Today is a special day. I’m wearing a new shirt and trousers; my backpack is full of supplies.
I even have a new haircut. I’m full of anticipation at seeing friends I haven’t seen in months. I’m ready for a change because lately I’ve been bored. Today has an exciting new feel to it. It’s the first day of school.
For some students, this excitement and energy lasts about a week. Then it reverts to what school has always felt like. The new clothes are no longer new. The missed friends turn out to be the same bullies with the same insults, and a new boredom has replaced the old. For other students, it only takes a few hours to lose the initial excitement.
The biggest change is for students who begin school with a hopeful attitude about doing well this year, only to find the same old grind that has haunted them throughout their school career.
Interestingly enough, teachers go through the same feelings. They start
school with new professional clothes, haircuts and supplies. They hope
for exciting new classes with students who are eager to learn. They have
visions of reaching that child they couldn’t reach last year.
Soon they are shouting again, impatient with students who don’t do what they are supposed to.
Many of the great lessons they spend hours developing have far too little appeal to the students they were designed to reach.
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So what happens? Why does the energy dissipate so quickly – and more
importantly, how can we make it last?
THERE ARE many reasons that
attitudes turn so quickly back to tedium. They range from the
realization that hopes for a better year will go unfulfilled, to the
numbing routine that most schools follow. Teachers who are seen as too
nice often lose the respect of students who try to take advantage,
leading to power struggles. Other teachers start tough and quickly lose
the majority of the class, which needs a more caring environment.
At home, many parents care more about grades than what students learn, mistakenly believing these are the same.
Conversations tend to be like this: Parent: “What did you do in school today?” Child: “Nothing.”
What can parents do about this? The first thing they can do is elevate
learning as the highest goal for school. This means removing those
artificial goals set by well-meaning parents who do not understand that
rewarding children for good grades undermines learning as the most
important aim. Stop the use of rewards and celebrate the idea that your
child has learned something new.
Second, teach respect for school, and especially teachers. This is
better done by teaching the value of learning than with threats of
punishment. Be a good role model and always show respect for children’s
Also, communicate with teachers regarding any changes at home that might
affect your child’s behavior, such as a new baby or a sick grandparent.
Ask a lot of questions. When your child says, “Nothing,” ask what kind
of nothing he means: “Can you tell me which class had the most nothing?
Which kind of nothing helped you learn the most today?” Play quiz games
at dinner in which children get to test adults on things they learned in
school that day, then reverse roles and quiz your kids (if you know
anything about their subjects).
In general, make learning one of the highest family values, along with respect for those who help create it.
MEANWHILE, THERE are many things teachers can do to keep the energy
alive. It doesn’t matter what they teach, it only matters what students
learn. It is the teacher’s job to motivate students.
Most important is to understand that school is not a business or
profession. Success cannot be simply results-based, because that’s not
how children learn. The only way children can learn is if they want to.
School success should be defined as trying their best, not getting the
highest scores, and until Israel embraces this truth, it will fall
behind countries that understand how children learn.
This means teachers must make it clear to students that if a student
tries, he or she cannot fail. Students who fail even after their best
efforts lose hope and give up. They find another way to succeed – by
being the best at being the worst, at being rude, by not doing
assignments and by not caring about failure.
In addition, while teachers cannot always choose what they teach, they
can choose how to teach it. Boredom is one of the biggest killers of
motivation. Teachers need to spend a great deal of time developing
lesions that are fun, challenging, creative and full of humor.There are
those who think school should be miserable, like work. But though work
might be hard – after all, you’re getting paid to do it – most people
find satisfaction and even joy in it. And those who don’t are
continually looking for work that has meaning.
STUDENTS SHOULD also be included in decisionmaking.
One of the most important principles to remember is that school is for
students, not teachers. Teachers come to school for students, not the
other way around. This simple truth leads to many classroom strategies
based on the idea that kids need to feel ownership of their learning.
This includes both academic and behavioral say in what happens. Giving
students shared control keeps the energy for learning alive.
One way to give students ownership is to let them have a say in what the
rules are. Of course, the teacher does not have to agree with a rule
that goes against the values and goals of the class – we can hit anyone
who insults us, for example.
But students can think of many excellent rules.
They may even be allowed to come up with a rule or two for the teacher
to follow. Most of these are reciprocal, such as “If you can have
coffee, we can have water.” The consequence for the teacher can be to
offer a plan to solve the problem. Teachers who try this technique
generally love it, especially since it provides an opportunity to model
Another way to let students feel ownership of the class is to assign
homework no more than three nights a week, and let them vote on which
When school begins, students are eager to be there. This is the best
time to teach them how rewarding learning can be, even if their clothes
aren’t new.The writer is the author of 20 books on education, motivation and
discipline and is currently a professor of education at David Yellin
College in Jerusalem.
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