welcoming them to our bus family. In time, you get to know everyone and what they are like in the morning and how they behave on the bus.

Saul Ramos

Heather Rains: During our first week, my goal is to transform our classroom from “I” to “we” as we spend our days organizing, setting up, and getting to know each other and begin to define our learning community. We create and share introductions, we speed peer-date, interview, and share new things about each other. We also change seats to learn with a new face and shoulder partner every day. By the end of the week, we are playing mystery games to see who can figure out the character being described, using Google for jeopardy and collaborative sheets, and writing welcome letters to each other. This year, the class motto students created was, “In our class we are respectful and kind, as we learn things to grow our mind.”

Saul Ramos: By listening and observing. I usually let them speak their mind. Let them know that I am there for them as I also know they are getting to know me. Being a paraeducator, sometimes students don’t consider us as “teachers.” Letting them know that we are there as educators makes them see us in a different light.

Fakhra Shah: I spend the entire year getting to know my students, and this is what helps me see how much they are growing and changing—not just on paper, academically, but also as young people who are empowered to be excellent communicators and leaders. During the first few weeks we tend to have a series of activities that we do in order to bring students’ narratives into the classroom, versus me teaching “at” them. They are called upon to speak and share who they are in variety of ways.


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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.